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How to Use Toys as Rewards in Dog Training

Author: Cathy Madson, MA, FDM, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA

Published: March 10, 2020

Updated: August 7, 2021

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dog playing tug with kong wubbaDoes your puppy love to play? Is your dog not very motivated by food treats during training sessions? Are you trying to train without food treats in your training program?

You can use toys and play as an effective and easy way to train your dog. Not only will you have an option besides food treats, but playing with your dog builds a strong relationship — and it's fun for everyone!

If you're not quite sure how to use toys the right way when training your dog, we've got you covered. Read on to learn the basics, along with dog trainer tips and top toy reward picks.

How to Effectively Reward Your Dog with Toys

  • Be consistent with your "Drop It" cue. Playing tug gives you the perfect opportunity to practice this behavior and to practice using toys as a reward. Read "Teach Your Dog Drop It" for step-by-step instructions and tips for this cue. Consistency in telling your dog that it's time to let go will build great self-control and make training with toys faster and more effective.
  • Maintain the toy's value. Have a few toys specifically for training that aren't out for your dog to grab anytime they want. When not using them for play rewards, keep them put away. This way, your dog will find the toys new and exciting when they do show up, maintaining a higher value than their day-to-day toy options.
  • Reward in short bursts of play. Using toys or play during training sessions often means you can't do as many repetitions as you could if you were using treats. First off, that's okay. Secondly, to keep your session on track and maintain a high rate of reinforcement, keep the playtime short — only 3-4 seconds of tug, or one toss of the ball or frisbee. Then the toy goes behind your back, in your pocket, or under your arm while you ask your dog for the behavior again.
  • Mark with a "yes!" (or click) before rewarding with a toy. Be very clear about what behavior is getting the toy reward. If you're clicker training, it's up to you whether you want to click and then reward with a toy.

PRO TIP: I prefer to keep my clicker associated solely with a food reinforcer, but I know some trainers who use it for both food and toy rewards. I instead use a verbal marker of "yes!" when telling my dog they got it right and giving her a real-life reward like play or toys.

puppy on leash with training toyHow to Reward Your Dog with a Tug Toy:

  1. Have the tug toy under your arm or behind your back.
  2. Ask your dog for a "sit."
  3. Your dog sits, you immediately say "yes!" and present the toy for tug.
  4. Tug for 3 to 4 seconds.
  5. You say "drop it," and your dog lets go of the toy.
  6. Toy again goes away (either behind your back or under your arm).
  7. Ask your dog for another repetition of "sit."
  8. Repeat these steps until you're done with your training session (keep sessions short and sweet!).
  9. When you're all done with asking your dog for a particular behavior, have a longer play session with the tug toy to finish off on a great note.

PRO TIP: If you're in the beginning stages of teaching your dog to do a behavior, like Sit, and using a toy as a reward, often the toy can be used as a lure just like food. Read more about luring and other teaching methods in How to Teach Your Dog to Do Anything in 4 Easy Steps.

Want to see tug toy rewards in action? Check out this video of sweet little Finnegan, a 9-week-old Portuguese Water Dog, learning "Drop It" for the first time:

How to Reward Your Dog with a Fetch Toy:

  1. Keep the ball, frisbee, or another fetch toy behind your back or under your arm.
  2. Ask your dog for a "down."
  3. Your dog lays down, immediately say "yes" and throw the toy.
  4. Praise your dog as they bring the fetch toy back to you.
  5. You say "drop it," and your dog drops the toy.
  6. Toy again goes away (either behind your back or under your arm).
  7. Ask your dog for another repetition of "down."
  8. Repeat these steps until you're done with your training session.
  9. Finish your session with a longer game of fetch for your dog.

PRO TIP: I like having two of the same fetch toy when using fetch as a reward. Many times I can get in more repetitions when I'm already ready to reward with a second toy to throw. I then pick up the first toy while the dog is chasing the second.

I recommend keeping the toy only slightly visible or out of sight when you ask for a behavior, but this depends on the dog you're training. For some dogs, seeing the toy makes them so excited that they can't focus on performing the requested cue. For others, seeing a bit of it can increase motivation and training drive. Eventually, you want to be able to ask for the behavior even if they don't know that they'll get a toy. This is easier if the toy reward is hidden from the start of training.

