The Power of Play: Tug

charlotte dog training play Jul 02, 2024
Airedale terrier puppy lays with toy

Any sport that we play or watch comes with rules, boundaries, penalties, and ways to win - the same should ne true when you are playing with your dog. Playing with your dog should be a way to strengthen your relationship, build their confidence, endurance, and engagement with you; while also teaching impulse control, listening skills, how to flow through different states of arousal, and how to come back from a penalty without any conflict.

Tug is a competitive game. There is a clear winner when you are playing this game of possession versus a cooperative game like fetch. When your dog wins the possession of the toy, it builds their confidence, which makes them want to play again! It is important when you first start playing this game with your dog that you allow them to win often versus asking them to out too much in the beginning, which will only decrease your dog's desire to want to play the game.

What you are looking for when playing tug is one of three counter moves: a stronger tug back, a head shake, or a re-grip. When your dog puts extra effort into winning the toy by doing one of these natural movements, let them “win” the toy. Dogs naturally want to run off with their new prize, so it is important when starting to teach this game that you either have the toy on a leash so when they win you can reactivate the game right away or have your dog on a leash so that you can bring them back into you to keep the game going versus needing to chase after them (and let's face it, most likely losing).

If your dog is unsure or disinterested, having the toy on a leash will allow you to move the toy quickly like a small animal would move along the ground, tapping into their natural prey drive. It also allows for more distance away from you, which helps dogs that are unsure about playing tug so closely. Spatial pressure is a form of pressure for dogs, so having it at a distance alleviates that form of pressure.

Once your dog is tugging regularly and is bringing the toy back often then you can start to introduce an "out" command. There are a few different ways to do this.

  • You can either make the toy inactive by holding it steady, with one hand on each side of your dog's mouth ensuring they are not able to pull backwards. Once your dog looses interest and drops the toy, immediately give them your marker word to take the toy again.
  • You can allow your dog to keep a hold of the toy and then add some soft leash pops up with the leash (essentially nagging your dog) until they drop it. As soon as they drop it, tell them to get it right away. It is important that you also are not holding onto the toy for this drill to show your dog that you are not competing over it any longer.
  • You can exchange a piece of food for the toy. If your dog is more food motivated than toy, we would not recommend this approach as it may be hard to get them back interested in playing.

Then the fun starts of proper tug targeting! Present your toy horizontally versus vertically. This is a much more natural way for your dog to capture the toy as it is level with their mouth.

Present your toy to the side of you versus in front of you. This creates a window for your dog to smash through versus a wall like your body being behind the toy. It will also save you from getting taken out by your dog if they are strong with their toy drive, as they won’t be crashing into your body.

Think straight lines when building drive and motivation for your dog versus zig zags. Too often owners move a toy frantically across their body, this will only result in frustration of you getting bit due to poor targeting. If adding movement to the toy keep it in the same spot next to your body, just move in a straight line back so it is an easy target for your dog.

Choose a tug that compliments where your dog is at in their play development. Soft fleece tugs are great beginner toys for puppies and older dogs just learning to love play. Thicker toys made out of jute, thick nylon or bite wedges should be saved for dogs that are more advanced in their toy play.

Add in misses every once in a while to build further motivation. Once you have a dog committed to the game you can add in misses to build even more enthusiasm for the toy. As mentioned above it is important to keep those straight lines for misses so that it is still a predictable spot for your dog to win.

If you are a visual learner, watch these videos to help advance your tug play work:

Puppy Play Development

How To Play with Your Puppy with Puppy Prodigy Jenga

Proper Tug Targeting

Playing tug and teaching the rules of the game is one of our absolute favorite things to coach as trainers. If you want that hands on training, we have a variety of training packages to fit your lifestyle needs.



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