Posted by: allstaragility | June 23, 2014

Thoughts On Tugging

Solei Tug

Without a doubt, playing tug  is one of the most popular modes of reward that is used in agility training.  For many dogs, it comes naturally and with voracity.  For others, it is the long-sought after goal of their owners to get them to latch on to anything  (mainly because people were told incorrectly for the longest time that a dog had to tug in order to be any good at agility).  While I honestly believe that a dog doesn’t have to be able to play tug (spoken from owning food-crazed Shelties- that will have to be a separate blog post), I also feel that it can be a very useful tool if developed and used correctly. There has been so much focus on getting our dogs to play tug that we tend to create tug-o-maniacs while doing so and loose the ability for it to be a versatile reward and training tool.

Engaged or not engaged?  That is the question. When you play tug with your dog, are the individuals on both ends of the toy truly participating in the activity with each other?  What I mean by this is, do you actually play with your dog, or do you just hold on to the end of it while he flops around like a fish one the line?  How often have you seen somebody carrying on a conversation with a friend while their dog is just having a tug-fest with the toy in their hand?  At this point, tug has become nothing more than a  pacifier to keep the dog mindlessly occupied so as to not bother the humans.  On the flip side, does your dog even know/care that you are playing with him, or is his focus solely on the object connecting the two of you?

Try this test.  Initiate a game of tug with your dog.  Play the game back, really physically and verbally getting into it.  Now stop playing, while continuing to hold onto the toy, don’t tug back.  Just disengage yourself mentally from the game.  Be still, don’t look at your dog, be passive (non threatening).  Does your dog naturally read this change and let go of the toy or does he continue to play without your participation?  How long does it take your dog to notice you have “left” the game or does he not even care because it normally takes death threats and the Jaws of Life to make your dog give up the toy?  If so, then you may need to rewrite the parameters of the game.  The toy is not the reward, nor is tugging on the toy.  It is tugging on the toy with you that should be the ultimate reward.

When it comes to tugging, many dogs’ brains switch off when playing and we need to make sure they remain on!  With my dogs, I have 3 rules. 1) I initiate the game and “release” my dog to play.  2) I must be an active participant in the game. 3) I am the one who declares “game over” .  These 3 rules allow for tugging with you to not only be a reward, but also to be used to help teach and reinforce impulse control.  Here are examples for each rule:





1) This requires the dog’s understanding of the 3 R’s: Revving, Rewarding and Releasing and is a vital part of my process in teaching start-line stays.  My dog needs to know that being revved up (READY???) and being rewarded (Good Doggie!) do not constitute being released (OK, Go, etc).  I teach this early on with a toy.  If I am holding a toy in front of my dog’s face revving her up and she chooses to release herself to grab the toy, there is no game/reward and we try again until she shows she can contain herself through the excitement.  The reward for showing restraint  is a verbal reward followed by being released to play a great game of tug.

2) Remember the test I gave you?   This will take some work if your dog has learned that the game is about the toy instead of you.  If you disengage long enough, most dogs will eventually realize you are no longer playing and stop.  The more you do this, the more quickly your dog will realize this is how it works.  If I have a particularly keen tugging dog, then when I stop, I may hold the toy high enough (with both hands) so that it is uncomfortable for the dog to hold on very long.   What happens when my dog finally lets go?  I reward and release back to tugging.  Thus the dog learns that if I am not engaged in the game, the sooner she is aware of this and stops, the sooner I will play with her again!  The bigger “presence”  you have when tugging with your dog, the more likely your dog will notice when you stop.  Note that if I have a very soft tugging dog, it probably doesn’t take much for my dog to stop playing when I do because I likely had to work pretty hard for it in the first place, therefore, I will allow my dog to actually “win” the game most of the time.

3) This is my favorite!  While my dog is tugging, I will give a cue for a different behavior which requires her to leave the game to perform (down, left/right, hand target, etc).  At the same time, I also disengage from the game so I don’t give mixed signals.   Once the skill is done, I release back into tug.  It is amazing the speed you will get with these behaviors when your dog realizes that the game will recommence after they comply.  If my dog chooses to continue to tug instead of offering the requested behavior, then I go back to the #2 rule because I have already stopped playing and wait for my dog to “think” about what is going on instead of giving multiple verbal cues.

I hope this helps give you some ideas for playing tug more productively and using it as a tool to enhance your training!  Happy Tugging!

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