With just a few tweaks, you can dramatically improve your dog’s play drive. You may even be surprised to convert a reluctant chow hound to an avid tugger. Read on to learn how to energize your tugging and see if it’s a motivator for your dog.
You don’t need to tug to train your dog. But rewards are defined by the dog, and if you’ve never given tugging a try, you might be missing out on a whole class of valuable rewards. Tug is a great way to build your relationship with your puppy by playing together. I love tug not only as a reward for scent detection, or obedience, but as a stress reliever to finish off on a high note after a challenge that slowed the dog down while he thought about how to solve a challenging new problem.
Check out a video of young scent detection puppies learning to tug at: https://youtu.be/UxinN1JS0XU. For nosework, after rewarding several times with food, it’s nice to break off the training with a game of tug. Try keeping the tug toy tucked under your armpit. Your dominant hand can hold the rope handle so that you’re ready to reward at source. This reward event is a favorite that many of our playful students relish, and an added bonus is that it clearly communicates when the work is done.
Tug is great because it’s interactive: you and your dog enjoy playing tug together. But if you or your puppy haven’t previously enjoyed tug, you might find it difficult to get the party started. Try these tips and see if any work for you.
Top 10 Tugging Tips
Here are our top 10 tips for increasing tug drive of your dog, whatever his or her age:
- Never shove any toy in your dog’s face! This is the most common mistake, and generally causes the dog to back away. Focus on getting your dog to chase the tug toy. Try getting down on the floor (at your dog’s level) and move the tug toy on the ground imitating the movement of prey to encourage the dog to chase it. Prey moves away from the dog, not towards the dog’s face. Run away with tug behind you like a tail, inciting prey drive.
- If your dog is intimidated by you being so close or you want to prevent accidental nips by pointy puppy teeth, try a tug toy with a longer handle that you can hang at your side, or a flirt pole (similar to a fishing rod with a plush toy at the end).
- It’s all fun and games until your fingers suffer being nipped. Long handles can prevent accidents. Choose a tug with a clearly demarcated handle and bite bar. If the whole surface of the toy is the same, the dog is equally likely to grab your hand, and may nip you by accident. In comparison, if there’s a juicy portion to bite and a boring handle, your fingers will be less likely to get injured. Being injured immediately cuts off the fun factor, even if it was accidental. The last thing you want is to punish your dog for being enthusiastic, and only you can choose the best tool. Toys with bungee cord are also helpful, since it automatically absorbs some of the impact or each pull, abating the risk of injury.
- For dogs that are initially disinterested in tugging, try a tug toy incorporating food (see below for more info). For example, the photo above shows a puppy tugging on a loose mesh material with delectable food squeezing out. Place moist, juicy, smelly food inside (e.g. liver pate). Drag it on the floor in a jerky motion, but not so fast the pup can’t reach it. When he licks or bites the toy for the first time, some of the food oozes out into his mouth. This will tend to increase his interest and he’ll want to hold onto the toy. You can buy or make your own (more information is below).
- Don’t forget to keep the tug session short. This is one case where absence makes the heart grow fonder. If your dog is new to tugging, don’t ask for more than 5 great seconds! You can repeat a few times a day, gradually building enthusiasm a second at a time. If you get too greedy to fast and push a puppy to tug for a minute or more, you run the risk of boring him so he opts out, rather than ending on success. Always stop when he still wants more. Gradually aim to work up to 30 – 60 seconds of tug, but only when and if it’s enjoyable to your dog. End on a high note, put the tug away (e.g. inside or on top of the fridge) where the dog can’t steal it to enjoy without you.
- Drop the tug sometimes – when your dog is pulling hard, handicap yourself by holding on with just one finger. Let him pull the tug, then drop it altogether to let him win. Gasp like it was an accident, then pretend to try to grab it again. If your dog never wins the game, it’s not as fun and may be stressful.
- Don’t jerk up and down vertically, but rather, move the toy on the ground (or close to it), like a horizontal figure 8. This will be less jarring to the dog’s neck. Bungee tugs help absorb the impact for you and your dog.
- Play at your dog’s level – long handles are nice, so your hands are far away from the area the dog grabs with his teeth. If you are playing with a puppy, you can walk around without bending your back and the toy is still at the puppy’s eye level.
