The sad truth is that playing tug with dogs has a bad and, for the most part, undeserved reputation for causing aggressive responses in our best friend.
Tug can actually be a fantastic game to play with your dog, and serves a number of functions, including but not limited to:
- Teaching bite inhibition
- Relieving predatory drives in dogs
- Teaching impulse control (on/off switch)
- Improving bond between dog and human through play (which, in this trainer’s opinion, should be the goal of ALL training)
- Powerful non-food reinforcer (valuable when introducing reinforcement variety and thinning out food reinforcement schedules)
- Great work out for you and the dog!
- Burns a lot of doggy energy
- IT IS FUN!
Here is a really fantastic article from Neil Sattin’s “Natural Dog Blog” on a great technique for teaching your dog to tug.
For a different perspective, check out Eric Goebelbecker’s Dog Spelled Forward blog on tug, which features hints and tricks to get reluctant dogs to engage on the tugging process, advise on using tug as a reward for behaviors, and tips for training “out.”
Remember when playing tug, the following rules are important:
- Teeth on skin ends the game. Period. Even if the dog bit you by mistake. Dogs need to learn the tug toy is for biting and that mom, dad, or cousin Joey’s skin is not.
- Owner controls the tug. Do not leave tug toys lying around your house. Many dogs, particularly once they begin to enjoy the tug game, will end up nagging owners with demand behaviors to initiate impromptu tug sessions (pawing at your leg, barking at you, dropping the toy in your lap, etc.). Remember, you are the doorway to all good things, including a game of tug. Make your dog work for this high value reinforcer!
- A reliable “out” cue is a must.
- The tug toy is sacred. You should choose one specific toy for tug and only use it for tugging.
- Let your dog “win” often. It will build his confidence!
In Neil’s article mentioned above, he suggests lengths of rubber hose for tug toys. I’ll be honest, Mokie’s hose tugs are among her absolute favorite toys in the world. (Although she liked the rabbit fur tug better, it took her approximately .5 seconds to absolutely destroy this $20 toy.) The hoses are durable and inexpensive tug toys and the technique Neil detailed is great for using them to build tug drive and is similar to the one detailed in Schutzhund Obedience: Training in Drive by Sheila Booth and Gottfried Dilde.
You can make a tug toy at home from lengths of fleece cut into strips and braided. I like to use a longer tug (24″, generally) with a knot in the middle. The knot in the middle essentially serves one purpose – to divide the rope into “my side” and “your side.” When teeth creep on my side, game is over. This provides an extra bit of barrier between the dog’s teeth and my hands. As the dog is able to “out” the toy reliably and has mastered the art of keeping his teeth off skin, I then begin introducing shorter tugs. If you use the hoses mentioned above, a length of duct tape in the middle can serve the same function of splitting the tug into “mine” and yours” territories.
What are you waiting for?! Get tugging!