Playing Catch to Become the Cookie – How to Be More Rewarding

Sometimes it’s harder to be more interesting than the dirt, with its tantalizing tapestry of scents. Playing catch is one type of food play that can come in handy when you need to energize, motivate or reward your dog.

How to Teach Your Dog to Play Catch

In this video, I play catch with Jager (a 6-month-old bed bug detection candidate) using varied food rewards, including cheese, pepperoni pieces, popcorn, tortillas, then a long length of pepperoni. I don’t have a lot of expectations or rules, only try to have fun together in a way we both enjoy.

For some dogs when they miss catching a piece of food, it can be motivational when you race them to the dropped food on the floor and steal it. That way they have a greater incentive to catch the next piece. But if it’s not motivational, don’t do it. If you do grab the food some of the time, be sure to let the dog win other times.

Start with a hungry dog. If you are working with a younger puppy, you may have to teach the dog to slowly follow food in your hand first, then roll it on the ground and then progress to catching from the air like the video. Make it as easy as possible by dropping the food directly into his mouth. Light, large tortillas are one of my favorites since they drop slowly and are easily visible. Play safe with puppies: lower jumps and less repetitions are better when the bones are still growing. The dog does not need to jump into the air to grab the food. Jager offers enthusiastic jumping and I’m happy to play along. Keep your dog guessing by mixing it up. If it turns into a game of chase, go with the flow.

For dogs that are more toy motivated, try playing catch with a soft plush toy (4), a rolled-up sock or a frisbee (3). Be sure to limit your choices of objects to catch to lightweight items that won’t hurt or scare the dog if they accidentally hit the dog on the head. Start in a safe, distraction free environment. If your puppy disengages and wanders away from you, use a leash on the dog or a leash on the toy.

You can only work effectively on one thing at a time. You can’t work on drive to catch AND a controlled out/give to get the treats back at the same session. We teach food manners in separate sessions so the pup learns to ignore food distractions rather than trying to steal them. Check out our video Cookie Zen – Leave Treats until I say “Get It” (2).

When it’s time to play, relax your rules and lower any expectations. Don’t be too goal oriented and try to make the dog learn to catch faster. Jager is a lousy catcher at 6 months of age but we have a heck of a lot of fun. Over time we’re building his focus, drive, and catching is progressing too. When I’ve exhausted the food, he follows me around looking for the next fun game to happen. That engagement is priceless.

Food Calms vs. Play Amps Up the Drive

Generally, food rewards are more calming than toy rewards. If your dog isn’t interested in object play (like a tennis ball), playing with food can help bridge that gap to build drive for scent detection. Mechanically delivering food like a pez machine works, like pigeons in the Skinner box (1), but food play is more exciting and interactive. Catch can become an electrifying game. It burns energy and has the beneficial side effect of creating an enthusiastic partner that focuses on you in the absence of cues and is crazy about working with you.

Take what you like and leave what you don’t. Engaging your scent dog in your training sessions away from odor is an important foundational skill. Experimenting with different types of rewards for young dogs may help you to discover several reward options that your dog enjoys, including food play, toys, and other life rewards such as swimming or simply going for a walk to smell the rich environment. Then you’ll have more tools available in your arsenal. You won’t know what reinforces work best for your dog until you try it.

Assess if your dog is crying for control or has a need for speed, and plan which approach you’ll use in the current training session.  If your dog has a physical challenge or recovering from injury, delivering food rewards calmly may be your best option. If you want your dog to work in high drive, toys are generally more exciting since they mimic parts of the chain of hunting, chasing and capturing prey. Over time, expect your dog to develop and change. When you train the dog you have on that day in that environment you have greater odds of success than ignoring your dog’s preferences.

Once you’ve found which types of play your dog loves, then you can use play in your warmup routine to get your sniffer dog to the start of the search ready to work in the optimal state of arousal.

When you feel frustrated or tired, your dog may feel frustrated and tired too. Food play can be one component of a reward event to relieve stress at the end of a series of long, challenging searches under distractions. As a bonus, you are less likely to drop food and contaminate the search area with a dog that is motivated and practiced catching rewards in the air every time.

Frisbee friends, did I miss important tips? Do you utilize another fun variety of catch with your sniffer dog? Please share in the comments below.


  1. BF Skinner Foundation – Pigeon Turn video
  2. Cookie Zen Part 1 (Leave Treats until I say “Get It”)
  3. How to Train Your Dog to Play Frisbee
  4. Freeze Indication for Scent Detection by Brittany Spaniel


2 thoughts on “Playing Catch to Become the Cookie – How to Be More Rewarding”

  1. Pingback: How to Train Your Dog to Sit at Scent – Part 2 Scent Puppy Foundation, Hunter's Heart, Canada

  2. Pingback: How to Train Your Dog a Sit Indication – Part 2 Scent Puppy Foundation, Hunter's Heart, Canada

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