Some dogs like to play keep away: they’ll grab the toy and run away, despite repeated calls, perhaps even to hide or bury the toy. This is certainly a bad habit, may be unsafe and is counterproductive for training. Prevent this problem by always controlling the reinforcement. Either put a leash on the dog or a leash on the toy So, either keep hold of the toy in your hand, or keep the dog on leash so he can’t wander far.
- Selecting a great tug toy is critical. Choose real fur to build on natural prey drive –dogs not only enjoy carrying it, but are also executed by the animal smell, so don’t wash it as long as you can stand it. Soft tugs are more attractive than hard tugs.
- Control the environment to set you up for success – remove all distractions. Offer play when your dog is energetic, hungry and bored e.g. first thing in the morning before breakfast. It will become a habit you both look forward to, and soon you’ll notice your dog focussing on your more, asking for interaction with you. (In comparison, if your dog is sleepy after playing in the park, after finishing a large dinner, tug is less likely to succeed.)
Shopping for Tug Toys
Where can you source unbelievable tugs? Now that you know what to look for, check out Clean Run (an agility website), and GenuineDogGear.com for tugs you can stuff with food. My go-to tug toys encompass sheepskin as shown in the photo up top (they’re soft and attractive for beginners) to buffalo (they’re more durable for rough tuggers). Colleagues tell me that a bunny pouch stuffed with smelly food like sardines on a bungee is the most likely to inspire reluctant tuggers. A cheap alternative would be rolling up old socks and stuffing them with juicy meat so that when the dog tugs he gets a tantalizing taste. You can make your own: just put a hole in a pig’s ear and tie a rope to it so you can drag it on the ground. Or make your own flirt pole with a pvc pipe, rope and washcloth https://youtu.be/aWk601UqAlw?t=52s, and get the puppy excited about chasing it. Whatever you choose, start by getting the puppy to chase the tug or lick the tug for 1 second, then build from there.
What If Your Dog Won’t Tug?
If you’ve struggle through all the tips and your dog still isn’t keen, maybe tug just isn’t for him. But also consider the possibility that distractions may be more appealing than tugging, at that time, in that training environment.
For example, when you take a puppy to an overwhelming new location, don’t say anything and simply watch the time between entering the venue and when he acknowledges you. The longer it takes to notice you, the higher his level of distraction. While dogs are challenged by processing distractions, they usually ignore food and invitations to play, including tug. Try moving further away from distractions. Or focus on tugging at home in a distraction free environment, and build confidence there. Once your dog loves tug at home, you’ll be more likely to succeed when you take it on the road, into slightly more distracting environments. Gradually work up to being able to play anywhere.
Don’t forget to play safe! When you have a fantastically high value tug toy, you need to hold onto it and not leave it alone without supervision. He might ingest the entire toy, leading to a medical emergency.
Drop It Later
You can only effectively work on one thing at a time. While you’re building tug drive, do not ask the dog to let the toy go or “leave it”. If you really need to get the toy back, you can present a cookie at the dog’s nose and most dogs will trade for food. Or let go of the first tug so it’s less interesting, and make a second equal value tug attractive by moving it away from the dog to incite chasing (known as toy “switching”). Or gently hold the dog’s collar and be still and quiet, effectively ending the fun. Or ask the dog to perform an obedience skill he does well, rewarding by either resuming tugging or hand over a food reward. But those challenges are better left to the proofing stage, after your dog loves tug.
Similarly, save retrieving to hand for another day. Setting up for exciting tug is the immediate step forward in your training plan so focus on thoroughly teaching it before you up the ante and make things more difficult.
In conclusion, tugging is a pleasurable activity for many scent dogs. Once in place, tug is a game you can play to relieve stress, amp up your dog’s interest in training, reward successes, and build engagement.
Now it’s your turn to try playing tug with your dog. Let us know how you make out.
- Clean Run – Food Stuffable Toys https://www.cleanrun.com/index.cfm?category=132
- Genuine Dog Gear – especially Animal Hide Toys https://www.genuinedoggear.com/Animal_Hide_Toys.html
- Advanced Concepts in Motivation Turning Your Reward into an Event, Video by Michael Ellis at http://leerburg.com/228.htm. Learn more at http://michaelellisschool.com
- Dog Sports Skills, Book 3: Play! (book) by Denise Fenzi & Deborah Jones (available on amazon https://www.amazon.ca/Dog-Sports-Skills-Book-Play/dp/0988781840/ref=sr_1_6?ie=UTF8&qid=1512726682&sr=8-6&keywords=denise+fenzi)