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The Art of Playing Tug with Your Dog - Part 2

Our dogs should enjoy a game of tug, but for some dogs tug may be an issue. The second article of a four-part series from the book Dog Sports Skills - Play! describes ways to solve specific tug problems with our dogs. By Denise Fenzi and Deb Jones

In their new book, Dog Sports Skills - Play!, authors Denise Fenzi and Deb Jones describe play as "the amount of enjoyment generated between you and your dog." In this excerpt from a chapter of their book, they discuss ways that dogs may not be willing or able to play tug and how to work with your dog to overcome these problems.

Dog Wont Bite the Toy  

It is common to see dogs who love to chase the toy on a line, but balk at actually putting the toy in their mouths. If this describes your dog, then our first question is, "Are you sure you have a problem?" Denise has had several students with dogs who love to chase the toy, but have no desire to catch it. Chasing a rabbit in prey mode is a very strong drive for them, but catching and fighting simply isn't a natural part of their personalities. If they ever got close to live prey, it is likely that they would simply let it go rather than seriously attempt to catch or kill it.

Remember, to use a toy as a motivator, you need the dog to behave in a MOTIVATED fashion when the game is over. If your dog is aroused, focused and willing to work for that degree of a reward, you do not have a problem. For some dogs, the interesting part of toy play is chasing the toy, not grabbing hold and play fighting. Admittedly, it is easier to train and trial a dog who accepts bite satisfaction over prey play. On the other hand, you cannot force a dog into biting hard on a tug toy if that behavior is uncomfortable for him. You can still use your drive-building toys during training sessions and get quite a bit of benefit. Simply wait until you wish to reward your dog, drop the toy down on a line, and let your dog chase the toy for 10 or 15 seconds.  Snap it up (as if it escaped!) and call the dog back to work.

You must never forget that the purpose of a motivator is to maintain energy and fun for your sport. Don't get hung up on your preconceived notions about what a dog MUST do. Your job is not to please someone else or to meet your instructor's interests. Your job is to learn to play, train and motivate the dog in front of you. Sometimes this will look different than you had originally expected.

Dog has a Poor Grip on the Toy

This is often related to the previous problem. The dog doesn't really feel comfortable biting the toy, while the trainer tries to keep it in the dog's mouth. Rather than focusing on making the dog hold the toy, think strictly in terms of engagement. Is the dog still visually tracking the toy even after he lets it go? If so, go back to using the toy for drive-building and have fun.

If you think the dog is disengaging because he finds an alternative more interesting (for example, the dog's eye is caught by something else in the environment), then each time the dog lets go, snap the toy up and go right back to asking for work instead of play. If your dog is indeed enjoying the toy at a level which motivates him, he will begin to stay engaged longer when he realizes that the cost of letting go is the end of the game. 

Dog ignores toy.Keep in mind, however, that lack of engagement might be your dog's way of telling you that he is strong in prey interest, not in fighting with the toy. You can honor that interest by allowing him to chase without any real expectation of grabbing hold. Sometimes when the handler relaxes, the dog's responses get stronger due to a lack of pressure. In a few weeks he may be grabbing the toy with real intent.

Dog is in Pain

Another common reason dogs wont stay engaged in tug play is physical discomfort. Dogs have no way of telling us when they don't feel well. While sharp pain will normally elicit a yelp, many dogs endure chronic pain with very little indication.

If you ever notice a change in your dog's normal behavior, particularly if he played well before but will no longer engage, it's important to consider the possibility of a physical problem. The possible sources of pain are numerous: cracked teeth, normal teething, chiropractic issues, joint problems, growth issues and soft tissue injuries are just a few of the problems that may be the culprit. 

If you have ANY reason to suspect physical pain, give your dog the benefit of the doubt. Dont force your dog to do something that he is telling you he does not want to do. Sometimes it's best to take a break for a week or two and see if things improve on their own. If they don't, then you need to consult a healthcare professional. Keep in mind, however, that pain is often invisible - even to a professional. You may want to talk to your veterinarian about a trial period of pain medication. If that suddenly makes an enormous difference in your dog's behavior, you have the answer, even if you're still not sure of the cause: your dog is experiencing pain.

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:

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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 a 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 America "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 it's 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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