To tug or not to tug?

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by Mirkka Koivusalo, MSc, PhD, owner of Mindful Behaviors and co-owner of the Toronto Centre For Canine Education

Do you have a dog whose arousal level rises from 0 km/h to 150 km/h as soon as they see you grab a toy: their pupils dilate, they try their best to get to the toy by nipping, jumping and barking? Or you have a dog who would keep running after a ball forever? If you do, you have a reinforcement at your disposal that you can use to train polite behaviours with, don’t give it to them for free!

Playing tug is a concept that still occasionally causes raised eye brows, as one urban legend in dog training still seems to be that a dog can become aggressive if allowed to play tug or (heaven forbid) win the toy for themselves.  These are concepts that are very much out-of-date, and personally I use a lot of tugging as a reward for behaviours where I want speed and enthusiasm, such as long-duration heeling or recalls. But it is very true that with some dogs we have to be mindful about HOW we play tug because if we don’t implement clear rules and the dog is able to snatch the toy by jumping and nipping, yes absolutely things can get out of hand. Also because of this reason, children tugging with dogs should first happen with adult supervision only. Now lets look at the rules of tugging.

First rule: train your dog a rock-solid ‘drop’ to get the toy away from him. ‘Drop’ serves several purposes. First of all, if the dog doesn’t relinquish the toy back to you, they may end up just playing on their own and it is not a mutually engaging activity anymore. Second, for dogs who get very aroused by the toy it is important to play in short bursts, 10-20 seconds or so at a time followed by the  ‘drop’ cue so that they learn to calm themselves before the play continues again. I usually start from training ‘drop’ before any tugging to make sure that this aspect of training is in place first. There are several techniques to train it, and after having experimented with various kinds, I have found this one  to be a very straightforward one (described in this movie by Domesticated Manners): condition your dog first to the word before they have anything in their mouth by saying the ‘drop’ (or any chosen word) and then tossing a few treats on the ground. Slowly introduce a toy into the picture: when the dog picks up a toy, say ‘drop’ and again toss treats in the ground without expecting them to respond to the cue yet. Sooner or later they will start spitting out the toy when hearing the magic word.

What to do with dogs who find the toy so much more reinforcing than the treats that even if you toss pieces of steak on the ground they won’t drop the toy? You may have to keep conditioning the word a little bit longer without a toy and then first introduce easier items  for them to pick up instead of their favourite tug toy. Also having two identical toys can help, you will give them exactly the same toy as a reward for dropping the one in their mouth. Another trick that works for the type of dogs for whom the actual pulling and tugging is the most reinforcing part: let go of the toy yourself before you say ‘drop’. This way the toy has become more boring already as you are not tugging the other end and the dog is more inclined to spit it out.

Second rule of tugging: only a calm dog will get the human to tug with them. If the dog is jumping, barking, nipping or doing anything else obnoxious, NEVER give them the toy because you will end up reinforcing these unruly behaviours. You can ask your dog to ‘sit’ or ‘lay down’ or even better: just take deep breaths yourself and wait for them to offer anything polite automatically. When you see a behaviour that you like, clearly give them the green light for tugging: say ‘get it’/’yes’/’take it’ etc., and give the toy to them at their level so that the dog doesn’t have to jump to get it. Tug for a short period time, for 10-20 seconds or so, then do your ‘drop’. Again wait for any calm behaviour before re-initiating tugging. You can gradually shape the calm default behaviour into anything you want, for example a longer down or eye contact. This game with rules will teach the dog to self-regulate their arousal level and is an excellent impulse control exercise for the rambunctious types.

Can I ever let my dog win the toy? Absolutely you can in some cases. I certainly do with my older dog because it is a huge confidence booster for him to run around with the toy in his mouth and he really enjoys that. When I want the toy back, I will ask him to ‘drop’ and I pick it up. This will not work with dogs who find the toy self-entertaining and just run away with it: now the game is not a shared activity anymore. They are more than welcome to do that with their ‘household’ toys but not with the ones that you want to use for reinforcing behaviours.

Once you have established the rules of tugging, you can start using the game as a reward. Use a very special tug toy that the dog only gets as a consequence for doing behaviours for you, one that is not available to them at all times. Dog sport people take advantage of this all the time: they cue a dog to perform behaviours, followed by a tug reward. Gradually you can start asking your dog to do several behaviours in a row and then tug. For everyday manners and training, an excellent behaviour to reward by tugging is a recall! Call your dog , when they run to you out comes the tug toy. You can use a well tossed ball similarly: when your dog is running towards you, toss it in the direction where you dog is running. You could even carry a little tug toy in your pocket on your leash walks, and reward your dog for doing nice loose leash walking beside you. Games make your everyday walks and interaction much more fun for both parties and the fact that the dog has to work for the toy strengthens the bond you have with them.