The once-maligned game of tug is a great motivator and training reward.
Nothing is as delightful to dog owners as seeing their pet engaged in play. While dogs acting playful might seem merely pleasing, the actual power of play is highly underrated.
Back in the 1980s, tug-of-war was touted as a game that could promote and even create aggression in dogs. Many people bought into this premise; in fact, some still do.
Surely, if tugging on a toy caused aggression, we would start to see many more aggressive dogs, but the opposite seemed to be happening. The dogs started to focus more, and seemed more willing to work for their handlers.
It was never the game of tug that was a problem; it was only a problem if the dog would not drop the toy. To avoid this issue, it’s important when teaching a dog to play with toys that you also teach the dog to give on command. Say “Give” and offer your dog a treat. As he drops the toy to get the treat, remove the toy. The trick to this is that you must then offer the toy back to your dog with the words “Take it.” By doing a few repetitions of “Give” and “Take it,” you will enforce the idea to your dog that it is okay to give up a toy. Not only do you get a treat, you often get your toy back. The occasional dog has trouble relinquishing his toy, or becomes overly enthusiastic when playing tug. In this case, tug might not be the right game to play.
Why bother going to all the trouble of teaching a non-playing pooch the ropes? Tug games are often used to help shy or under-confident dogs gain some self worth. By letting this type of dog win the game, you will help build the confidence he may need to explore other opportunities in life. For the rest of the dog population, it’s a fun way to spend time with their people.
Tug toys come in many varieties. Long braided toys made out of fun fur are popular. Cut fun fur into three four-inch strips. Tie a knot at one end and braid the strips quite tight. Tie a knot at the other end. Then, for additional strength, take the whole braid and tie a knot in the middle.
You can use any number of toys to play with your dog, from a ball on a rope to throwing discs. If your dog doesn’t seem interested at first, keep trying. My own dogs took a while, and had to actually learn how to fetch and bring back a ball, but now it is a huge source of pleasure for all of us, and a great way to exercise your dog. And all my dogs are very willing to do some training as part of the fun. If you are throwing a ball or disc anyway, you might as well ask for a sit, down, spin or high five before the toss. This lets you keep the training fun, and is a motivator to do a bit of training when you’re out and about with the dogs.
The toys you play with together should be kept on top of your refrigerator when not in use. They belong to you, not to your dog. You start the game and you end it. This is the primary rule. The winner of the game is the one left holding the toy at the end. Most of the time, this will be you. Occasionally, it is fine to let the dog win. The old wives’ tale that you should always win is just that: a tale. If this were the case, many dogs would give up on the game.
How to get started
Pushing a toy into your dog’s face will often make him back away. It’s best to play hard to get. Keep this toy in a handy drawer for a week or so. For a few days, take out the toy and play with it by yourself. Toss it in the air and seem interested in the toy. Then, put it back in the drawer. About a week later, start to let your dog occasionally get the toy as you toss it around. Most of the time, it is yours to keep! Then start letting him have it half the time, then increase that. Before you know it, he will be anxious to play.
Once you have him motivated by the game, you can incorporate it into your training session. Use it as a motivator and/or as a reward. For some dogs, simply seeing their toy sitting on the sidelines, waiting for the chance for a game, is enough motivation to run an entire sequence in agility class. Using rewards in your training is the key to success, and brings out the joy in your dog. Ask him to do a behaviour before he gets to play. Ask him to sit nicely before going outside, then have a game once you’re out there. A good game can be a handy tool in your bag of training tricks.
Have fun with your dog. Teach him fun activities and enjoy yourself. After all, isn’t this the main reason you got a dog?