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The Art of Playing Tug with Your Dog

A good game of tug with our dogs should be fun, but some dogs prefer other games. The first article of a four-part series from the book Dog Sports Skills - Play! describes ways to problem-solve playing tug with our dogs. By Denise Fenzi

Having fun with our dogs is one of the many reasons we compete in agility. It's difficult to describe the feelings we experience to others after we have a great run. Getting to that point in our training requires hard work and hopefully, lots of fun for you and your dog.

Authors Denise Fenzi and Deb Jones describe play as "the amount of enjoyment generated between you and your dog". In their new book Dog Sports Skills - Play! they describe each piece of the puzzle from the different natural styles of play to problem solving along the way.

In agility, many dogs tug at their leashes before their runs. But there are just as many dogs that prefer other games instead of tug. The reasons for this are endless. Denise and Deb have graciously shared Chapter 9 with us,  "Problem Solving for Tug" from their new book as a way to help overcome some of the typical challenges we face when teaching a dog to play tug.

In the first of a four-part series, we hope sharing this information will help you find the most positive, enjoyable and engaging tug sessions possible for you and your dog.
It is difficult, if not impossible, to predict all of the possible problems a team may encounter on their way to learning how to play tug effectively. However, there are some problems that are quite common. In this chapter, we will offer some ideas to help overcome those typical challenges.

Dog is not Interested and Avoidant 

Hands down, the biggest reason dogs do not play tug is the behavior of the trainer. Sometimes trainers want their dogs to play so desperately that they aggress towards their dogs: approaching rapidly, shoving the toy in the dogs face and  expressing disapproval when the dog does not respond as desired.

If your dog shows avoidance behavior when he sees you with a toy - sniffing, turning away, yawning, lip licking and so on - do some serious soul searching. Lack of interest in toys is relatively normal in an untrained dog. Outright avoidance is not normal, it was created somewhere by someone.

You must take the pressure to play off the dog. Put all of the toys away for a period of time before starting over with the lunge line and then go very, very slowly. When you create a problem in training, it will likely take twice as long to get to your goal - one round to fix the damage and a second round to make forward progress.

Dog is not Interested, but not Avoidant

If your dog simply stares at the toy on the lunge line but makes no forward motion towards it, even after multiple exposures in a low stimulation environment, there are a few things you can try.

One method that often works is to tie a plastic bag to the end of the lunge whip. The crackling sound will get some dogs excited and moving forward. If the bag piques your dogs interest, dont let him catch it! Instead, stuff some paper towels into the bag and resume play. Now if your dog manages to get to the plastic bag, let him rip it up and shred the paper towels. 

If that doesn't work, test the dogs willingness to play in a different location. This will help you make sure there is nothing seriously distracting or intimidating in your usual environment that youre not aware of.

You can also have another person try playing with your dog. Sometimes dogs have rules with their trainers that don't exist for other people. For example, if a trainer has never allowed her dog to play in a physical fashion and then asks the dog to be wild and crazy, its common to see confusion and an unwillingness to play. 

The same holds true with dogs who have experienced a good deal of compulsion in training. These dogs often become rather passive when interacting with their owners because they are waiting to be told what the correct behavior looks like. Since playing tug is anything but a passive activity, these dogs struggle with their owners but thrive when a new person enters the game. This happens because there are no preconceived notions about right or wrong behavior with this person. If the dog shows interest with the new person, it is likely that the original trainer can take over again.

A final option is to tie a plastic bag to the whip and add food. As a general rule we do not like to add food to toy play since we believe it puts the dog in the wrong frame of mind, but when all else fails, why not?

Dog Lacks Sustained Interest in Public

A lack of sustained interest often happens when the trainer has expectations that are too high. Dogs initially play in very small bursts. When Denise first started working with her young terrier, he could not play in public for more than three seconds at a time. It was months before he could lock in on a mutual game when there were distractions. This is normal. 

Figure out what is typical for your dog, and then reduce your expectations by 90 percent. This allows you to end the game on a positive note rather than having the dog walk away or mentally disengage. Slowly increase your expectations as your dog shows an ability to maintain focus.

Meanwhile, when playing at home, double check your technique by using a video camera. Once your dog gets started, you must work hard to keep that toy no more than six inches from his mouth - any further and the dog may not feel that he can catch it. Ideally your dog will be so close that he can almost taste that squirrel if he just puts out a tiny bit more effort!  That degree of focus and intensity will help your dog learn to shut out all possible alternatives in public.

Next week, we'll discuss how to problem solve for dogs that love to chase a toy, but either refuse to bite it or put it in their mouth, and if they do mouth it, their grip is too loose to tug. 

You can purchase Denise and Deb's new book - Dog Sports Skills - Play! at

To read the additional articles in this series, please use the following links:

If you order through this website, use the coupon code USDAA1book for a 10% discount. If you purchase the three-book series, receive a 10% discount by applying the coupon code: USDAA3book. (Note there are no spaces in either coupon code and they are case sensitive.)

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About the Authors
Denise Fenzi has competed in a wide range of dog sports titling dogs in obedience, tracking,  schutzhund (USA), mondioring (MRSA), herding, conformation and agility. She is best known for her flashy and precise obedience work as demonstrated by two AKC OTCH dogs and perfect scores in both schutzhund and Mondio ringsport obedience.

While a successful competitor, Denise's real passion lies in training dogs and solving the problems that her own dogs and her students dogs present. She is a recognized expert in developing drive, motivation, and focus in competition dogs, and is known internationally as an engaging speaker and an expert in no force training for sport dogs. She has consistently demonstrated the ability to train and compete with dogs using motivational methods in sports where compulsion is the norm.

In addition to training and speaking, Denise is a prolific writer. You can find her at where she maintains an active blog on all things related to dog training. She is also an active writer on facebook; add her as a friend or follow her there to learn more about her range of interests in addition to dog training. Finally, she just completed her third book with co-author, Deb Jones. Their first book, Dog Sports Skills Book 1: Developing Engagement and Relationship, was awarded the Dog Writers of Amercica "Book of the Year" for Behavior and Training, 2013. 

Denise thoughtfully and persistently works to break down the barriers that prevent people from obtaining a truly interactive and mutually enjoyable sport relationship with their dogs. Fenzi Academy is the culmination of her efforts as a forward step in providing progressive information to any trainer who wishes to learn.

Deborah Jones, Ph.D. is a psychologist who specializes in learning theory and social behavior. She has taught a variety of psychology courses at Kent State University over the past 15 years. Deb has been training dogs for performance events for the past 20 year and was an early innovator in the use of clicker training techniques in dog training. She has owned and worked with a variety of breeds and has earned top level titles in agility, rally and obedience competitions. Her focus is on developing training methods that are enjoyable and effective for both the dog and the trainer. Her mission is to help others develop strong positive relationships with their dogs. Her favorite saying is its all tricks!

In 2004 Deb developed the FOCUS training system, along with agility trainer and World Team member Judy Keller. FOCUS stands for Fun, Obedience & Consistency lead to Unbelievable Success. They first applied FOCUS training to agility dogs but quickly realized its usefulness for all dog sports. Their latest work is The Focused Puppy which lays out a strong and systematic foundation for all future training. Deb is currently working on a series of books with Denise Fenzi titled Dog Sport Skills.

Deb has taught a variety of dog training classes, workshops, and seminars. She is really looking forward to the new adventure of offering online classes!

Deb's website is and her blog is at


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