Sarah Ann Using Play Training to Teach Kona Heeling

Sarah Ann requested an outdoor private lesson with CPT Head Trainer Mark Spivak. Sarah’s objectives were teaching her 12-month old, female Doberman, Kona, how to: 1) attention heel, 2) stay more reliably in either the sit or down position, 3) come more responsively from a distance amidst distractions, and 4) drop her toy on command. Since Kona exhibited very high play drive and comparatively low food drive, we emphasized play training. In addition, since Kona often took charge in her relationship with Sarah and was a very exuberant, physical dog, we included impulse control training within each exercise.

Using Play Training to Teach Attention Heeling

First, we started with attention heeling. Kona had never learned either stationary focused attention or formal attention heeling. However, due to Kona’s inordinately high play drive, we could teach the behavior quickly by using her cloth Frisbee as a lure. Once Kona understood the behavior, we then hid the Frisbee and used it as a reward within a diminishing frequency random reinforcement schedule attached to standards. Without jargon, we rewarded Kona with play at random step increments, albeit only when she provided a superlative performance. In this case, “superlative” meant walking precisely in heel position without any jumping and with perfect attention throughout the repetition.

The videos document the success of the play training technique. It is amazing how quickly Kona learned and complied when CPT instituted a play training regimen!

Using Play Training to Teach Stay

Kona’s main issue while commanded to stay was that she would quickly lose concentration or simply disobey if a distraction was present or if she could see a toy. Movement, either by Sarah, another dog, or wildlife greatly affected Kona’s willingness to stay. The visual stimulus of the toy or even the knowledge that the toy may be present prompted Kona to disobey the stay command and instead impulsively grab the toy or compulsively search for the toy. However, by using the contiguous combination of praise and the toy as the reward synthesized with response blocking for premature movement, we were able to expeditiously obtain superior impulse control and adherence to the command.   The response blocking taught Kona that she could only receive the toy by staying. In essence, we taught Kona the impulse control aphorism “slow is fast and fast is slow.” In other words, the more patience and compliance she exhibited the faster she achieved her objective of playing with the toy. In contrast, the faster she moved the longer it took her to accomplish her objectives. Once Kona understood the relationship between staying and receiving the toy and that premature movement was unsuccessful, she rapidly became patient and cerebral, instead of excitable and impulsive. Once she reached a calm, cognitive emotional state we started increasing her maximum time in the stay position, while randomizing the time for each repetition, so that the time never became predictable.

Using Play Training to Teach Come

Kona’s issue with come was that she would divert away from Sarah if a distraction was present. Therefore, we placed her on a short line- and later a long line- and presented a challenging environment with dropped toys. If Kona diverted to the toys we blocked her with the long line. However, if she came directly and responsively, we praised her and then immediately released her to play with a toy. Again, we used cognitive control and impulse control techniques, along with play training, to teach Kona that coming directly was a faster way of playing with the toy than was taking a detour to the toy.

Using Play Training to Teach Drop

To teach the drop command we could not use food, as we would with most dogs, since Kona valued the toy significantly more than she valued a food reward. Therefore, we used a combination of leash response blocking to prevent Kona from running away and used a second toy that we “brought to life” only after Kona dropped the first toy.

Working with Sarah and Kona is fun, as play training can be more enjoyable than food training, provided both the owner and dog have the right temperament for the method.


(Alpharetta, GA)

(Johns Creek, GA)

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