Profound Thinking at Skills Camp

Posted on 09/08/09 21 Comments

We had another great group in for skills camp this weekend. Lots of pivotal break throughs for many campers. We had some extremely experienced students and some brand new ones but all really nice people, so it makes teaching almost effortless. My staff were as always, brilliant.

At one point during a discussion on building tug-drive the question came up about the handler surrendering the toy to the dog during the game of tug-of-war. This is a practice I have never had strong feelings about one way or another and something I have never done with my own dogs.  

Michel & Pfeffer playing at skills camp.
Michel & Pfeffer playing at skills camp.

When tugging with my dogs, the only time I ever drop the toy is when I am playing the Tug-Test Game. I do this to evaluate which has more value to the dog; 1) having the toy or 2)tugging with me. During this game I drop the toy (which is on a leash so I can ultimately control it should the dog decide to run off) and see what the dog/puppy decides to do. My goal is that I have built so much value for tugging with me that my dog will immediately turn around and bring the toy back to me to continue the game he loves.  This desired response shows me where the value really is, in playing tug games with me!

The concept of building confidence in a dog by allowing him to “win” while tugging, although not something I subscribe to, it isn’t anything I have ever thought of as “wrong” or that shouldn’t be done (except of course in the case of a dog that may have tendencies towards aggression). However something happened at camp this weekend to make me think of things differently.

Follow this; when two dogs are playing over a toy and one “wins” and runs off with the toy, the other dog is considered the loser. The dog with the toy has the prize and therefore is the winner whom the other one must chase.

When I play my Tug-Test game, I am interacting, having fun with my dog then I stand up, say nothing, drop the toy and wait for my dog’s response. Projecting the 2 dog scenario here one would think I have let the dog “win” because he has the toy and I do not. But here another way to look at this chain of events, that came up at camp this weekend. What if when I drop the toy, the dog with the toy is not the winner at all? In fact, what if he is the “loser” because the fun game has stopped when he got the toy away from me? The only way he can win again is to bring me the toy, when he does, I go crazy and start to jump around and tug like a wild woman.

The key difference in my game is that I do not chase, the fun for the dog only continues when he chooses to bring the toy to me. It is the dog’s choice but in reality, I have set the dog up to choose correctly to continue to build a strong working relationship with me.

So possibly winning and losing is just our anthropomorphic way of looking at what might be going on. For us “winning” is important. But maybe if you start to think of the dog who gets the toy away from you during the game as the loser your thoughts on how important this is would change?  Just putting it out there.

Today I am grateful for the effort all of the students put into their camp experience this weekend. I know it isn’t always easy working through the struggles we are presented with on our journeys, but all of the hard work does pay off.


  1. Andrea says:
    Sunday, September 13, 2009 at 2:43pm


    We just came back from both Ron’s and Susan’s camps this week. We got in a new rescue who has been spoiled and overfed and had NO tug drive at all – and minimal ball drive (only inside and only when bounced against a door).

    We only worked her at Ron’s camp. Ron worked the tug builder method he’s referencing. Brought out 2 tug toys (they were both the same-not sure if that matters) and asked her to play. She refused. Then he wiggled in on the floor and kept it away from her. As soon as she showed interest, he took it away and hid it from her on his lap. And ignored her. Literally – that was it.

    From that point on, when the tug toys came out, she wanted to know it and wasn’t gonna let them get away again. It started with the light mouthing, win to grab, win, take and hold, win, light tug, win…etc. She caught her first “real” frisbees 2 days ago – leaping into the air and snatching them down.

    Before the camps, she wouldn’t play outside – period. It was so simple. I think we try to complicate stuff too much. We’d do a video for you but she already has tug drive now… 🙁


  2. Trudie says:
    Thursday, September 10, 2009 at 4:25am

    sorry- I didn’t mean a different breed, just a dog with mediocre or no tug drive!


  3. Trudie says:
    Thursday, September 10, 2009 at 4:13am

    The conversation seems to have stopped, wah! any more “unaccomplished handlers” like me who’d like to see more video on “for dogs with zero toy drive it works like a charm” ?
    I really appreciated Ron’s video link! I’d like to see one with a different breed and a dog with mediocre tug drive


  4. Ron Watson says:
    Wednesday, September 9, 2009 at 7:58am

    Great catch!

    I have the same aversion to mixing tugging and food and would also caution it’s usage. I would never dream of mixing food in with dogs that have any amount of toy drive. The juggling that has to be done with the reinforcement is usually counter productive.

    But for the dogs with zero toy drive it works like a charm. As long as you set the criteria at removal from the handler’s hand then a tug that is stopped prematurely does not hit the criteria for reinforcement.

    I was just floored by Julie’s methodology and it’s effectiveness. She’s a big fan of yours BTW and a great dog trainer.



