Toss Your Cookies!

by Deborah Jones, Ph.D.

Throwing cookies on the floor for your dog is a great training technique. Really, it is. Really. I know, it sounds kind of ridiculous. But trust me, it’s really a sophisticated and effective way to train your dog. It sounds so simple. And yet, it becomes complicated very quickly. So let me explain why you should be tossing cookies and how you should toss them.  

Why toss cookies?

We use a tossed cookie or cookies in training for a number of possible reasons.  The treat toss release is used to break up repetitions within a training session or to end a session.  In the middle of a session I may reinforce 4-5 times in position to build value there, then do a treat toss to break out and release pressure, then repeat the process.  When ending a session some trainers and dogs feel it is too abrupt to just stop, so tossing a handful of cookies gives the dog a nice way to transition away from the session.  

Cookie tosses can also be used to encourage distance and add speed to an exercise.  They prompt the dog to drive forward and away from the trainer, which is good for confidence and independence.  

A cookie scatter (dropping a handful of treats) is an excellent way to lower anxiety or stress levels.  This encourages the dog to sniff and hunt for the treats, which is a very nice way to add an interesting distraction activity if your dog seems mildly uncomfortable or uncertain.  

How should you toss cookies?

When you toss cookies think of it as bowling rather than throwing.  You will want to toss underhand and low to the ground.  If your dog is facing you toss the cookie off to the side at an angle, not directly over your dog’s head.  This will keep your dog from leaping up to try and catch it, and twisting in mid-air, which could lead to injury.  If your dog is parallel or perpendicular to you then you can toss the cookie straight ahead.  Bend forward as you toss so that the cookie travels low to the ground and in your dog’s line of sight.  

Use treats that will contrast with the floor surface.  If a treat blends in then your dog will need to search for it by sniffing rather than visual tracking and that can break the flow of your training session.  If your dog is having trouble finding a cookie help him.  Go point it out if you need to.  Also, choose a treat that tosses easily and will travel a bit of distance.  Things like chicken or cheese are not good choices for treat tosses.  They stick to your hands and also tend to crumble into tiny bits.  Some cereals work well, but others are too light to travel very far.  You’ll need to experiment a bit to find the right thing.  Finally, be sure that you’re working on non-slip flooring.  We don’t want our dogs slipping and sliding as they chase the treat.  

In order to make cookie tossing predictable for your dog always use a consistent verbal cue indicating that you are going to toss a cookie now.  My cues are not very creative so I use “get it!” before I throw the cookie.  Any unique verbal cue will work.  

Here’s a video tutorial showing proper cookie tossing mechanics:

Once  your mechanics are in good shape here’s a fun and useful discrimination to teach your dog:

What could possibly go wrong?

The biggest concern trainers express about tossing cookies is the fear that it will lead to increased floor sniffing.  But this is not what happens at all.  In fact, just the opposite occurs and you’re likely to get less floor sniffing.  Typically, sniffing is more about relieving stress and pressure than it is looking for food.  If your dog is sniffing rather than working this likely means you have a confidence or motivation issue to consider.  

When you use cookie tosses in a thoughtful and predictable way you are purposely lowering any possible stress that might build up during a training session, which takes away your dog’s need to do so on his own by disengaging from you.  It’s a way to be proactive in protecting your dog’s mental well-being by giving him frequent mental breaks during a training session.  

By using a consistent verbal cue for cookie tosses you are putting it under stimulus control.  This will make searching for cookies less likely when the cue is not given.  

To learn more…

Want to learn more about the hows and whys of tossing cookies?  This topic will be part of my newest class offering at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy  The class is titled Achieving a Balance Between Motivation and Control.  In it we will identify your dog’s core temperament characteristics and consider how those should inform your training approaches and decisions. We will explore a variety of training techniques for helping our dogs train in an optimal level of arousal, with just enough self-control to be thoughtful while still encouraging sufficient motivation and enthusiasm.  We will consider when and how we need to encourage more control, as well as when and how to encourage more motivation.  Our ultimate goal is for our dogs to be happy, enthusiastic, focused training partners.