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Creating Reward Events- Using Play with Food & Toy Rewards in Training

Revised 11/23/22

By Anthony De Marinis, CDBC, ADT, LFDM, FFCP, CBATI, VSA-DT

Over the past couple of years my Kelpie, Journey, has really taught me the importance of play and the use of playing with toys and/or food as a reward. At first it was a bit of a struggle for me to have a dog who was motivated by toys and plays rather than food. Even to this day at least 60% to 70% of the time Journey will NOT work for food, but he will work for toys and play 100% of the time.

Using toy rewards in certain training situations can be very challenging, but as I have learned, using toy rewards can make you a much better trainer. I will admit, there are times I wish that Journey would work for food rewards more when training because in some situations it would make things a little bit easier and/or quicker to teach. Of course, this is very dependent on the individual learner, as each dog learns differently and each dog finds different things rewarding. With that said, I have learned how to play with food so that it can become a more rewarding event for Journey. I will talk more about this soon.

The two situations that I have found the most challenging when using toy rewards is teaching behaviors with a maintain criteria or a stationary position such as Sit Maintain, Down Maintain, Wait, Stay etc. The reason is because with a food reward you can reinforce your dog for the behavior without the dog breaking their position. Whereas with toys once you reward the dog, they will break from their position to play with the toy that you reward them with. Now, this doesn’t mean you can’t teach a dog to maintain their position using toys, because I have done it both with Journey and my puppy Quest, as well as client dogs. However, toy rewards and play can make things a little bit more challenging.

The second situation I have found toy rewards and play to be challenging is in certain shaping scenarios because when shaping (depending on what you are teaching) you might want to toss the reward away to reset the dog and their position quickly, whereas with a toy resetting the position might become a little more difficult. Now, I am not saying you can’t shape using toy rewards because you certainly can. A lot of what I teach Journey is through shaping with toy rewards. This is just some food for thought as I present you with what I have learned through the use of play & rewards.

Changing the Way We Look at Rewards

What I have learned overtime with Journey and with my clients dogs, is the power that play can really have in helping to building a relationship and engagement with a dog. Play is a very rewarding experience for many dogs. The problem is that we don’t always make play a fun and enjoyable event and sometimes we don’t use play as part of our reward.

What I mean is that I am distinguishing the difference between a transactional reward and creating a rewarding event or experience around play. To me, a reward is just that, a transaction. The dog sits when I ask, I give him a treat. The dog comes when I call, I toss his frisbee. Those are transactional rewards. Nothing wrong with that. However, if I want to be more engaging and interactive, then I want to create more of an event out of the reward by incorporating play. Creating an enjoyable event or experience through play can create more motivation, joy and is an important ingredient in developing a relationship with your dog. (Don’t worry, I have video to show some examples.)

Dog Trainer, Micheal Ellis, talks about how we should be using play as a way to create an enjoyable “event” for dogs, as this will become a much more rewarding and motivating experience, rather than just feeding a dog a treat or playing a quick five second tug game which quickly ends.

For many dogs, when we use play with food or toys, we are potentially enhancing the experience and interaction rather than it just being transactional.

Play With Your Food!

“Anthony, don’t play with your food!” Who had a mom that would scream at you for playing with your food? Well, I am here to tell you to PLAY WITH YOUR FOOD, when rewarding your dog that is. Okay, so I am not saying to play with your food all the time, but sometimes instead of just rewarding your dog, make it a fun and playful event. Instead of just rewarding your dog with a tasty treat and continuing on with whatever you are teaching, take the time to play with your dog and his food.

You can toss a treat side to side, run away and have your dog chase you, lure your dog with an open hand lure etc. You can do this in a basic or advance training session, on a walk, during recall training or even when working on your dogs leash reactivity, depending on the situation of course. I always try to make the food become alive, just like a toy where the dog is focused on wanting to get it. I try to make play rewards last for 10, 20, 30 seconds or longer! To really visually see what I mean, take a look at this video as I play with food rewards during my training sessions. Notice how it is not just a transactional reward, but an actual drawn out event and interaction.