    • Susan says:
      Wednesday, September 9, 2009 at 8:07am

      Yes Julie has come to several of my seminars and camps in the past and I agree, she is a great dog trainer!


  5. Ron Watson says:
    Wednesday, September 9, 2009 at 5:45am

    I think I’m really getting a bit out of control on this thread… my apologies if I’m intruding, Susan… It is kind of my thing though. Tugging/Bitework is a specialty of ours.

    Setting the criteria at pulling the object out of your hand with a low drive dog and food creates a very easy path to more aggressive tugging.

    They pull it out of your hand and they get a cookie or a trough of cookies.

    That’s as simple as a target at first. Nose touch… hit the feed bag.

    Then mark no cookie to frustrate and get teeth on the tug – handler drops the object.

    Then a slight tug… handler lets it go. Feedbag.

    Then it’s just a matter of upping the criteria with more and more resistance, always letting the dog win.

    Transferring the value of the food to removing the tug from handler’s hand.

    The food motivated dog will kill a tug in no time. In order to get the food, they must remove the object from your hand

    A friend of mine, Julie Jenkins (Fur Fun Flyball) showed me this a couple years ago. I had never, ever considered mixing food and bitework because of the additional logical layers, but in 5 minutes of work, the Bouncer was KILLING tugs. I converted (with low toy drive dogs) on the spot.



    • Susan says:
      Wednesday, September 9, 2009 at 6:16am

      Not at all Ron, I welcome your participation! I would just caution that rewarding tug with food can be a slippery slope to disaster if your timing and criteria are not good. The reason is that many dogs are better at shaping humans then humans are a shaping dogs. So what happens is the dog decides when he should get a cookie and rather than building drive you end up reward the dog for stopping his tug!


  6. denise says:
    Wednesday, September 9, 2009 at 4:59am

    When I was encouraging my very food motivated dog to tug with me, I occasionally would let the tug go and let her “win”. Every time I did this she would bounce back to me and want to keep playing so I think this technique can work. I think if handled correctly, letting a dog “win” every now and then can help build confidence especially in a dog that has been predominately rewarded with food only.


  7. Sarah says:
    Tuesday, September 8, 2009 at 10:59pm

    The first time I witnessed one of my dogs throwing a tug toy in the face of my other dog, I thought, “this is how I want them to play with ME, not each other!” and it became my goal. Mission accomplished, thanks to some help from Say Yes!


  8. Ron Watson says:
    Tuesday, September 8, 2009 at 9:15pm

    Those are excellent random thoughts.

    I’ve heard tugging described as practicing sharing the kill and I kind of like that idea. It feels that way to me when I’m playing.

    I have played with a few dogs that get a bit scary during any kind of withholding of their toy, but I tend to chalk that up to a lack of working relationship or experience with the game.

    I tell our clients,”If you get scared while tugging with your dog, it’s probably best not to do it.

    On Keep Away
    I use keep away games to build possession, a main component of the retrieve behavior, with low toy drive dogs – the dogs that don’t really want to carry a toy.

    If they’re carrying it, and asking me to chase, all I have to do is to get a good tug on it when they get close enough and let them continue to possess it. Then the game starts to be ‘getting it close enough for the tug is AWESOME!!!’. Once we’re there, it’s a done deal. The dog wants to get the toy into my hand, as that’s where the fun is.



  9. Ron Watson says:
    Tuesday, September 8, 2009 at 9:04pm

    Jan V,
    I also think it demonstrates Susan’s point as well, but there seems to be a difference in where and when the choke point in the lesson is going to happen.

    For Susan, and for many dogs, I think it’s relatively easy to get to the point of the dog wanting the interaction with the handler with one object.

    Certain dogs and solid handlers do quite well with the single object game. My first disc dog, Kimo, was a prime example. It was no problem to get him to transfer the focus of objects and to get a retrieve when we moved from single disc to multiple discs and on retrieves to the hand.

    But certain dogs and not quite so accomplished handlers do struggle with the single target and not winning, as it promotes an infatuation with possession and a broken game that is fairly inconsequent. The criteria is not well understood and the rate of reinforcement suffers. I’ve had to clean it up with teams hundreds of times.

    2 targets done well is a 2-5 minute lesson; dogs with 7 years experience at turning their nose up at another disc or with faulty retrieves or a refusal to drop, get the concept immediately. Done poorly, it’s a Herculean task that might never be completed. Of course that is true of any training.

    I think the big difference is that the game Susan laid out is a proofing exercise and not a learning exercise. The dog has not gotten reinforcement for dropping and has not experienced possession. It even says so in the name “The Tug Test Game”.

    Testing is not learning. It’s proofing. Learning happens in the homework – at the library, and in the mistakes made on quizzes and in practical application. Passing the test is the proof that the student understands the material.

