Ready. Get it – tug!
Most dogs will play tug. Young dogs who haven’t been threatened into avoiding taking things into their mouths will usually easily play tug. And even older dogs who are initially hesitant can be jollied into a game. Sometimes a persistent effort is needed to get jaded dogs to play a game. Transitioning from a short fetch to a tug game is possible for those ‘I don’t think I’m supposed to do that’ dogs and also cheering them on when they get an easy win can work.
But doesn’t it make dogs aggressive? Don’t trainers tell people never to play tug-of-war, and certainly never, never let the dog win. Blah, blah, blah … It is true that aggressive method trainers are more likely to have trouble with this game, aggression breeds aggression.
I’m not sure where the significant, don’t do it mantra came from, but there is evidence that dogs understand the concept of play vs. a real fight. Heck, they practice all sorts of body language to make sure it’s play. They understand play, do we?
Why tug? In reward-based training we need alternatives as rewards. Food is great, but it is also limiting if it’s the only thing we have to use. Games add excitement and action, but if the game involves retrieving then the dog ends up leaving the trainer to run after something. So the majority of the excitement is away from the trainer instead of at the trainer. Tug offers a quick, at the trainer, exciting interplay of action.
Are there rules to tug? I do have rules, no stealing. So in other words if I was carrying a favorite tug item the dog doesn’t get to come up, surprise, and start a tug game (I won’t play that way).
Tug is an action warm-up and an earned reward. I do a play bow, hold the tug between my two fists so it’s obvious where to grab and say ‘Get it!’ Then we play. (If they don’t know what to do I flop the tug around enticing them). As soon as the dog grabs I add backward pressure to help lock them on and do side-to-side pulls (not up and down – I want to avoid injuring their neck, shoulders and spine). I pat/thump their side to increase the intensity and further encourage them to keep up a strong hold – – re-gripping is where finger scuffs vs teeth happen. Growling is part of play so don’t sweat it. After a short but vigorous tug, I say ‘thank you’, stand upright and stop playing. For new tuggers I might offer a treat to get a release or take hold of their collar so they can’t pull back and release all pressure on the tug item. As soon as they release the game can restart … all pieces repeat. That way they learn that the fun isn’t over if they let go when asked to. And for new tuggers when I want to quit I quickly fold up the tug and put it in my pocket or otherwise out of sight so that enthusiasm doesn’t make the end of the game a problem.
The game itself teaches control during excitement. If you follow the rules it teaches dogs not to steal, to be comfortable with collar grabs and hand movements. It can be used as a distraction when the dog would normally be worried – let’s play a game instead, everything’s fine. It’s really good exercise. Puts the focus on you the trainer as someone who is fun and exciting. If you use the breaks as a time to train the control cues like sit, down, come, those cues become really good, especially if you reward with the restart of the game. Tug can be used when in situations with a young dog who wouldn’t be able to pay attention otherwise.
Soooo, how can it go wrong? Having no rules about how the game starts or stops could get you both in trouble. It could teach stealing instead of teaching politeness. Then there’s always the people who want to try to teach a dog to attack, but hey, that isn’t because of a game.
What to use for a tug? I like things that are easy on my hands and fingers like knotted cotton ropes, woven fleece, rubber or elastic ended toys, dairy inflations, nice smooth sticks, fabric flying discs…etc. Basically anything that’s long enough and strong enough for us both to have a hold of and avoid getting hurt.
I want the dog to be willing to play with any toy I choose, but initially I will offer the toy that is their preference to get them into the game. And if a toy is just too exciting I may change down to a less exciting one in order for them to have an easier time stopping when it’s time to stop.
Later, when we’ve practiced more, we return to the exciting one and to the less desirable ones to really build understanding.
- How to Teach Your Dog to Play (akcdoglovers.com)
- Marking Our Life: Apollo The Drug Sniffing Dog (markingourhome.com)