Tug As a Training Tool

by Jenny Turner

A lot of people don’t recommend tug as a game, but I believe it has great potential as a learning tool because it’s a game that dogs really love. The trick is that you first have to prove to the dog that you are in control. For the adult dog who nips or mouths constantly, they are probably looking to start a game – they may be particularly playful and active and need to expend some energy. So a controlled game of tug is a great energy release.

First teach the dog “give” by getting the dog to tug on a rope or tug toy, then showing the dog a treat. At the split second the dog lets go of the rope, say “give” then reward with the treat. Do this enough times for the dog to start anticipating the treat when the word “give” is said. Don’t let the games of tug get rough at this stage – we don’t really want to “play” tug yet, we just want the dog to hold the rope in its mouth.

The level of mouthing that’s allowed is zero; the dog must never touch you with his teeth. That should be an immediate end of game. Even if you offer him your hand, he should go out of his way to avoid it. Dogs are extremely quick with their mouths, much quicker than we are with our hands. Don’t ever assume that he touched you with is teeth “by accident.” Make no exceptions to this rule.

Now play the game of tug and implement a “time out” every time the dog breaks the “rules”. Meaning, if the dog’s teeth brush your hand drop the toy and leave the room, leaving the dog behind. This must be instant and consistent, and the best thing is to remove yourself from the dog – this is faster than putting the dog in a crate. It also gives a stronger message.

Also, if you say “give” and the dog doesn’t give, then simply drop the toy and leave the room. By making the dog give and retake a number of times during the game, you control the game and the dog believes you’re in charge.

I’d suggest the “time out” period be at least a few minutes, and the dog should not see or hear from you for that time. If you don’t trust the dog in the room alone for that period of time, then play the game in a room that you can safely leave the dog in by itself – e.g. bathroom, laundry, or outside in his dog run, if he has one. Be sure the dog is left in a boring place when you go, so that it will be disappointed by your departure. I got this information from a seminar I attended run by Jean Donaldson. This approach (the “time out”) is called Negative Punishment – it means removing something that the dog wants i.e., the game. Don’t worry about the fact that you’ve left the dog with the toy – a rope is just a boring old rope without someone pulling at the other end.

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