    The homework in this case is biting and dropping a shared object. The homework never includes the possession of the object by the dog alone – the first time the dog sees it is when they take the test. When that part of the lesson happens, it’s happening without experience – sink or swim – proofing a behavior that has yet to be reinforced.

    I have no doubt that Susan and many other teams are quite successful with this methodology but less accomplished handlers, dogs with tons of bite/kill drive, or less drivey dogs can have problems, as their games might not be as wildly rewarding or clearly consequent. Then of course there’s threshold to keep in mind.

    The problems I see with the single tug game are that the dog is given too much control over the game and that the behavior is being proofed before it’s been reinforced. (I really do like the leashing of the target object though – that’s clever. Thanks for a great tip!)

    Both of these problems are of little consequence if the game is uproariously fun and positive. After all it’s simple back chaining, “Wanna play, put it in my hand, cuz you can’t play if we’re not sharing it.” If the game of tug is fun enough and consequent, the retrieve will happen.

    Success, reinforcement, success, reinforcement, success, reinforcement, success, reinforcement… Now prove it!



  10. Devora Locke says:
    Tuesday, September 8, 2009 at 8:51pm

    Random thoughts about Win/lose,.. Letting the dog ‘win’ was suggested to me a long time ago as a motivator. I’ve also not observed many dogs who exhibited triumph after being left with a toy that has no game left in it. Thanks for pointing that out.

    We’ve had some really fun games of chase-me once my dogs run off with the toy, though. I chase the dog, I goose her in the butt; she may run off but never at full speed and she is always looking back for me. I grab the toy back and then run away from her. Running off with the prize is just a logical progression of social interaction, imo. I’d only worry if the dog ran off, then buried the toy, or peed on it.

    I’ve seen dog-dog tug games escalate into real competitions, and have mixed feelings about their intent. Are the dogs practicing for a fight, or displacing to avoid one? Usually this occurs in a high arousal state between two dogs of similar or changing status. A human should never be perceived in that way by a dog when playing, or I’d venture to say its too soon for such games and ‘winning’ at tug all the time won’t change much in that relationship.


  11. Jan V says:
    Tuesday, September 8, 2009 at 8:30pm

    Thanks Ron for the video to followup on your dialog. I comprehend things much better visually, than verbally. Makes it quite clear that by the dog “winning” the dead toy (empty reward), he/she is really “losing” the opportunity for a fun game of tugging interaction with the handler!

    I think this demonstrates Susan’s point exactly – dog choosing to bring the toy to handler for the reward/working relationship.


  12. Ron Watson says:
    Tuesday, September 8, 2009 at 4:37pm

    If you’d like to see what I’m talking about, here’s an instructional piece we put out some time ago on foundational bitework a la Pawsitive Vybe:

    Here’s a direct link in case the embed doesn’t work:


  13. Ron Watson says:
    Tuesday, September 8, 2009 at 4:18pm

    Excellent Post, Susan!

    The winning and losing thing is very interesting to me.

    We’ve been tugging for behavior here at Pawsitive Vybe for about 5 years now.

    Your fresh perspective from camp is the foundation of our tugging game – aka foundational bitework.

    The idea is that winning the toy is an empty reward. Yay! you got it, good for you… Whatchoo gonna do now?

    The game is only fun when they’re interacting with the handler, no handler interaction and the toy is dead – and looky here! I have the live on in my hot little hand.

    I believe that with the handler always owning the toy that it is the toy that holds the real value to the dog – not the interaction with the handler. Essentially, the handler owning and not giving up the toy makes possession the key aspect of the game and new handlers wind up with a dog that would rather go off and chew the toy than stick with the handler and bite again.

    I also think that never allowing the dog to win places more value on the toy or object than it does the handler – so when I hear people talking about the ‘value stays with me’ as the rationale for not allowing the dog to win, it doesn’t ring true. The value stays with the toy and is not transferred to the handler.

    But by winning the toy and getting an empty reward, the dog returns to the handler for the fun game – the value really is with the handler. When the dog stays with the handler because the toy is there, there’s no transfer of value, it’s simply value by proximity. The quote from Patricia McConnell comes to mind,”Congratulations you’ve just elected a piece of fleece to the head of your pack.”

    As far as halting the chewing of the toy and the self rewarding during the possession of the toy, there is an old axiom of positive training that comes to mind – “It doesn’t matter why the behavior happens, just that it happens.”

    This is a tremendous problem for trainers of all stripes with training (especially games like tug and disc). We just can’t seem to get by the intent behind the behavior – “He’s only dropping it to bite it again – self reinforcement.”