Dog With Rope ToyFigure Out What Toys Your Dog Enjoys the Most

Different Kinds of Play Style

Some dogs prefer wrestling over chase, and others prefer tug-o-war more than fetch. Each dog is an individual, and their playstyle will inform what kinds of play or toys you should use in training.

To figure out what kind of play your dog finds fun and rewarding, do a "play test." Engage your dog in different kinds of play and watch their body language and excitement level to see which they respond the best.

Try to get them to chase you and then see if they like being chased. Some dogs like the whole "catch me if you can" game, and I recommend it as long as it includes role reversals between you and your pup and doesn't encourage games of keep-away in day-to-day life.

If your dog likes to wrestle with their canine friends, they might enjoy some rough and tumble with you as well. This type of play should be done very carefully with humans, and consistency in the game's rules are paramount. No teeth on skin are ever allowed, and intensity level should always be low enough to easily stop.

My "wrestling" with my Corgi really only means I'm down at her level and physically interacting with her. I invite her to jump on my lap or give her scratches and touches all over in a playful way. Sometimes I even get down on her level and we give each other play bows and hip bumps, much like what dogs do with each other during play.

It can be really fun to give your dog body language cues that dogs use with each other and see their response — try giving your dog a play bow and see how they react! Check out lots of resources for learning how to "speak dog" on our Decoding Your Dog's Body Language page.

using tug in dog training

Try Out Different Kinds of Dog Toys

There are tons of different kinds of dog toys to choose from. Pick training toys based on what type your dog enjoys the most. If you're not sure what they like, do a toy test where they have different options and see what they gravitate towards.

When I go to a training session with a client's dog, I like to keep a few options with me. Some toys can also do double-duty, with many tennis balls also having a squeaker, or plush toys that double as a tug toy.

Best Toys for Dog Training

Here are some of my tried-and-true favorite toys to use for dog training:

Zippy Paws Skinny Peltz — With no stuffing and two squeakers inside, this toy makes a great option for dogs who play light games of tug. It's especially appealing to dogs that like to toss around a toy "carcass."

Zippy Paws Skinny Peltz No Stuffing Dog Toy
zippy paws skinny peltz dog toy

KONG Wubba — I love this toy for games of fetch and tug. Available in a variety of sizes, this is an excellent option for dogs that need an extra durable toy. It also holds up to lots of dirt and outdoor weather.

Kong Wubba Toy
Kong Wubba

The Best Fetch Stick — My Corgi absolutely adores her Fetch Stick. Not only does it float and bounce for her, but it's also easy for me to rinse off after we train. Most importantly, it's a perfect replacement for regular sticks that can cause serious injury to dogs when fetching or chewing.

best fetch stickAvailable for Purchase Here

Small Squeaky Smiley Face Balls — These are great to keep around if you've got a dog that's all about the squeak! Their small size is perfect to fit in your pocket or treat pouch.

Chiwava Smiley Face Squeaky Balls
squeky dog ball toy

Zippy Paws Monkey RopeTugz — Want a squeaky, plush, and tug toy in one? This monkey is a great tug option, especially for puppies. Having two handles with a toy in between means your hand is less likely to get in between those sharp puppy teeth.

Zippy Paws Monkey RopeTugz
Zippy Paws Monkey RopeTugz

Nylabone Happy Moppy Interactive Dog Toy — I use this toy to really engage dogs in chase and tug. With all the different textures and fabrics, there are lots for dogs to love. It's easy to toss as a reward and has a great handle for playing tug-o-war.

Nylabone Happy Moppy Dog Toy
Nylabone Happy Moppy Dog Toy

JW Whirlwheel Flying Disk — For pups that will do anything for a frisbee toss, I stick with materials that aren't as harmful on their teeth as hard plastic. The Whirlwheel is my favorite since I can also use it for a game of tug, and I love its bright color.

JW Pet WhirlWheel Flying Disk for Dogs
JW pets Whirlwheel Dog Frisbee Disc

However, there are lots of options for softer frisbee-like toys, like the Eco Fly-N-Tug or West Paw Zogoflex Zisc. If your dog is a fetch machine, check out more of our staff picks in "Go Fetch! Top 10 Best Fetch Toys for Your Dog."

