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The Art of Playing Tug with Your Dog - Part 3

Tug is a great way to train our dogs and build a relationship, but not every dog takes to it right away. The third 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 common problems with teaching dogs to tug and how to handle them. 

Dog Won't Return the Toy to the Handler

This is a common problem with dogs who are more interested in owning dead toys than in fighting to kill them. There are a couple of things you can do to raise a dog's interest in play fighting while simultaneously lowering his possessiveness. If your dog is growling, snarling, or snapping when you move close to the toy, or if you feel uneasy or threatened, you need to stop toy play immediately and consult a qualified behaviorist. If your problem is mild, however, we have some suggestions.

Start by reviewing the Two Toy game with tugs. Your dog should learn that giving up one toy causes another one (that happens to be in your hand) to become very active. This process of letting one go and returning to you for the other does wonders for creating a team player.

Then, make a point of pulling your dog AWAY from your body when you play tug. This will only work with a small to medium breed of dog or with a puppy of a larger breed, so try to get the return to handler habit cemented early. When the dog wins, opposition reflex will bring him back into your space rather than away. It's you and the dog against the toy! 

If your dog is beyond that age or phase of play, then try this: working in a small space, let the dog win the toy extremely easily. The goal is to make the dog feel that the fight was so minimal that it was basically non-existent, like a 50 pound dog catching a mouse rather than a squirrel.  When there is no real fight, most dogs will appear confused; they were ready to give the fight their best shot, but then the contest ended before it really began.

After the dog is allowed to have the toy with almost no effort, back away from the dog. Get down on the ground and turn away so that the dog is looking at your side. Start talking cheerfully to your knees while watching your dog in your peripheral vision. A high percentage of dogs find this completely non-threatening and come close. Praise your dog - but do not touch the toy. 

Work on this until your dog will sit very close to you. You can start this process in the house with one of the dog's toys (not a training toy) so there is no issue with getting it back when you are done. You want to lower the dogs possessiveness while getting him to enjoy your close proximity. Make sure there are no other dogs around when you play this way, or the dog will likely feel worried about the other dog stealing the toy, creating conflict.

If you can get to the point where the dog will sit with you while he is holding a toy, the next step is to try petting the dog. When that becomes comfortable for him, get up and move away. You want him to follow you. Next, stand up, but keep your upper body oriented away from your dog.  Again, your goal is to get him moving into your space. Do not look at the toy while you move through this process, just interact with your dog. Now you can try gently pushing your dog away from you. See if the opposition reflex causes him to come back to you even more quickly!   When he becomes comfortable with this game go ahead and touch the toy (don't pull it!) and then quickly move away from the dog before he can move away from you. Continue gently pushing the dog or tapping the toy and moving away. Take your time getting to the point of asking for the toy back.

You'll be amazed at how quickly this builds up a dog's interest in play fighting, but it works because your dog learns that he will always win the toy. While this process takes place, do your formal training for food so that you don't have battles that undo all of your good work.  Eventually, many dogs will literally follow you around and push the toy into your hands to get you to engage. Now you can go back to using the toy as usual. This entire process might take minutes, days or weeks - be patient!

If your dog would rather shred the toy and eat it, select your toys carefully. These dogs do better with harder toys made of leather or jute and with no filling inside. The lack of filling helps to discourage the shredding behaviors while the hard exterior feels more like a stick for retrieving than a rabbit for eating.

Dog Wont Play When the Toy is in the Trainers Hands

Some dogs are fine with the toy when it's on a rope, but once the trainer holds the toy, they no longer find it interesting. These dogs are often sensitive to the fact that it is no longer a small toy with a few ounces of weight; it is now attached to a human being who is well over 100 pounds. 

In this case, check both the amount of personal pressure you're using as well as your technique. To reduce your personal pressure, orient your body so that the dog is more sideways to you, and allow the dog to swing behind you during play. This reduces pressure on the dog, and allows him to feel stronger while you work on his core confidence. In addition, make sure that the toy does not go dead once you have it in your hands. Work hard on your technique to duplicate the action the toy creates when it is on the long line.

Dog Plays Ball but not Tug

If your dog is an avid retriever but doesn't show the same enthusiasm for playing tug, get a toy that is designed for both. These toys are designed to be thrown first and then used for tug when your dog returns them. Examples include balls attached to a rope (Gripper balls, balls on a strap, Kongs on a rope) and Frisbees (which can be made of nylon, jute or rubber). You can also play fetch with a tug toy in order to increase your dogs enthusiasm for it when you add the game of tug back in. We recommend you avoid toys with tennis balls because they tend to encourage gnawing and wear down your dogs teeth over time. Likewise, with Frisbee-type toys, soft nylon or jute material is fine, but most hard plastic disks aren't appropriate for games of tug.

It is very normal for a dog to have a preference for either a ball or a tug toy. Games with a ball involve running and prey behavior, and less of the intense predatory drive of a dog chasing a tug toy on a line. Games of fetch don't normally involve a fight - it is a simple retrieve and return so the whole process can be repeated. Both games are wonderful depending on your interests at a given moment, so if your dog is strong in playing ball, put more time into building your game of tug - and vice versa.

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 - Further information on the authors is available in part one of the series.


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