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The Art of Playing Tug with Your Dog - Part 4

Tug is a great way to train our dogs and build a relationship, but some dogs need help learning how to tug. The final article in 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 final excerpt from a chapter of their book, they discuss common problems with teaching dogs to tug and how to handle them. 

Dog is Easily Intimidated by the Trainer

Practice playing with your dog on your side or pulling your dog behind you (don't forget to keep moving - you should still seem like a squirrel who is fleeing). You might also want to try getting down on the ground and playing at the dog's level. Avoid eye contact until the dog is more comfortable and do not growl at your dog! Many dogs take this as a threat and will let go and walk away. 

Videotape, videotape, videotape! If you were a three-year-old child, would you be comfortable playing with an adult expressing your behaviors, postures and mannerisms? Are you relaxed and smiling, or do you look like tug is serious business? Work on softening your demeanor and remember that this is supposed to be fun! It helps to think in terms of the number system of energy. If your dog is giving a 3, then you want to give a 4. If you give a 10 instead, you are going to intimidate your dog and cause him to avoid you. This is a much bigger problem than not playing with the toy at all.

Dog Munches on the Toy

This problem is normally caused by lack of tension on the toy. A dog cannot munch on a toy that has constant light tension because if he does, the toy will be pulled out of his mouth. Any time your dog opens his mouth, he has just given the squirrel a chance to escape. A dog engaged in the game will not loosen his grip on the toy.

The exception is a dog who is simply trying to readjust a front-mouth bite to a deeper bite. In this case, the re-bite normally happens when there is a minor break in the game with a lack of tension, but the dog will clamp down firmly as soon as you regain tension. If you do not want your dog to re-bite, then do not allow the toy to stop moving - but be aware that a front-mouth bite is frustrating for some dogs. If you have an interest in the protection sports like IPO or ringsport, you must learn to allow and even encourage the re-bite, although that topic is beyond the scope of this book.

Dog Bites the Handler's Hands

We have seen so many dogs held responsible for their trainers poor tug play technique that we no longer recognize biting hands as a canine problem. Tug play is a mechanical skill which must be mastered, so while people may get their fingers bitten for a variety of reasons, they are almost always TRAINER induced errors.

One common error is presenting a toy vertically in the air while holding it on only one end. This makes it close to impossible for the dog to bite the toy, especially if the toy is swinging in the air.  Dogs tend to target the most obvious part of the object. If your arm, hand or fingers are the largest horizontal possibility, you risk being accidentally bitten as the dog attempts to get a good hold on the toy. Be very careful to present the toy in a manner that allows the dog to target properly. Because a dog's muzzle is horizontal to the ground, the toy must also be presented horizontally. If you are using a drive building toy, keep it on the ground so your dog can trap it between his muzzle and the ground. If you are using a training toy, present it horizontally in the air.

Another common reason handlers get bitten is failure to maintain constant motion and tension on the toy. When the toy goes dead, the dog will come forward to try and get more of the toy in his mouth, which inevitably includes your fingers. Tension on the toy makes your dog concentrate on holding rather than on shifting his grip. 

A final reason trainers get bitten is failure to hold the toy still after the release. Once the toy is dead and you have asked for it back, everything must stop. The toy must stop and the dogs mouth must stop. The dog should look up at you in expectation of either another bite or more work with you! If the dog continues to move, stand still and simply cover the total bite surface with your hands and fingers until he orients to you. Denise has done this hundreds of times and has never been bitten by anyone's dog in the process. Resist the urge to pull the toy away from the dog once he lets go. Dogs often perceive this as stealing, which not only complicates the release, but also makes it more likely that the dog will try to grab it back from you. The dog should move away from the toy; the toy should not move away from the dog.

If you consistently use the correct training toys, good target presentation, constant tension and motion while playing, and if you have trained a clean release, 99 percent of bites to your hands will simply disappear. 

Dog Shreds the Toy

A dog cannot shred a toy that is in motion, so do not let the toy stop moving. If the dog starts shredding it after he's won the toy from you, focus on getting a fast return. You can run away from the dog, lower your posture so you are more approachable and practice behaviors that raise the dogs interest in fighting with you over the possession aspect of the prey sequence. Also, consider toys without stuffing - they aren't nearly as much fun to eviscerate as toys that are stuffed.

Dog Disengages Immediately After Releasing the Toy

Disengagement is normally an avoidance behavior caused by too much pressure. When you see avoidance, go back to playing simply for the joy of the interaction. Train with food while you rebuild your personal toy interactions with your dog. Spend time together with toys, and make a point of working in relatively dull environments where there is very little to do that is more interesting.

We also see this behavior in dogs who are stressed by the environment, and whose trainer is trying to use the toy to overcome the dogs concerns. The end result is a dog who plays desperately, but as soon as the toy is gone, the dog goes back to checking out the environment for danger. Attempting to override a dogs safety concerns is not healthy because it teaches a dog to work in a frantic state rather than in a driven one. Do not start playing with your dog until he has given you clear signals that he is ready and able to engage with focus.


While this chapter cannot possibly cover all of the challenges a dog and handler team might face, we hope that the combination of detailed instruction in the earlier chapters with the addition of this problem solving chapter will help you on your way to the most positive, enjoyable, and engaging tug play possible!

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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