Tugging As A Dog Training Tool

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I have been working on down/stay/release and recall this month with an awesome and super smart dog. (I know, not unlike lots of other dogs I have worked with.)

In training, I talk a lot about building value for behaviors by using reinforcing consequences that are of huge value to the learner (to the learner are the key words). For this sweet boy, tasty food like chicken and cheese are pretty great but tugging trumps everything.

And so, as I began teaching ‘release’ as the last part in the behavior chain of sit or down, wait, then release; I have been using the opportunity to tug a lot as the consequence to releasing on cue. As we have been building on this, I have been mixing things up though so he often will not know whether his getting up from a down and running to me will result in a good, short game of tug or a piece of tasty food or a short game of chase.

There are many directions I could take this post from here. I thought I’d write about tugging today because it can be a powerful tool in your reinforcement toolbox during training.

tugging with your dogFirstly, I’ll address a common statement. I have heard many times that tugging can make dogs aggressive or allows dogs to assert dominance over people.  Here is the thing. Dogs already have predatory energy. It is part of who they are, and tugging – properly, with rules – gives dogs a release for that energy.

Some Benefits of Tugging. There are many.

Tugging strengthens behaviors…and relationships. A few weeks back, I wrote about how classical conditioning affects emotional states and training.  With enough pairing of a release cue and an opportunity to tug, your dog will come to associate the release cue with the awesome fun, which will in turn mean that the stay will become associated with the positive emotional state of the release cue. Of course operant learning (meaning your dog is also learning that good consequences happen when he stays until released) is also at play. And likewise, with you on the other end of that tug toy, you will become associated with the fun opportunity to tug too, which adds to your dog’s reasons for wanting to listen to you. A double whammy of goodness!

Tugging is an outlet for redirecting inappropriate use of teeth. Tugging (again, properly with rules) not only gives dogs and puppies something appropriate to mouth, it is great exercise as well. And we know the benefits of exercise as it relates to behavior problems.

Distractions are less important. Dogs in lower arousal states will notice more of what is going on around them, and is more likely to register those distractions. Think about yourself, and how, when you are really focused on something that you are not thinking about your stressors.

Tugging properly with rules is great for teaching self control. When you teach your dog that the game starts with your cue, stops with inappropriate play, and ends on your cue, you are teaching your dog valuable skills in impulse control. And the great part is, your dog won’t even know you are in class!  He/she just knows it is all about having fun.

What are tugging rules?

Rule One
Tugging begins only when the human cues it. This means your dog will not start the game on his own by bringing you the toy or grabbing for it while you are holding it. I like to use ‘get it’ as this cue. As soon as I say ‘get it’, I present the tug and make it super enticing for the dog to want to play.

Rule Two
Your dog should drop the toy upon your cueing him.

To teach this, begin by giving your dog the cue (I use ‘get it’), and before your dog’s arousal heightens (after just one or two seconds), hold the toy firmly and still, say your release cue (I use ‘out’) and then present a very high value piece of food near his mouth. The second he releases his grip, mark that with a verbal cue like ‘yes’ or a clicker and give your dog the piece of food.  Later, keep your food behind your back until he let’s go and then give him the food…and you can also offer another game of tug. (Remember – to give your cue first to begin the game.)

Once you teach Rule Two reliably on cue, then you will need to proof Rule One, meaning, practice swinging the toy around and if your dog goes for it, the toy should be taken away. Only when you give the cue will the game begin. You can also ask for a control behavior first like sit, then release the sit with a cue and then say ‘get it.’

Rule Three
Game stops before your dog becomes over aroused and also if your dog’s teeth touch your hands. Stop the game with your out cue.

Short games of tug, between 3 and 10 seconds, will keep you both focused and will leave your dog wanting more.

Rule Four
Test all of the rules. Not following them means there will be no tugging. Period. But give your dog more opportunities to succeed. With consistency, your dog will learn the rules and you will have a great opportunity for mental and physical exercise, strengthening your relationship, and fun!

Rule Five
As you advance, teach your dog that it is controlled behaviors like sit or down that lead to more games of tugging. Teaching your dog to calm himself from arousal is a great skill.


Okay, now you’ve got the game rules. Now go out there and have fun!


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