I am a big fan of teaching dogs to play tug. It not perfect for every dog, but don’t believe the fallacy that it “makes” dogs aggressive. That simply isn’t true. In fact, when played with strict rules, quite the opposite is true. Its many benefits include:
- Building your relationship with your dog.
- Teaching excellent self control.
- Your dog may seek you out as a source for resolving her anxiety with a game of tug, instead of engaging the environment and chewing your furniture or leash.
- It teaches dogs to retrieve and bring the tug back to you and not play keep away.
- It can help give your dog a good RECALL (coming when called)!
- When the desire to tug is powerful enough, you can use it as a REINFORCEMENT instead of food.
- Burns off excess energy.
Incorrectly played tug can cause poor behavior. Strict rules are imperative.
The rules of engagement are:
1. You always control the tug toy by deciding when the game starts and stops. You store it out of sight from your dog, and bring it out when you decide to play.
2. Make sure your dog knows you are causing the tug game to happen by clearly moving her around with the tug. Don't let her tug a static toy as that puts her in charge of the game and makes it harder to get the DROP IT or OUT.
3. Keep sessions short, 2-4 minutes or shorter (maybe even 3-5 seconds), to keep arousal low. Several short tugging sessions in a row are better than one long one.
4. If one tooth even accidentally touches your hand, the game is over, try again later. Make sure you play fairly by offering the tug in such a manner that she won't accidentally bite you.
5. Get your dog tugging for 10 seconds. If your dog becomes overly aroused (excessive growling), stop sooner, even after a couple seconds, wait for a spontaneous sit, then REINFORCE by starting the game again. Your dog will quickly learn that if she gets too carried away, you stop the game.
6. Let your dog win a lot. Yes, you read that right! Let your dog win. If your dog never wins the game of tug, she may choose to keep the tug for herself, and begin guarding the tug. When you let your dog win, tell her “you win” and move briefly away from your dog. Then I will do one of two things:
- Either call your dog right away and begin a new round of tug, or
- Chase your dog when she has the tug in a fun and teasing (not threatening) way. Most (not all!) dogs like to be chased and will frequently try to get other dogs to chase them during dog play. Why not fulfill that role yourself and make your dog think of you as her best playmate? This chasing becomes a new and fun game for you and your dog. I frequently see dogs come back to their person after winning and being chased, and ask for a new game of tug. What a fantastic way to build your relationship with your dog! The following video shows Scrappy the Weim playing this game with his mom and me.
Scrappy used to never want to give up his toys. But after we started playing tug properly, that all changed.
You can get the toy back in one of three ways, in order of my preference:
1. Freeze the tug against your body so there is no play in the tug. Don’t tug back, just hold it. It will not be fun for your dog because you are no longer playing, and she will let go. The second your dog lets go, MARK, and immediately engage her in a new round of tug. This teaches your dog not to guard or play keep-away with the tug toy because she knows she will get it back right away most of the time.
2. Ask for a DROP IT or OUT. A treat trade may be necessary initially if your dog doesn’t know DROP IT or OUT.
3. Renowned dog trainer Kay Laurence from England uses the following technique. With one hand, gently and slowly take your dog’s collar underneath and raise her head up until her nose is angled upwards. It is difficult for a dog to keep her mouth closed when her nose is pointed upwards. Then wait until your dog opens her mouth and calmly and slowly remove the tug. If you move quickly, your dog will rebite the tug before you are ready.
When ending the game, give your dog a treat and put the toy away. I like to end in a good way with a treat trade to maintain the tug's power as a REINFORCER.
Add-in the retrieve. While tugging, let your dog win. As soon as she has control of the tug, back up a step or two cheerfully calling her to you. The second she moves towards you, grab the tug and reinforce her by continuing the tug game.
As many people know, I am or have been involved in many types of dog sports– agility, hunt tests, competitive obedience, tracking, rally and K9 Nose Work. Currently, in competitive dog sports, tug is used as a reinforcement instead of food much of the time, especially for agility, obedience and sometimes for K9 Nose Work. Tug, properly trained, can be as or more reinforcing than treats for dogs in all sorts of situations in your home as well. So if your dog likes to tug, look at tugging in a new light. Tug with rules; teach them lots of good things in the process, and have fun with your dog at the same time.