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Controlled Tug Games: A Novel Reinforcer

Many dogs just love playing tug-of-war games. Of those who don't, most can be taught to play and end up loving it. If a dog loves doing something, what should a clicker trainer do with it? That's right, use it as a powerful reinforcer for other behaviors!

There are plenty of myths and old wives' tales surrounding tug games with dogs. Some people maintain that tug games encourage aggression, biting, and "dominance." While it is true that playing uncontrolled tug games can lead to behavior problems, the opposite is likely when you play controlled tug games.


Apart from being a powerful reinforcer, controlled tug games also exercise your dog's body and mind, teach some important foundation behaviors (self-control, holding, and letting go of objects in the mouth), and provide a fantastic outlet for the innate drives within your dog. When you learn how to teach and play tug games, you learn how to combine aspects of canine ethology and behaviorism in a practical and fun way!

Getting started

Choose a suitable tug toy. To start with we'll use a clean rag. Actually, we'll use two rags; you'll find out why in just a moment.

With an uninitiated tugger, we need to incite a bit of prey drive. How do we do this? We make our rag act like prey would act. Would prey move towards a predator? No way! Prey always moves away from a predator. Your puppy is the predator, so make that rag move away from puppy and never towards. If prey started moving towards the predator, the predator might get a little intimidated and defensive, and we want to avoid that because it will end the game faster than anything.

Prey also likes to keep the predator guessing, so that the predator is unsure of when to go in for the kill. To do this, prey changes direction often-but always away from your domestic predator.

Some dogs will play this game with just the slightest wiggle of the rag, others demand you put a bit of energy and enthusiasm into it-so be prepared to work up a sweat. We can't do ALL our clicker training from the recliner during ad breaks on television!

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Of course, your domestic predator needs to actually win this game and catch the prey to play tug-so make your prey act a little wounded and slow down just enough for puppy to pounce and take the rag in his mouth.

At this point you can click to mark the biting behavior, then pull the rag gently to encourage holding on. You don't want to yank the rag out of pup's mouth, you just want enough pressure to make pup fight to keep hold of the rag for a few moments.

Then drop the rag and pull the second rag out of your pocket. The first rag goes dead-all the fun evaporates out of the first rag. The second rag now starts to come alive. All the fun that was in the first rag has found its way into the second rag and is calling the pup to come and party!

At the instant that your dog drops the first rag, click and let him bite the second rag and play the tug game for a few moments.

Then drop the second rag, and pick up the first rag. Again, make the rag in your hand come alive and wait for pup to drop the other rag. As soon as pup drops the other rag, click and let him bite the rag in your hand.

Play the game in this fashion until your dog is reliably dropping the rag in his mouth when you wiggle the rag in your hand. This can happen in one session, or it could take several sessions. What do we mean by "reliably dropping the rag"? In five trials, pup drops the rag immediately at least four times when you wiggle the other rag.

This is a good time to add a cue, such as "give!" (note: if you are training for a sport, don't use the cue you will be using for that sport just yet). Just before you wiggle the rag in your hand, say "give!" Pretty soon pup will learn that when you say "give!" he lets go of the rag in his mouth.

"Give!" is a useful behavior for a puppy or dog to know. If pup steals your underwear out of the laundry-or your kid's homework (genuinely!)-it's very useful to be able to cue "give!" and have the item freely surrendered. Pup needs to learn that it's always worth dropping the object in his mouth quickly, and that there isn't always a rag in your hand being wiggled when you ask.

Your dog has very likely got the idea that he is to drop the rag in his mouth when two things happen together: 1. you say "give!" and 2. you have another rag in your hand. Now you want your dog to drop the rag whenever you say "give!" on its own.

Cue "give!" without another rag in your hand. If you're very lucky, pup will immediately drop the rag in his mouth, in which case you can click, pick that rag up, and play tug with it. If you're not quite that lucky, it's worth waiting for a count of five (silently). Chances are, pup will get bored and/or confused and drop the rag, in which case you can click and play tug with the dropped rag. If not, then cue "give!" again with another rag in your hand. Try again without the rag in your hand later.

Generalization: anything, anywhere, anytime

So far, your dog has learned how to tug a rag and drop it on cue. Now is the time to start introducing other objects-short lengths of hose, tennis balls, soft toys, squeaky toys, etc. You can also start playing this game in different places-different rooms of the house, front and back yards, at the park, on-leash in a car-park, outside your vet clinic, etc.

Every so often, instead of clicking and picking up the toy for a game of tug, click and treat with food, pick up the toy, wait a few seconds, then invite pup to play tug again.

A quick word on "latency"—performing the behavior quickly when asked

Some dogs won't respond immediately when you give the cue. For these dogs, it's worth investing some time early on to remedy this problem. Figure out how long your dog takes to respond to the cue; let's say it's four seconds. Give your dog five seconds to respond to your cue, and if he responds within that time, click and continue play. If he fails to respond within that time frame, end the game and try again later.

When your dog is reliably responding within five seconds in four out of five trials, reduce the time allowed to four seconds. Keep whittling down the allowed response time, second by second, until you have reduced it to under one second. Maintain that standard from then on. (For a more complete look at how to reduce latency, see Karen's November Letter on the concept of limited hold.)

Now that you have this fun game in your toolbox, think about how you might use it. Most dogs learn to really love playing tug, which makes it a great reinforcer for things like coming when called, or at the end of an agility run. If you compete in schutzhund, ring, retrieving, or flyball, think about how you can shape the "give!" into a reliable "out" or retrieve to hand.

Some dog owners have even discovered that playing tug can be an effective stress release for their dog during difficult training sessions, or at other times of stress.

Play by the rules, but above all, keep it fun!

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