Today, I feel like I am only barely scratching the surface on the topic of tugging :)).
Why Does My Dog Need To Tug?
You may be asking yourself why the heck is tugging so darned important anyway? Personally, I believe all dogs should learn how to tug with their owners, but performance dogs in particular. Here are my top ten reasons why I think, without question, teaching your dog to tug is worth the investment of your time.
1. Distractions Become Insignificant While Training
Tugging is the easiest way to get your dog into a state of Peak Performance. Dogs in a lower arousal state tend to notice more “insignificant” things in their environment. It is not a wonder to me that the majority of dogs that I have seen that are “sensitive” or “fearful in certain environments” are also dogs that do not tug. If a dog meets distractions in a lower state of arousal he is more likely to register those distractions (and therefore gives him something to worry about). This is the reason I will introduce potential “scary” situations to my puppies while they are engaged in a game of tug.
2. Basic Level of “Don’t Wanna Don’t Hafta” Easily Worked Through
Tugging gives those of us that want to train without verbal or physical corrections, an easy way to teach our dogs that “you must do as I ask no matter what.” Once a dog rehearses “I don’t want to and I don’t have to” (or what I affectionately refer to as don’t wanna, don’t hafta moments) he learns that he always has choices when you ask him to do something. For example, you have a puppy in class and you want him to sit but he is straining at the end of the leash because he has decided it would be more fun to play with the dog beside him. If you include corrections in your training, you have the appearance of an “out” as you can physically intimidate the dog and “make him” sit at that time. That is not the kind of relationship I want with my dogs, plus this type of training develops a dog that does as you ask only when you are close enough to “make him.”
I use tug early on in my puppy’s life to get them to make the tough choices, “yes you may want to tug with this toy but I am asking you to tug with this new one” or “yes you may want another cookie but you must tug on this toy.” I purposely set up “don’t wanna don’t hafta moments” outside of any important training so my dogs learn at a very young age saying “don’t wanna” to me is never an option and in the future will make the tough decisions I want in my favour (i.e. I want to chase the squirrel but I hear my mama call so I won’t).
3. Weight Shift For Sports
Tugging is the first place you can encourage and grow a “weight shift” in your dog. A weight shift is a critically important skill to those of use doing agility as it makes weave entries, tight turns and driving into a stopped contact position much easier for the dog.
4. Distance Rewards
When your dog has great drive for toys you have more reward options while training. You have more flexibility when you are trying to reward behaviours away from you (like distance work, weave pole training etc).
5. Value for Responding While Working Away From You
If you only reward with food your dog will soon learn there is little value to be had when he gets outside of your “cookie throwing area.” If you try to make do by throwing a cookie container, it delays the reinforcement for the dog, thus delaying the learning. In addition, if you are just throwing the cookies many dogs learn to sniff the floor as that is where their greatest value traditionally comes from.
6. Encourages Drive
Tugging is the greatest reward for games of drive. It connects all reinforcement back to you. If you are throwing a ball as a reward, the greatest value happens when the dog is leaving you, chasing the ball and when he gets that ball, away from you. If you choose to use a food reward rather than tug to reward drive you run the risk of taking the dog out of drive as food can create a calming effect, again losing that state of peak performance.
7. Transfer the Value
For dogs who are not as keen on food, I can use tugging as a way to transfer value into food, turning the most anorexic dog into a “food obsessed” dog.
8. Simple Approach to Counter Conditioning
Tugging is a great way to condition the dog to the stimulus of touch. Get him aroused and focusing on the tug and then you can start to gently touch his shoulders, flanks, face . . . anywhere! Eventually, I like to build this up to smacking the dog (playfully of course, see video below) without him noticing. What purpose does this serve? Well the obvious, for dogs that have issues about being touched it is a great way to counter-condition that anxiety. But agility dogs tolerance to firm touching is an absolute must! Our agility dogs must confidently push through cloth chutes and rub their faces against weave poles. I had a 6-month set back in my weave training with one of my small dogs “DeCaff” before I realized it all stemmed from her not wanting to “touch” the poles with her face.
9. Focus for YOU!
Regardless if I never set foot into another performance ring again, tug would still be a pivotal part of my dog training for the following reasons. The first day a puppy comes into my household I start him tugging, it builds focus for me.
