Old view, new view
The old school of thought was that playing tug with your dog would teach him to be "dominant" and should be avoided at all costs. And it is not surprising that this viewpoint still exists. Poorly executed tug-o-war games often excite dogs with low thresholds for arousal, dogs that are fired up easily. They can also provoke dogs into becoming rough with their bodies and/or mouths, to the point of intense assault against the person at the other end of the tug toy.
With a better understanding of the physical and mental needs of dogs, many of today's behavior and training experts consider teaching tug a useful tool for motivating dogs, as well as for helping impulsive and busy dogs actually learn to calm down and control some of those intense impulses. It is how the tug game is trained that determines whether your dog learns to escalate the intensity of the tug game too rapidly (which is what makes the game risky), or learns to "turn off" when you ask him to stop playing.
Teaching tug correctly is like having an off and on switch for your dog whenever you play this rousing and interactive game. Having that type of control over this delightfull game for our canine friends can counter the "dominance" ideas that are raised when the tug-o-war game is discussed.
The underlying benefits
Teaching tug is a wonderful game for all dogs and, when trained correctly, truly benefits dogs that are easily aroused or impulsive. This training forces those dogs to "think" about the process (a great mental exercise), rather than just going over the top with excitement.
The game also teaches dogs how to calm down between tugging sessions. Dogs get plenty of physical exercise in the process, an added benefit that helps any dog settle down after the great workout tug-o-war offers.
Preparation for the game
To teach tug you will need a clicker-savvy dog, a clicker, a stash of medium-value and high-value food rewards, a hungry dog, and a soft tug toy. Try to find a tug toy that is easy for your dog to get his mouth around, one that feels nice when he bites down on the toy, as opposed to hard rope toys. If your dog tends to get mouthy when you play, a longer tug toy will help keep your dog's mouth away from your hands as you teach.
Tips to review before you start:
- Train in a low-distraction environment so your dog can concentrate on the lessons. You can move your training to areas with more activity after you have completed the entire exercise and your dog can tug and release successfully.
- Start this game sitting down, which will imply less excitability to your dog than standing. Be sure to have all of your equipment ready when you bring your dog into the room to train. Hold several of your treats in one hand along with your clicker, hold the tug toy in the other hand, and have the balance of your treats easily available so you can dip into them as you run out.
- Be sure to put the tug toy away after each round, as you want your dog to think it is pretty special, and not just another toy that he has access to all the time. That strategy will keep your dog's interest when you bring out the "special" toy each time.
- Keep your sessions short (2-5 minutes) so that you leave your dog wanting more. You can progress through the steps quickly, but make sure you are taking lots of breaks in between so that your dog can rest up for the next round.
- If your dog has shown signs of aggression over toys, contact a positive reinforcement trainer to help you deal with the issue before trying to teach the tug game.
Tug #1: Show your dog the tug toy
and click as he looks at it.
Round one—let's go!
You will teach your dog the end of the behavior first, the release of the tug toy. This is called back-chaining. You want to train the release first in order to make letting go of the toy the strongest part of the behavior. Concentrating on this element will help your dog stay calmer. He will be able to focus and listen to you, rather than spiraling into a frenzy.
Have your clicker and several medium-value treats in one hand (and behind your back if your dog is overly focused on treats). Show your dog the tug toy, and as soon as he looks toward it, click and hand him one of the treats as you withdraw the toy. For now, all you want is for your dog to believe that looking at or toward the tug toy will make you click and treat. Be sure to hold the toy still so that your dog does not become overly excited by the toy. Repeat this step until your dog looks at the toy 5-10 times in several locations successfully.
Trainer's note: If your dog has a strong reinforcement history of playing over-the-top tug games, and is grabbing at the toy as you present it, click faster so he doesn't get a chance to grab it until you are ready. You want your dog to begin from a calmer place as you teach. Grabbing and tugging without mastering the initial steps will set back your training plan, as your dog will be thinking about playing and not thinking about training.
This time hold the tug toy closer to your dog and wait to use your clicker until your dog actually touches the toy with his nose or puts his mouth on the toy. It's okay to hold the toy really close to him so that he can smell it or mouth it. As soon as he touches it or puts his mouth on the toy, click and reward with your food treat. Do this 5-10 times in several locations.
Feel free to add quiet praise such as "good dog," after you click and as you reward your dog. Don't be effusive with verbal enthusiasm, however. Adding excited praise can over stimulate and energize your dog.
Next, you can raise the bar a little. Hold out for a little more interaction with the toy, or for your dog to actually put his mouth on it if he hasn't already. The goal now is to get your dog to bite the toy first, and then to hold it while you gently tug before you click. Click and treat after 1-3 seconds of light tugging on the toy. Try not to move the toy around much; just allow your dog to tug back on it.
