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Click and Play: Using Play as a Reinforcer

Originally published: 10/01/2007

Feeling fine

Dogs smile. Just like people, dogs pull the corners of their mouths up high toward their eyes, partially open their mouths, and smile. In 1872, Darwin wrote of the universality of facial expressions in The Expressions of Emotions in Man and Animals. Roughly 130 years later, Dr. Patricia McConnell authored For the Love of a Dog in which she compared human and dog facial expressions using the methods developed by Paul Ekman, the world's leading scientist on the topic. The truth is out: dogs smile, and, of course, experience emotions.

dog smiling over jump

Clicker training is about teaching and learning using scientific principles and minimizing stress. It's fun for humans as well as dogs, which means more smiles all around. No wonder clicker trained dogs love to learn!

Combining clicker training with play can yield powerful results in behavior modification and dog sports training. Play is impulsive, creative, free, and fun—and it's an effective way to improve your reinforcement history and strengthen the bond with your dog.

The super power of play isn't always easy to access; some dogs play readily and others require many months of fun investigation. Many dogs love a good game of tug. Terriers and sight hounds love it when you drag things on the ground by a rope (think rodent or bunny imitation). Retrievers—surprise!—generally love to retrieve, and so do many herding and sporting breeds.

Play is incompatible with stress

The truth is out: dogs smile, and, of course, experience emotions.

When a dog is stressed, she can't play. It is simply impossible to enjoy yourself while horribly upset or afraid. By the same token, play can be used as a reinforcer to prompt a happy emotional state or strengthen an already existing link between a given activity and joy. Play can also function as a gauge of your dog's emotional state. If your dog is stressed, identify the source of stress and help your dog avoid or minimize contact with the stressor. You can even use play to help your dog gradually become accustomed to the source of stress via systematic desensitization.

stevie happy jump

Play can be varied

If your dog gets bored easily, as does my papillon, play allows you to offer your dog a huge variety of reinforcers. You can play a game with a toy or a piece of food. Bella, my pap, likes it when I vary toys during play. Take note of what your dog likes and rank your dog's games just as you would food reinforcers: a mildly amusing game gets a low score and the mind-blowing "I will do anything to get you to play this one with me again" gets the highest score. This is not just to prevent boredom, but also to enable you to present your dog with a highly valued game as a reward during a challenging exercise. Play is also an excellent way to reinforce well-established behavior.

Play can prompt a higher arousal state

Dogs that are not highly food-motivated may be more excited by the prospect of play than by food treats. For those dogs, and dogs that really like variety in rewards, playing tug or apprehending a toy attempting to flee can be an engaging alternative. You can then use this heightened arousal to proof your cues. Ask the dog questions such as, "Can you still 'sit' even though you just apprehended the evil tug toy?" If the dog says yes, by sitting, click and play another round of "apprehending the evil toy." If the dog says no, play a lower-key game, or go back to using food, and ask again. Increase the dog's arousal level gradually, setting her up for success.

Play can also function as a gauge of your dog's emotional state.

Play can last as long as you want

A really cool advantage of play is that you can make it last as long as you need to. If you want to make a huge deal about your dog's genius response during a shaping exercise, cue her to play a game of chase that may last for many minutes. A fellow clicker trainer sends her dog, who loves to run, out to dash around a huge clump of landscaping as a reinforcer for something done particularly well. It takes the dog two minutes to run around the clump at top speed, and she loves it.

Play prompts playful behavior

In dog sports, we say that a dog that smiles and joyfully engages in an activity has great attitude. Play can help you prompt that happy attitude. When you click and play, the activity you and your dog are engaging in becomes linked with the play via classical conditioning. The act of engaging in the dog sport or training activity comes to predict a play reward. So the dog can't help smiling in anticipation of the click and play.

No matter where you are, you can always play.

Play is always with you

No matter where you are, you can always play. All you need is a bit of flexibility. I have used my baseball cap as a toy; once when I was really desperate I used my shoe. In both cases the play sessions were successful.

Play is creative

Play can trigger innovation and is inspirational to both you and your dog. When it comes to play there are no rules, so you can be as creative as you want. Anything can become a toy and develop a personality. Some of my dog's toys have evil personalities and need to be "killed" by being tossed and shaken. Other toys are sneaky and mischievous. Giving toys personalities and inventing stories as part of play is all part of the fun.

Precision and play

Play reinforcers are just like food reinforcers in the sense that they increase the likelihood of the clicked behavior recurring. It doesn't matter if you are working on heeling or coming when called. What does matter is where you place the reinforcer. If you are clicking the dog for perfect heel position, but then toss your toy reinforcer out ahead of both you and the dog, you will likely prompt forging. Instead, toss the toy to the dog's mouth, and then initiate one of the dog's favorite games.

Play is happiness

Learning to play can take time for both you and your dog. The time invested will pay happiness dividends, the best currency in the world. Click and play: experience the joy and the power.

Agree. Nice article.

My Jack Russell puppy (now five months) doesn't really like treats all that much. We use play as our main reinforcer. Plus, I can lure him into a "trick" with the toy, for example, a bow, and then he gets the click and a toy.

nice article

I often see a tendency to get stuck on treats as the only reinforcer. I think it is important to remember that we have a whole range of reinforcers to pick and choose from. Each kind of reinforcer has its upside and downside, but using a variety does make training more fun

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