West Paw Zogoflex Zisc Frisbee for Dogs
West Paw Zogoflex Zisc Frisbee

You Can Teach Your Dog to Like Toy Rewards

Do you find that your pup just doesn't seem that interested in toys? It's not abnormal for some dogs to just not be motivated by toys enough to work for them.

However, if you'd like to use them as a reinforcer in training, you can work on teaching your dog how to enjoy toys. This can be especially useful for people wanting to participate in dog sports like agility, where toy rewards are often more practical than food treats.

Susan Garrett explains the best way to do this in her blog: How to Create a Motivating Toy. It's all about acting a "bit loony," as she says, and making play engaging and fun for both you and your dog. If you're excited about something, your dog will be too!

golden retriever puppy holding rope toyWhy You Should Reward Your Dog With Toys and Play

Playing Relieves Stress

Playing gives your dog the chance to decompress and releases the "feel good" hormone oxytocin into the brain. Bonus: it does the same thing for us humans, too! Play, with or without toys, strengthens your relationship with your dog. You're both getting to relax for a moment and focus on having fun — and training with your dog should always be fun!

Play Builds "Drive"

You might hear dog trainers refer to a dog as being "high-drive." This means the dog is ready to rock, has lots of energy, and is easy to amp up with movement, play, and toys. Many herding breeds like Border Collies or working dogs like Belgian Malinois are referred to as high-drive breeds. Using toys and play as rewards for dogs that already have a high training drive is a great way to take advantage of their motivation to work. For dogs that might not show as much drive, introducing play as a reward can increase their excitement and motivation in training.

Some Dogs Find Play More Rewarding Than Treats

Training your dog is all about finding what motivates them to work and using that as their reward. Many dogs find play and toys very rewarding — sometimes it can be more valuable than treats! I have yet to meet a dog that doesn't find food worth working for (although sometimes I have to figure out what type of treat they like the most), but there are times that treats just aren't the thing they want at that moment. The kind of rewards you use in training depend on the dog you're working with. A dog that loves to play will most likely find toy rewards highly motivating.

Toys and play can also be more valuable for dogs that simply aren't hungry. If they've recently eaten a meal, treats might not be quite as enticing as they would be before dinnertime. And for dogs that like to chase moving things (what we trainers call "high prey drive"), the act of chasing a toy prey item can be more satisfying than actually catching and eating it.

rottweiler puppy holding yellow chew ball toy

Reduce the Use of Food Treats in Training

When you're working on fading out food rewards in your training, using real-life rewards like toys can help move the process along. If you start incorporating toys and play as rewards from the beginning, it'll be even easier to fade out food treats!

Plus, you always have play available to use as a reward. This comes in handy when you don't have a treat in your pocket and your dog gives you a rockstar behavior. A quick play session that involves running, chase, or wrestling (or whatever kind of play your dog likes) will keep them excited about performing that behavior in the future, and you didn't miss out on a training opportunity.

Comment below and tell us what your dog's favorite toy and play rewards are!

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About the author

Profile picture for Cathy Madson

Cathy Madson, MA, FDM, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA

As Preventive Vet's dog behavior expert and lead trainer at Pupstanding Academy, Cathy focuses on helping humans and their pets build a strong relationship based on trust, clear communication, and the use of positive reinforcement and force-free methods. With over 13 years of experience, she has had the opportunity to work with hundreds of dogs on a wide variety of training and behavior issues. Beyond her one-on-one consultations through Pupstanding Academy, she also teaches group dog training classes at Seattle Humane. Her specialties include dog aggression, resource guarding, separation anxiety, and puppy socialization.

Cathy is a certified Family Dog Mediator, and certified through the Certification Council of Professional Dog Trainers, holding both the CPDT-KA and CBCC-KA designations. Cathy is a Fear Free Certified Certified Professional, a member of the Association of Professional Dog Trainers, the Pet Professional Guild, and the Dog Writer's Association of America. She has also completed the Aggression in Dogs Master Course.

When she's not geeking out about dogs, you can find her reading, hiking with her two Cardigan Welsh Corgis, or paddleboarding.