As your dog places his mouth on the toy, the click tells him he did the correct thing, and the food that follows encourages him to let go of the toy. Repeat this step 5-10 times in several locations before moving on.
You are ready to progress to round two when your dog is anticipating the food reward and releasing the toy successfully as you click. After you have reached this point, say "all done," or use another word or phrase to tell your dog you are finished. Place the toy out of your dog's sight until you are ready to train again.
Round two—verbal release cues
Move to this round anywhere from a few minutes to several hours after completing round one. It is important to continue the training within that time frame, as animals learn faster by training for short times, taking a break, and then coming back to it later the same day. Do not overdo your training, however. Leave enough time between sessions so that your dog is excited to train and is hungry and rested before starting again.
Now, and anytime you begin a new session, go back to the last successful step and do some warm-ups at that level. Two or three clicks and treats should get your dog back into training mode. To keep the game at a manageable level, continue to train while sitting down.
After your warm-up session, it's time to teach your dog how to release the toy before your click and treat. Up to this point, you have been clicking after your dog takes the tug toy, and the click causes him to let go and receive his reward. Now you will use a verbal cue to indicate to your dog that he should let go and hear the click.
Have all your equipment ready, with your clicker and reward in one hand and the tug toy in the other. Use your high-value treats this time, as you need to be more important than the toy as the games progresses. Be sure to have some special rewards in your mix of treats.
Hold the toy out and wait until your dog's open mouth touches the toy. As soon as he takes it in his mouth, announce a verbal cue such as "out," "drop," or "okay," and then click immediately after your verbal cue. Your dog should release the toy to get the treat after your click.
As soon as your dog eats the treat, present the toy again, gently tug for 1-3 seconds, say your release cue, and click immediately after the verbal cue. Do this about 5-10 times with the verbal cue ahead of the click, and then announce "all done." Put the toy away and take a break for a short time.
Practice at this level several times in different locations before moving to round three. You want the release cue strongly associated before the click before adding duration to the tugging.
Tug #2: When your dog has learned
to let go of the tug toy on your release
cue, you can add more excitement to
your tugging. Remember to stop before
your dog gets too excited.
Vary the amount of time before you say your verbal cue and click, keeping the range within 1-3 seconds. If you delay too long between your dog mouthing the toy and the verbal cue, your dog could begin to tug back and become so excited that the release cue becomes ineffective.
When you see that your dog is anticipating the click, say your verbal release cue, but this time withhold the click until he lets go of the toy. Be sure not to repeat the release cue; just wait to see if your dog is able to switch the association from the click to the release cue. To facilitate this learning, when you say the release cue, free the pressure on the tug toy by pushing it toward your dog, rather than pulling back.
If your dog is able to release the tug toy at this point, click, treat, and then give him lots of praise. Repeat 5-10 times, using the verbal cue before the click and treat, and then say "all done," and put the toy away. Be sure to repeat this step several times in different locations before moving to the next round.
Trainer's tip: If your dog doesn't let go with the release cue, say "all done," step back, and return to the step where you say your verbal release cue and click immediately to get him to let go. Stay at this level until your dog is releasing on the verbal cue, not clicking until he has let go. If you are still having problems, try a shorter tug session of only one second, or improve the food rewards.
Round three—more tugging and the "tug" cue
Here's where you actually get to tug a little more with your dog.
Since your dog has progressed through the earlier steps of this exercise, you can stand up as you train this next round. If you have any difficulty with your dog getting overly excited, you can always sit again to reduce the excitement and/or do shorter sessions of actual tugging.
Keep the intensity of the game low in these early sessions so that when you do start to tug, your release cue comes after just a few seconds. You want your dog to get a little excited and then be able to calm himself before you play again. If you add excessive tugging too early, your dog may not be able to stop the game when you ask. Take it slow for the best success.
Use high-value rewards again as you add more intensity to your tugging. Using special food rewards ensures that your dog lets go when you ask.
Be sure to warm up first, to make sure that your dog still understands that your release cue means let go. If he doesn't let go on your release cue, go back a step and practice until your dog can let go of the tug toy on your verbal cue.
Each training session should follow these steps:
- Present the toy
- Tug 1-10 seconds (keep in mind your dog's arousal levels and adjust accordingly)
- Say your release cue and remove any pressure on the tug toy
- Click after your dog lets go and then reward
Take little breaks (5-30 seconds) between each session so that your dog calms down before you tug again. Your dog will learn that after a little excitement, he can relax his body. For doing so, you will reward him by playing again. Be sure to stand quietly during these breaks, even taking a few deep breaths of your own to send a clear signal that it's time to calm down.
Repeat these steps 5-10 times in several locations. If all goes well, try moving the toy around a little more while it's in your dog's mouth. Again, do not get too carried away with the amount of time you tug just yet. You want to ensure that your dog can readily come off the excitement at these low levels before adding more time.
