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My girl Shelby doesn’t really have a ‘thing’ for balls or ropes. She’s not particularly fond of tug or fetch, though she does like to eviscerate de-stuff certain toys. She’s food motivated, but not toy crazy, like some other dogs I know *coughPanzercough*.

With sheep

Sorry, cell phone pic, my camera card needs cleared, but here is Shelby performing her gut removal services on her new stuffed sheep. Fortunately she doesn’t do this in real life!

This makes her a bit unique when it comes to training using non-food reinforcement. We don’t have to use non-food reinforcement, I suppose, but I like to spice it up and keep it interesting for her, besides, I like the idea of playing games without food with your dog, it makes you more interesting and more wonderful, but when your dog doesn’t like toys, you kind of have to sit back and scratch your head and say, “But what now?”

Praise is okay, I mean, Shelby doesn’t hate hearing “good girl” by any means, but she’s not going to jump over the moon for it either. She’s also not particularly fond of being touched when she’s working, so a pet or a scratch isn’t going to cut it, actually, it’s kind of aversive to her, and she gets worked up and anxious when I try to interrupt her focus with a pet, her brows furrow and she moves her head and gives me this look like, “Where is my cookie?” She’s a cuddler, but not when it comes to training, when it’s time to work, it’s time to work, it is not time to cuddle. Cuddle time comes when we’re done working and our bellies are full and it’s dark and we’re sitting on the couch or lying in bed or first thing in the morning when we wake up. Cuddle time does not happen outside with all the wonderful sniffs around and the luscious grass and the bunnies to chase. This is not cuddle time in Shelby’s mind.

So again – what’s a girl to do?

Well, we do use the Premack principle (see more information on this here) but some days we use Shelby’s other favorite game – tag.

Tag in snow

P and Shelby playing tag in the snow

Shelby’s loved tag since she was a puppy. She played tag with Smokey and now Panzer, and we used to play a version of it when she was a puppy – I called it “Tag and Treat”. I would run around and then stop, when Shelby got to me, I would wait for her to stop in front of me then click and treat. She got the hang of this game quickly, and it helped with her recall later on.

Now that she’s older, we play a more advanced game of tag. I’m sure it’s not the most normal thing the neighbors have ever seen happen in our yard, but Shelby loves it, and I use it as non-food reinforcement.

So how do you play tag?

Well, you play it like the dogs do, obviously. Tag with Shelby starts out in the yard, off leash (please do not play this with your dog off leash if you don’t think your dog has a reliable recall – safety first, try a long line and pray you don’t get tangled up). We work on something training wise, maybe it’s a down and stay, maybe it’s a send out to a target, maybe it’s some border practice. After a few successful repetitions, I jump (just slightly) and land with my feet spread apart, my knees bent, my back bent forward and my arms low. It’s my human version of a play bow. Shelby immediately play bows back and then takes off.

I chase her, sorta. I mean, let’s not kid ourselves here, I’m not in the shape I was in when I was 19 and running everyday, and Shelby is a German shepherd who is in primo shape. So I sorta chase, maybe run after her with enthusiasm for ten feet or so. Typically, Shelby circles around and play bows near me again then takes off in the other direction. I chase again. We do this for a bit and then I say, “Tag!”

Now to be completely honest, I don’t know if Shelby actually knows if “tag” is her cue to switch from “chasee” to “chaser” or vice versa or not, because “Tag!” is always followed by me running away from her, so she takes chase, or chasing after her, so she runs away, but it’s fun for me; it makes me feel like a kid again.

Shelby definitely prefers to be the “chasee”, so I normally only have her chase me once or twice before I say “Tag” and we switch roles once more. When we’re actively training, this only goes on for about five minutes or so, one, because I don’t want her to get too aroused and lose her little mind from all the fun and two, because I want to continue training and 20 minutes of reinforcement just isn’t all that practical. So after five minutes or so we wrap up with a recall, “Shellllbeee” and a jackpot reward of treats and then we get back to the training.

But some mornings, well, some mornings, we just play tag for fun, and maybe for the neighbors to have something to laugh at while they’re having their morning coffee.

What about you? What kind of non-food reinforcers do you use with your dogs?