Does your dog play? Most people will answer this question based on whether their dog tugs or not. Tugging is somehow considered to be essential part of sport dog training and it is commonly accepted as a definition of playing with the dog. However if you ask me, playing has no definition. It can be any kind of activity that serves no particular purpose rather than having fun. But that is the topic for another article. Because the truth is – although I don’t think playing IS tugging, I do believe that tugging is a nice and useful game most dogs can enjoy. It is far more personal than fetching balls and it can help boost dog’s confidence and improve your relationship. Throughout my years as a dog trainer I have seen a whole lot of frustration around this fairly simple game. Frustrated owners, because their dog wont “play” and frustrated dogs because their owners don’t know how to play properly. So if your dog doesn’t like to play tug with you or they have no intention of coming back with the toy after they have just won the tug-of-war, keep reading. You might be doing one of the following mistakes…
… so the 5 most common tugging mistakes are:
- WRONG TOYS
Dogs without strongly developed pray drive will not bite like crazy into just about anything. It is generally more pleasurable for them to bite into something soft and big. So try to avoid small, hard toys and go for big, soft and squishy ones. Of course there are exceptions to every rule, so if your dog just LOVES that chewed up piece of hard rope, go for it. If not, try to see if he would go nuts for something fluffy, possibly even made out of a real fur.
- SHORT TOYS
When tugging it is quite important that the dog has nice, big, clear surface to bite in when tugging. Holding a very small toy in your hand puts a dog in a difficult position. The careful ones will rather not bite than bite your hand. The reckless ones will just go for it and they might end up biting your hand instead of the toy. Yeap, not pleasant at all. But be careful, your “war cry” might discourage the dog from playing. If it doesn’t… well than you might get discouraged yourself because the playing just hurts so f… much. But there is more to this issue. It is the size of the dog. Unless we are playing with a truly big dog, short toy means that we are either leaning over the dog the whole time or we are keeping his front feet in the air as he holds on to the toy. None of it is a problem by itself, but both situations mean that we are putting pressure on the dog and it can simply be too much for some dogs. So if your dog is not very big and especially if it is a sensitive one, you both will be better off playing with a long toy, so the dog can feel confident, not being “trapped” under you the whole time. Playing while kneeling/sitting/lying on the ground is a great solution as well.
- THE SUICIDAL BUNNY
Yeap… that one. How often do you see a rabbit just waiting patiently in the bushes and than jump up straight in front of your dogs face? I would guess never. And even if that were to happen – I would bet that most dogs would be so shocked about the whole thing that they wouldn’t know what to do with it. Well sure, some would cut it in half, but we are speaking about majority here. The fact is that chase is what fires up the dog. The longer and more exciting, the better. So if your dog doesn’t react when you wiggle the toy in front of its face – make it RUN away. The faster the better. No waiting. Keep going until the dog bites hard. That is when tugging can start. The truth is – there are “fighters” and “chasers” in this world. Usually the dog possesses a combination of both drives, however they are usually not equally strong. The “fighters” naturally prefer the interaction, taking something from someone. Every object is more interesting if you can wrestle someone for it. But those are usually not the dogs that have any difficulty tugging. On the other end, “chasers” might need some stimulation, before they are ready to bite and pull. So help them wake up the hunter in them… and the tugging part will be much easier.
- SHAKE, TWIST and LET GO
What happens when the dog finally bites into the toy and you are both holding it, is the heart of this game. Very often I see people pull, shake and wave the dog around enthusiastically until they decide it is enough and they let go of the toy suddenly. But is that really tugging? No. It is simply holding on to the toy until the human gets bored. It is pretty much like pulling on a rope attached to a tree, only even a bit less enjoyable because of all that shaking around. What is real tugging – it is a power exchange. It is a relationship. Showing the dog that you are going for that toy, but then allowing the dog to go for it with all he has got as well. So proper tugging is not just shaking the toy, it is about putting pressure on the dog but also allowing the dog to put pressure on you and take control over the game. It has to be interactive – so how to do that without constantly moving the toy? Things you can do to engage your dog more and to put pressure on him are: holding the toy closer, looking at them, bending over them, lifting the front end from the ground, touching them. So when you are doing any of those things, you are in control and are telling your dog that you are strong and will win this game. When you feel resistance (your dog pulling strong) you have to let the dog take control for a while. Look away, move the dog to your side and let him increase the distance between you two by allowing the toy to slip through your fingers little by little as the dog pulls. Before you loose the tension in the toy, you can either “regain” your strength and apply more pressure on the dog, or you can let the toy go completely. So dropping the toy doesn’t come as a shock, but as a consequence of the dog pulling hard and making you loose control over it. If you let the dog feel strong and in control, it is far more likely that he will happily bounce back to show you he is the boss again rather than you just shaking him and letting go when it suits you.
- END IT BADLY
You should never be afraid of letting the dog win. Very often people won’t let their dog win because the dog will run away with the toy and not come back anymore. Sure, it is hard to continue playing like this. But if you never let your dog win, then what is the point of playing? Imagine how much motivation you would have for playing a game you always loose at? So be prepared. Don’t try to pull the toy out of your dog's mouth, or replace it with a boring treat. Keep the party going. Let the dog see that you are the one that makes things fun. Use food as a toy, throw treats around, encourage the dog to chase it and keep him busy while you eventually get hold of a toy and continue playing. Or use two identical toys and switch from one to another. It is not about the toy. It is about the interaction. Let your dog know that you don’t really care about his toys, but the toys are boring without you. If you manage that, retrieving will come easy.