    Who cares!? The drop behavior happens over and over with the chewing and possession behavior after the tug. They drop it many times during their chewing. Mark it and reward with another target. If the dog won’t re-engage with another toy, tell the dog to bite again as reinforcement. Let them self reinforce under your control – put the problem behavior under stimulus control, reinforce it when it’s happening.

    Of course this doesn’t work so well when it comes to working with one toy it’s even problematic when it comes to working with 2 different toys.

    All of our bitework/tugging is done with 2 toys. They win and get a dead toy and the handler has the live one.

    I’m starting to ramble, so I’ll just stop now and hopefully catch some additional dialogue in a little bit.



    • Liz Carpenter says:
      Sunday, January 24, 2016 at 12:19pm

      Very interesting Ron and Susan!

      My dog likes to run off with the toy (when picked up far away from me) and do a few laps/fly pasts before eventually bringing it to hand, but if I let go of a toy during tugging, she will immediately bring it to me to continue tugging. So if she is near me, she does not think to run off with it……

      The more shakeable the toy, the more she will run around with it. Gundog bumpers (which have no real life when shaken) are brought straight back……


  14. Lynn Zagarella says:
    Tuesday, September 8, 2009 at 4:13pm

    I have been working on tug/toy drive with my 3 year old Beardie Nevin since he was a puppy. Lately I have added letting him win the tug game and when he gets the tug away from me I toss him a cookie. My thinking is that he is being rewarded for pulling the tug away from me which will cause him to tug longer and harder the next time. He does not, however, like toys enough to take the tug and run from me so we don’t have that dimension of self-rewarding. Letting him win has caused his tug game to improve so, for Nevin, this has been a good thing. If I were to do the Tug-Test game with him, he would not leave with the tug, but nor would he bring it back and shove it at me… Maybe someday!


  15. Christine says:
    Tuesday, September 8, 2009 at 11:17am

    Our tugging sessions have now turned to some pretty exciting, high intensity sessions (Thanks SG & LOH) for teaching me some great tools last year. However, I don’t think my boy is enjoying the game with me quite as much as the tugging itself as he will go for a Jump around session with him thrashing and beating the tug around which causes me to call him back when in reality I would think he would want to dive bomb me to play with him again….so curious the same as ‘Wishy’ do you go back to having the dog on leash?


  16. Wishy says:
    Tuesday, September 8, 2009 at 10:23am

    So, what do you do if the dog “fails” the tug test, by shaking the tug toy and chewing on it and enjoying it by himself (self-reinforcing) instead of choosing to bring the tug toy right back to you for another game of tug? I know he’s on leash, so he would not be able to run away from you, but what would you immediately do right then if the dog chooses to shake the tug toy instead of interact with you? I also assume your goal would be to build much more value for tugging before performing the “tug test” again, but what do you do the very second a dog fails a tug test and chooses to self-reinforce instead of tug with you? (A failure of the tug test is bound to happen with some dog some time, right?)


  17. Kathy says:
    Tuesday, September 8, 2009 at 8:34am

    Most people would think I’m crazy for playing this game with first a ridgeback mix 10 years ago, and then my black lab for about 8 years. They both loved tug, catch, and retreive, and a game I call “You’ve got my xxx”…I chase them. It’s an indoor game, and I chase the dog who is carrying a toy…I encourage right and left turns, suggest different rooms to the dog who is ahead of me. I slap at their tail, pretend to grab it. The game ends when I get tired or interrupted, I go to the kitchen, exchange toy for treat, give the dog some pets and we’re done. I don’t hardly ever play where they chase me, I don’t like being the prey.I don’t want them trying to take an object away from me. Sometimes it’s fun being at the other end of the couch or kitchen island and exchanging a look then running back and forth, without an object. I guess I’m the object.

    I play tug and let them win, and they are always right back shoving the tugger against my body, or hand trying to entice me to play again. My lab is especially good at tugging in any H we’ve ever been in.

    I have a new puppy sheltie who loves tug and chase, and short distance retreives. He is teething and goes through temporary periods of less interest and intensity. I’m thinking he’ll be able to play the chase him game. He’s getting if he brings me a finished Kong, either I will refill it, or put it away and he gets one more little treat.

    I don’t know if the “You’ve got my XXX” game is a good game for relationship building for agility dogs. I love doing agility with my lab, we have fun. For us it’s a good game.

    Susan, thanks for your blog entries. I really enjoy reading them. I also had fun at puppy camp & hope I can come back to next level in November. In meantime I’ll be training puppy with one of your assistants.


  18. Erica says:
    Tuesday, September 8, 2009 at 7:18am

    It was a fantastic camp, and a wonderful time with Susan and her Team! We made so many discoveries in the much-too-short time and now have plenty of homework to do to capitalize on those discoveries. I could already see the positive impact on our working relationship, and look forward to seeing that translate onto the agility field. Thanks for everything!


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