Using Toy Play Rewards

For some dogs, playing with toys can be much more rewarding. Some dogs really love and enjoy the stalk and chase aspect of toy play and while others enjoy the stalk, chase, grab and tugging with the toy. Using toys for some dogs bring a whole other element of play, excitement and engagement to a reward.

Just like everything, this depends on the individual because some dogs might get to aroused during toy play. This can affect their ability to learn and process information during a training session if they don’t have good control of their impulses or struggle to regulate themselves. If this is the case, teaching certain rules about how to play may need to be taught.

What I love about toy play is that it can bring out a different side of both the dog and owner, which can become a more meaningful interaction and joyous experience together. For dogs like Journey, toy play is his motivator, it was helpful in building his confidence and developing a relationship between the two of us. It wasn’t just a transaction, it became an interaction.

When I play with toys, I don’t generally just do the typical tug-of-war game. I try and get a little more animated. I might start out having the dog chase the toy, while other times I might let the dog grab it immediately. Then, I will tug a little, grab the toy on one side with one hand, then switch to grabbing the other side of the toy with the other hand. Next I may run away from the dog and then tug some more when the dog brings the toy back to me. If the dog lets go of the toy, I may have the dog chase the toy around before allowing him to grab it again.

Just like with food rewards, my goal is to make the toy come alive! I don’t just want to tug. I want to create engaging, meaningful play between me and the dog. This can last for 10, 20, 30 seconds or longer. Take a look at this video on how I use toy play as a reward during my training sessions.

When Do I Use Toy Play With My Dogs?

Personally for me, I use toy play for a wide variety of things. for example, if I am teaching new skills at home or out in public. I will also use toy play during agility sessions with Journey. I also have a toy with me whenever I go hiking off leash with my dogs so that I can practice random skills while on a hike. This can be skills such as: name response, recall (coming when called), as well as hand targeting, collar grabs and walking by my side when asked.

Each dog will teach you something…if you let them

To me, each dog becomes a teacher in our lives for something, whether it’s about owning and training a dog, living with a behaviorally challenged dog or some thing else in our life on a human level. Journey has truly taken me on a ‘journey’. He has taught me so much about dogs are not motivated by food or transactional rewards. I have learned to look beyond food rewards as the motivator. Instead, I now look at how I can tap into what a dog finds rewarding and motivating and how to create an enjoyable play session or game around those rewards when possible.

I’ve attached a few videos below on how I might use play with food and toys with my own dogs. If you’d like to learn more about how to utilize play rewards, you can reach out to me directly. You can also checkout my blog post on How To Safely Play Tug With Your Dog, which has some helpful information on toy play and tug-of-war.

Helpful Video’s on Food & Toy Play Rewards

Playing With Food Rewards

Toy Play Rewards

Playing with puppy for fun (featuring Quest)

Making Tug & Play Fun



Anthony De Marinis specializes in working with dogs with severe behavior issues, specifically with aggressive behavior. He provides comprehensive in-home and virtual behavior consultations, as well as dog training services across Long Island, NY. (Online Virtual Consultations for aggression and behavior modification are also available for clients who are local and out of state.) Anthony has seven professional certifications which include: Certified Dog Behavior Consultant from the International Association for Animal Behavior Consultants, Accredited Dog Trainer by the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants, Licensed Family Dog Mediator (LFDM), Fear Free Certified Training Professional (FFCP), Certified Graduate of distinction from the Victoria Stilwell Academy for Dog Training & Behavior, Certified Behavior Adjustment Trainer, and The Third Way Certified Trainer. Anthony currently has an interest in training and behavior modification in Working & Sport bred dogs. He is also learning about and currently competing in agility and sheep herding. Anthony has two Australian Kelpies, Journey and Quest, both of which are training in agility and sheep herding.

January 3, 2022