I’m not even going to try to hide it – I used to be jealous of people who have dogs that love to tug. I spent a chunk of time feeling like my dog needed to enjoy tugging in order for us to be successful in agility. Or even just in training in general. That is until I learned about food play for dogs.
What is Food Play?
I first discovered the idea of food play while taking the Relationship Building Through Play online class with Denise Fenzi. My dog has some interest in tugging, but it’s not a reliably fun thing for her. Food, on the other hand, is of great enjoyment to her any time, any place. This made food play a perfect option for us.
So what is food play for dogs? Basically it’s using treats to interact with your dog in a way that’s fun for both of you. It incorporates movement, chasing and sniffing into the delivery of food. Treats become more like a rewarding game, than just a simple reinforcer or snack.
When I think about why tugging is so appealing to me, it’s because it’s an interactive experience between the handler and the dog. The dog and human are engaged and excited, there’s motion and energy. Compare that to a typical treat delivery. Dog eats a cookie out of a hand or off the ground. I’m not saying that isn’t rewarding, but it’s not a mutually engaging activity.
Food play is the tugging of food motivated dogs.
Food Play for Fun
If your dog just isn’t so much into toys, this is a great way to play with your dog. I try to play with my dog everyday. It doesn’t need to be a lot, even one minute is great. For me, play has become an important part of my relationship with my dog. Just like my relationships with friends and family, having fun is a way we can feel connected to each other.
My dog Ruby is a sighthound, so she likes chasey games. For a lot of dogs, motion is very attractive, but yours may have other natural instincts or traits that you could incorporate into food play. Perhaps they enjoy jumping in the air to snatch a treat, or burrowing into your lap to find a hidden cookie.
Because it can be hard to describe exactly what food play for dogs looks like, I’ve put together a little video instead. Keep in mind, these are not the only ways to have fun with food. You’ll see that some games are higher energy and others are more low key. And please note, if you don’t look and sound a least a little bit like a fool while playing with your dog, you’re doing it wrong!
And here is a video of me using food play at an agility fun run. My goal was simply to have a nice time with my dog and play, as a way of building her enthusiasm about being in the ring in general. You’ll see lots of chasing tossed treats, chasing me to get the treat, and jumping on me to eat the treats out of a semi-closed hand. She likes to kind of pry the food out of my hand so it’s a fun little game for her.
I sometimes use these same games while I’m waiting for my turn at class or at a trial. It may have to be a scaled down version depending on how much space there is. The frog or mouse game can be well-suited for smaller spaces. But it’s a great way to start from an engaged state before beginning the work.
Food Play as a Reward
When we use food as reinforcement in training, we usually feed it from our hand or drop it on the ground. Again, that’s a perfectly fine way of delivering treats and I use it often. But sometimes a longer, more energized reward experience better suits the training.
If my dog nails an exceptionally tough weave pole entry in the middle of a course, tossing a single cookie on the turf and then continuing ahead just doesn’t seem like enough. If we run a twenty-one obstacle course in class, the value of a couple treats out of my hand at the end doesn’t match the amount of effort my dog put out.
Ruby likes eating from my hand, but I can tell she has a lot more fun chasing down a rolled treat or catching up to me to snatch the piece of chicken.
Using some of the food play games is a great way to increase the value of the reinforcement, which in this case is treats. And since reinforcement drives behavior, this is a very good thing! It means we’ll see more and more of those fantastic behaviors we rewarded. It also means my dog will associate the happy, fun feelings from our games with agility. And I care a lot about her emotional state during training.
How I Use Food Play as a Reward with My Dog
I credit my in-person agility instructor with pushing me to be more creative in rewarding my dog in class. I think she could tell my dog is sensitive and needs to be paid well for the effort she was giving me. “Throw the food! Now run and let her chase you for a cookie! Run the other way! Throw another one!” I’m so glad she helped me connect the games I was playing at home with how I reward inside the agility ring.
Here’s a video showing some of my rewards in agility class, including a clip from early on in my agility training for a comparison.
And another video showing me using food play at a fun run in a setting that’s less familiar to her.
Food Play at Trials
I also try to get creative when I reward outside the ring, such as at a trial or when I’m doing a trial practice at class. In these situations, the treats are in a jar, outside the ring. While I may not have as much space on the sidelines as when I’m in the ring, I still like to make the reward an interactive event. More contained food play, like the “mouse game” in the first video works great. Or I will feed her a couple treats from the jar right away and then jog with her to a more open area where we can play together.
If you’re curious to learn how I helped my dog understand how to perform with the reward outside the ring, check out this post.
Is Food Play Right for Your Dog?
It depends! If your dog likes food, food play is probably a great option for you and your dog.
If your dog gets absolutely over-the-top excited around food or is physically hurting you to get to the food, then some extra training and structure is needed in order to make food play safe and enjoyable for the both of you.
Or if they like food, but once motion is added, they turn into a Tasmanian Devil, perhaps a more low key version of food play could be right for you.
Every dog is a unique individual, so be creative in finding out what games tap into your dog’s wiring and brings out the most fun for them. And if it doesn’t work, that’s okay. There are other ways you can play with your dog.
When Should You Use Food Play as Reward?
Again, it depends on your dog and the training or trialing context.
If your dog is ramped up when working outside your house, maybe using food play at home and structured rewards in class and trials makes more sense.
If your dog is in need of some confidence boosting or you want to build value for a certain behavior or for the ring in general, food play can be an awesome tool here! A confident dog with a strong reinforcement history will be faster and more enthusiastic. And isn’t that what we all want in our sport dogs?
I don’t use food play to reward every behavior my dog does in training. Plenty of my food reinforcers are delivered by hand, on the ground, or in a food machine. In considering which contexts to use food play, I think about the quantity and quality of the work. So if my dog put out a ton of effort in a long behavior chain, I may break out the food play. Or if she does a particularly beautiful repetition, food will be flying. I also vary the amount of play, depending on quantity and quality of the work. The excitement and fun of the reward is still there, but the amount of it suits the quality and quantity of the work.
I also consider the nature of the training task at hand. If it’s very precise or I want my dog in a calm state, then food play may not be the best idea. But if it’s a high energy, motion-based behavior, food play could be great.
Using Marker Cues & Food Play
Just a quick note on marker cues. Personally, I am okay with combining marker cues with food play. So for example, I might mark a great weave pole performance with “get it” and drop a cookie on her line and then move right into food play. Or I may mark with “yes” when my dog followed a bypass cue and give a treat from my hand. Then I’ll turn the reward into an event with food play. My food play is accompanied by praise, ridiculous noises and motion, which are cues for my dog that it’s time to play.
Creative Cookies for the Win
I would love to see more creativity in food delivery techniques for our dogs. Looking back at some of my old videos, I feel sad watching myself drop two pieces of cheese on the ground after my dog did a full agility course, all while trying to understand my rookie handling. Without a doubt, her enthusiasm for agility increased when I started rewarding in a more interactive, engaging way. We can do better for our food motivated dogs – let’s not let the tuggers have all the fun! I hope my own creativity in using food reinforcement continues to evolve as I try out new ideas and draw inspiration from the dog in front of me.
Have you experimented with any food play for dogs? What kind of games does your dog enjoy?