10. Learns to Work for What He Wants!
Next, I will build the puppy’s tugging up to a point where I withhold the tug until he “offers” something. This helps to build the understanding of contingencies to fun and my attention and how the puppy’s behaviour is what drives all of his reinforcement. Soon I will be asking that puppy to “out” and “get it” as I want. Teaching him there will be rules in my household no matter how much he wants something he must live within the boundaries of my rules. No need for any kind of intimidating or harsh training, my puppies learn to stop when I say stop and go when I say go with great focus on me, all learned from that game of tug.
11. Working Through Arousal
I know I said this was my top ten, but I have always been an overachiever so you get 11:). Eventually, I will purposely get that puppy into an “over-the-top,” frenzied tugging state and then ask him to sit or down. This game will help him to learn no matter how excited he gets chasing a squirrel or playing with another dog, he must always listen to what I want him to do. That understanding has the ability to save my dog’s life one day.
The Tugging Code of Conduct
Those of us who tug with our dogs in public carry a responsibility to abide by the unwritten laws of “tug etiquette.” Okay, maybe they used to be unwritten, but no more because here I am sharing my thoughts on good tug etiquette when tugging with your dog away from home.
Always keep your eyes on your surrounding environment when tugging. Sure glance back at your dog to occasionally interact and break off your tug game to initiate a new one, but your focus should be on what is happening around you. Is your dog’s tuggaciousness exciting dogs around him? Your dog is vulnerable while he is tugging as his focus is entirely on you and the toy. You need to be his eyes and watch out for other dogs that may break free from their owners to discipline your dog for having “too much fun” (we all know of dogs who feel the need to be the “fun police” don’t we?).
Mindless tugging is of no value to you or your dog, so be “in the moment” with your dog but also be “in the moment” of your surroundings so you can spring into action to protect your dog in the event of trouble. While you are scanning your surroundings be aware of dogs that may be entering the competition ring. If I was at an obedience trial I wouldn’t want to have my dog tugging with wild abandon outside the ring, that is just disrespectful to your fellow competitors. Likewise at an agility trial if your dog is a vocalizer while he is tugging, take your game away from the ring. Be aware of the dogs nearby or those just about to enter the ring and gauge how your game may be impacting their psyche. Again, err on the side of being respectful to all and showing good sportsmanship.
The Dangers of Tugging
Tugging is an amazing tool, as you can see, I would never raise a puppy without tug games but used incorrectly tugging can not only be detrimental to your dog training (due to the misplacement of great reinforcement) but more importantly dangerous to your dog. The key to tugging is to mimic the dog. Watch one dog tug with another it is more or less a game of hold on and sink your weight back into your haunches. Occasionally there may be a head shake from side to side, but the game is a far more passive between two dogs then most humans make it.
Take a look at the video. Look for the similarities between how my two dogs tug and how I tug with one dog alone. See if you can list the many ways each dog is using his or her body during the game of tug.
Try to mimic a dog when you tug . . . there is no need for you to spin, stir, shake, whip or bounce the dog around on the end of your toy when you are tugging. Doing so just adds an unnecessary risk of injury. For example, if you shake a dog up and down on a toy you are hyper-extending that dog’s neck a little with each shake. Our dog’s necks are built to have tremendous power from side to side, but not up and down. When dogs tug with other dogs you will never see one bounce the other up and down! If you are going to move the tug during your tug sessions with your dogs do it gently from side to side rather than “snapping” or jerking the dog abruptly. Likewise, I have seen people “spinning” their dogs by the toy and often I have heard a dog yelp and drop the toy during this kind of interaction. This leaves me to assume the dog’s weight was on his front end when his owner decided to spin the dog by the toy and twister or jarred the dog’s shoulder in the process.
That is not playing like a dog!
My primary interaction during tug comes from me chattering when I like what the dog is doing and by me using my free hand to engage with the dog through touch. I play a game I call “Smack da baby.” The game starts with gentle strokes all over the dog’s body gradually growing that into smacking the dog. Another way to make tugging safer is to use toys that are attached to a bungee. Bungee tug toys give and take with every tug, they are friendly to your joints and your dog’s neck.
Tugging is an amazing tool, that everyone should have available when training their dog. If you can remember to “play like a dog” you will always get it right!
Today I am grateful for how well Feature and Swagger still play together, I hope that never changes!
Update: We now have two more podcast videos on tugging that cover many of the questions asked here in the comments (and remember that our online programs are where our coaches are for your “specific to you” questions and would love to see your videos).