Tug #3: After your dog has learned to
release the tug toy, ask him to sit orlie down
between sessions. He shouldwait until you
ask him to tug again before getting up.
Adding the "tug" cue will be easy, as your dog is now skilled at putting his mouth on the toy and then letting go to get his reward when you ask him to release. Add the "tug" cue right before you present the tug toy, saying "tug" or "take," and then presenting the toy.
Tug with your dog a little, say your release cue, and click and reward after your dog lets go. Do this 5-10 times in several locations and then say "all done," and put the toy away.
Do at least two or three more sessions at this level in several locations before moving forward. Be sure to vary the amount of time and the level of intensity as you train so that your dog never knows how long you are going to play during any session. This will help prevent your dog from anticipating the longer, more intense sessions, and help keep him calmer as you train.
Round four—getting rid of the clicker and fading the food
By now, your dog should be experienced at taking the toy on your "tug" cue and letting go of it on your release cue. If at any point your dog is unable to respond to your cues, refer to the problem solving section at the end of this article, or return to earlier rounds before moving forward.
You can now try saying your release cue without clicking, replacing the click with praise and the reward. Since you are changing the criteria, lower the intensity and interval of your tugging. You don't want your dog to be so excited that he cannot respond to the change. After you tug for a few seconds, say your release cue and then praise and reward after your dog lets go of the toy.
If your dog releases the toy, that's great. If not, go back a few steps and make sure you have success with your "tug" and release cues before trying to get rid of the clicker.
If your dog has progressed to tugging without the clicker, you can start to fade the food treats by using the act of tugging as the reward.
How to fade the food treats
- Give your "tug" cue
- Tug for a few seconds
- Say your release cue
- Praise your dog after he lets go
- Immediately give your "tug" cue again as you present the toy to play again
Now the reward is getting to tug again! At this stage it's important to say "tug" as soon as your dog releases, so that tugging becomes a strong reinforcer.
Stay at this level for 5-10 rounds in several locations before moving on.
Round five—calm between tugging sessions
Once your dog is working for the reward of tugging, you can begin to ask for another behavior such as "sit" or "down" after your dog has released the tug toy on cue. This teaches your dog that sitting or lying down is now required after the release of the toy, and, for doing so, you will play again. This combination of behaviors will become a chained behavior that results in the reward of tugging again.
After you have mastered this combination, you should be able to add more intense tugging, with a sit or a down always following the release cue to ensure that your dog calms after each arousal. Keep your sessions short, until you see your dog anticipating the tug reward by planting himself in a sit or down after your release cue.
When your dog offers a sit or down on your release cue reliably, you can begin to add duration and intensity to your tug sessions. Remember that the idea is for your dog to calm down between tugging. Stay at a comfortable level, a level where your dog is having fun, but is not overly excited. The result will be a dog that you can turn "on and off" when you want him to start and stop playing.
Question: What if my dog jumps up and grabs the tug toy without the "tug" cue?
Answer: There are several reasons that this happens, but it is usually because early steps were skipped or not trained well, or because your dog is overly excited by the duration of the tugging.
If this does happen, let your dog have the toy and walk away. Do not chase him or give him any attention, just pretend that you don't care. Once your dog realizes that you are not going to play, he should drop the toy. Put the toy away for awhile, and then go back to the beginning of this exercise and work forward again.
Do several repetitions of each step before moving ahead. Allowing more time between sessions will help your dog relax more, too. Finally, make the actual tugging times shorter to avoid the overly aroused state, and/or use better treats.
Question: My dog takes the tug toy on my cue, but won't let go of it. He seems too excited. What do I do?
Answer: To get the toy back, move your hand closer to the dog, releasing the pressure on the toy and stopping the tugging. Step really close to your dog and gently hold his collar so that he is unable to move around with the toy. Continue to hold the toy, but keep the pressure off the toy by gently pushing it toward your dog's mouth rather than trying to pull it away. This will stop the dog's reflex to tug back.
Continue to hold your dog's collar, and remain very calm. Take a few deep breaths, and then just wait. Your dog will get bored when nothing happens and will release the toy after a bit. Once he releases the toy, don't grab it and fling it away, as that will get your dog right back into the game-the opposite of what you want.
After you have the toy back, say "tug" immediately, play for just a couple of seconds, and then say your release cue. If your dog again won't let go, return to releasing the pressure, holding his collar, and waiting. As soon as he does let go, say "tug" again so that he gets the idea that letting go will get you to play again! Once you have a successful release without having to hold the collar, play one more "tug" and then say "all done."
You may also want to use your clicker to mark the correct behavior as soon as your dog releases the tug toy. Be sure to use your high-value food rewards when he lets go, showing him that it was the release that earned the click and the reward. You can then go right back to tugging as a bonus for letting go.