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You’ve all heard of them, maybe some of you have them (you’re lucky if you do!). They’re the “crazed” dogs, the ones with the “insane” ball drive. Mostly, people think of them as border collies, but they come in all breeds, shapes, sizes and colors. I’m talking about the OCD dogs who will chase the ball, stick, or miscellaneous toy until they drop. The dogs who are loosely classified as “drivey”.

Until Panzer, we never really lived with one of these dogs. Now, we do.

Panzer: MY BALL!!!!

I’ve known for a long while now that using toys in training is a great way to train dogs with toy drive (for the purposes of this post I will define toy drive as the description above, which I would like to separate from any other kind of drive, but most especially prey drive which I will loosely define as the desire to chase and bite/chew/grip/rip/tear/kill a living creature, because in my observation the two are not as linked as you might think which is why I want to keep them separate).  I’ve encouraged people who have dogs that have toy drive to use their toys in training as a jackpot reward, as a supplement for food, as a semi-reusable resource, unlike treats. I’ve seen the training done with all sorts of dogs, but I’ve never done it myself, mainly because I’ve never had a dog who was all that interested in toys.

A few months before we got Panzer, my herding instructor, Carolyn, informed me that I was to begin raising Shelby’s toy drive at home. Shelby has a very high prey drive, but not a nearly nonexistent toy drive, which is why I don’t think they’re as linked as many would have people believe. For one, dogs have incredible noses, and I have little to no doubt that they can tell the difference between an inanimate object and an animal, which is, obviously, animate. I also seriously doubt that Shelby is some kind of scientific anomaly in that she has an amazing prey drive, but not a good toy drive and somehow her genetic wiring is off.

Shelby finds all kinds of moving things interesting. She loves chasing sheep, and she’s getting better and better at it as the months go by. She loves hunting down rabbits and squirrels in our backyard. She enjoys trying to get the neighbors’ chickens to flock, even though the stubborn things won’t. She likes to calmly trot next to Carolyn’s golf cart or my bicycle. She does not, however, enjoy chasing a ball. I can throw the ball, and she will watch it go soaring over my head and then look back at me as if to say, “What are we doing next?”

This is about the level of enthusiasm I get from Shelby around toys.

Smokey didn’t have a strong toy drive either (he also didn’t have any prey drive as evidenced by the time he somehow snuck up on a rabbit and the terrified bunny fled for his life as he cocked his head and watched it go, then turned in a circle and went number two). So I never really trained with toys, although I always found it fascinating. I’m sure there are those who have dogs less food oriented who look at my training routine with Shelby and are fascinated as well, maybe even a tad envious as popping a treat in a dog’s mouth is much quicker than playing a round of tug.

Of course, not too long after I was instructed to begin toy training with Shelby, Smokey got sick and I lost sight of everything except trying to keep my boy alive.

It wasn’t until after we adopted Panzer, and I started to learn a whole different side of positive reinforcement training, that I remembered Carolyn’s advice, and began to contemplate raising Shelby’s toy drive.

Now, the wonderful thing about starting off with a dog who is highly food motivated, is that the transition into toys is slightly easier than vice versa (although both can be done quite easily).

Why fix what isn’t broken, you ask? Well, for one, it gives you more options in your training. When you are fading out treats, it’s a good thing to have a toy as an alternative. It also spices the game up, “When she clicks am I going to get a cookie, a ball, a good girl, a pet, nothing, what? Come on, I’m so excited to find out what I get I gotta perform the behavior FASTER! YEAH!” Toys are also very useful when teaching herding behaviors which require the dog to move away from you. You can also use treats for this, no doubt, but toys are a tad easier, because you can throw it away from you, and it isn’t going to take the dog nine years to sniff through the grass to find it. So if I want Shelby to begin working on her outrun (a long run away from the handler toward the flock of sheep), the best way to teach it is classical conditioning, by throwing the toy a distance away for her to chase it and as she is going out to it, putting a cue to it, basically defining the motion of running away.

Problem for me was that Shelby wasn’t interested. Sure, I could have her outrun to sheep every time, because she has prey drive, but it takes time to get a behavior on cue. Joe won’t let me have sheep, and the bunnies will be hibernating soon, so I can’t rely on them for much longer either (keep in mind the goal is not for Shelby to run out to sheep every time she sees them, but only when I cue her to do so).

The above, combined with some other interesting tidbits, is why Carolyn felt it was time to raise Shelby’s toy drive. My enjoyment playing with Panzer and his toys, was what pushed me to actually start to train this with my princess.

Panzer racing after his beloved ball.

We’re still a work in progress (I hope we are always a work in progress, because that means we’re always learning), but we’re getting there, slowly but surely.

I started the training by filling a knee high nylon stocking with Shelby’s favorite treat and tying the end in a knot. When I had my “toy”, I took Shelby outside and let her sniff it. She was interested immediately. In fact, my first training session with her failed miserably, because she was so interested, that I was only able to hold onto the nylon for about 6 seconds before Jaws had wrenched it out of my grasp. As soon as she has the nylon, she’s allowed to rip it open and get all the treats out. (If you’re going to try this at home, please be careful that your dog does not eat any of the nylon, as nylon is not good for the inside of a dog).

Take 45, and Shelby is reliably chasing the nylon every time. I tease her with it, wiggling it in front of her face, running a bit with it and having her chase me, and then I lob it as far as I can throw it, and she races out to it so she can rip it open. While she races away from me, I give her a cue, “Go get it!” (I wish I could tell you I had a snazzier, herding lingo cue for this behavior, but I don’t).  

As she gets more and more excited about chasing it, I slowly reduce the amount of treats in it, so she starts to be weaned off of “The nylon is exciting because it’s full of treats” and starts becoming more excited because “The nylon is fun to chase.” Eventually, I will replace the treats all together and put a ball in the end of the nylon instead. Then, there will just be a ball. And voila! A dog with toy drive, prey drive and who is highly motivated by food. The perfect combination.

My two ball addicts ^.^