Tug-of-War: Do it right and keep it fun

Tug can build impulse control and awesome obedience skills!

First, forget the myth

For decades, dog owners have been told never to play tug-of-war with their dogs because it increases aggression in the dog. This isn’t true—every study done refutes the notion. Playing tug-of-war doesn’t turn your dog into a predator; he already is one. The game simply provides a safe and enjoyable outlet for the behavior.

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Why it’s a good idea

Tug-of-war is:

  • A tremendous cardio workout and brainteaser for your dog.
  • A great way to teach your dog to listen to commands even when excited and distracted.
  • Exercise that can happen indoors, outdoors, in short sessions, and with little space.
  • Likely to lessen any behavior problems resulting from under-stimulation and boredom.
  • A potent motivator for snappy obedience.

The caveat

Tug-of-war, however, should be correctly trained and always played by the rules. Remember: Control the game and you control the dog. Follow the method and rules laid out here, and you are in for a great time with your dog:

If your dog hoards the tug toy, show zero interest. If, when your dog “wins,” i.e. you let go of the tug toy, he leaves and hoards the toy, play hard to get. Never chase your dog or get into a battle involving speed or agility. You won’t win and psych-outs work much better, so pretend you couldn’t care less.

Notice and reward steps in the right direction. If your dog tries to re-engage you in the game by dropping the toy in front of you, praise him and try again. The goal is for your dog to learn that the tug toy is infinitely more fun when brought to life by you than when dead. Patience is key here, especially with inveterate hoarders.

Before playing tug-of-war

Put the release on command.

Decide on a release command such as “Out,” “Give,” or “Drop.” Before getting your dog excited about playing tug for the first time, practice some low-key exchanges with him. The sequence is:

  1. Give the cue to release
  2. Your dog releases
  3. Give a food reward
  4. Give the cue to re-take the toy

Teach this: Start by trading for a treat. Give your release cue first and then hold a treat at your dog’s nose; when your dog releases the toy he gets the treat. After enough repetitions, your dog will begin to release the toy after you have cued his release and before you have brought out the treat. Immediately reward this great behavior! At first the reward will be the treat, but over time the reward will be another fun game of tug.

Every game has penalties.

During actual tug-of-war games, apply the following penalties:

A 30-second time out. For any failure to release the tug toy, stop play and leave the room for 30 seconds.

End the game. For a game misconduct like grabbing your clothes or your hand with his mouth, stop the game altogether. Don’t make the mistake of thinking this was an accident. Dogs can have exquisite control and I don’t believe that mistakes happen often.

When your dog knows, loves, and is hooked on tug-of-war, ending the game abruptly is by far the most potent motivator against rule breaking.

The 4 tug-of-war rules.

1. Your dog has to release the tug toy on command.  Of course, you have thoroughly trained the release command, so any failure to  comply should result in a stop play penalty.

2. The game only happens when your dog is sitting and you say so. Designate a tug toy as the one-and-only tug toy, reserved for this game only. Decide on a take command such as “get it!”  Then teach your dog that he has to sit before being given permission to get the toy.

The easiest way to train this rule is to practice it while playing. Wait for or ask for a sit. Show your dog the toy. If your dog gets up or goes for the toy before you have released him with his “take it” cue, the toy goes out of his reach or behind your back. Stand neutrally, quietly and calmly and wait for him to sit again. Once he has, release him to get the toy and have a short fun tugging game. When he gets good at the game, add additional time he has to wait before he’s released to get it, and then add distractions, such as waving the toy near him or slapping it on the floor while he remains in the sit and waits patiently with anticipation and excitement.

This rule infraction is extremely common in tug-of-war games, so don’t sweep it under the rug. If your dog continually goes for another retake before being invited, or is extremely aroused and is jumping all over you instead of sitting and waiting, end the game for a short period of time.

Building impulse control, where your dog is reinforced for making a good choice, is   an important part of the “It’s Your Choice” lifetime program for your dog.  (Check out this previous blog article).

3. The game stops often for obedience breaks and calm behavior. Tug-of-war is one of the great recyclable rewards for obedience training. Alternate back and forth between the tug game and obedience to spot-check your control over your dog during the game and to teach him obedience when he is excited and distracted. This also teaches him to go from high arousal to a calmer behavior, which is an important concept for dogs to learn. Every initiation of the tug game is a potent reward you can use to select a particularly nice obedience response. Your dog will try fanatically hard to improve his obedience to get you to restart the game. For example, try using it as a valuable reinforcer for exercises such as coming when  called. What’s more, through repeated association over time, the two activities will blur in your dog’s mind, eventually making him love obedience training.

4. Zero tolerance of sloppy jaw control. Your dog will sometimes make contact with your hand or other part of you. Sometimes he might even latch on to you or your clothing as though you were a tug toy. Don’t let this go unnoticed. Screech “Ouch!” even if it didn’t hurt and abruptly end the game. This is game misconduct every time. Dogs can control their jaws with great precision if given a reason to do so. (Don’t use the loud “Ouch!” if it excites your dog more.)  With this rule you not only remind your dog of the sensitivity of human skin and the great necessity to keep his jaws off people at all times, you have also trained this while he is excited.

That’s it. Now have fun with it.

If your dog isn’t breaking any of the rules, let him get as excited as he wants. This includes head shaking, strong tugging, and growling. But maintain the rules through constant practice and testing.

Does the name Pavlov ring a bell?

A powerful tool to change your dog’s behavior.

This morning, after a ferocious clap of thunder, I was reminded of the power of classical conditioning.  Most of us know the story of how Ivan Pavlov in 1902 showed how classical conditioning can be used to make a dog salivate to the sound of a bell. Every time a bell was rung the dogs in his lab got food. After a number of repetitions of this procedure, the ringing of the bell caused the dogs to salivate even before the food was presented. The dogs had learned to associate the bell with the food. This response was learned, or conditioned, so it is called a conditioned response.

Pavlov also discovered that for the association to be made, the two stimuli had to be paired together closely in time. For all of you science wonks out there, this is how it works.

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Every time your dog runs into the kitchen at the sound of his bowl because he knows it’s dinner, gets excited when you pick up the leash because he associates it with a walk, gets anxious when you pick up your car keys and purse because he know you’re about to leave, gets happy when you pick up the clicker because he knows a training session is about to begin, or growls and barks at another dog because one time he was attacked, are all examples of classical conditioning.

So what does all of this have to do with thunder? In some dogs the sound of thunder may send them cowering under the coffee table. Early life experiences can contribute to sound sensitivity.  Very young puppies have little or no fear of novel sounds and experiences. From 3 weeks to about 8 weeks of age is an ideal time to introduce puppies to all kinds of sounds. Sounds they hear at this age, especially paired with something positive, will most likely not be scary later. As they get older, fear can increase. Puppies that are given early and positive experiences of novel sights and sounds are less likely to develop problems down the road.

Desensitization, gradually increasing the intensity of the stimulus while keeping the dog below the fear threshold, is often paired with classical counter conditioning (changing the association of the sound or event from a negative to a positive). Together they can help restore a sound sensitive dog’s confidence. This entails exposing the dog to the upsetting noise in gradually increasing increments while providing him with positive reinforcement such as high-value food.

Here is an illuminating video on counter conditioning, or changing an association from a negative to a positive experience.

So what did my 7 year old border collie Decker do when that loud clap of thunder reverberated through the house this morning? He got excited and began to search for a toy. Odd behavior, right? Nope. From the earliest moment that I brought Decker home, every time it thundered, which is often in south Florida during the summer, I would become very excited and animated, quickly grab a toy and engage him in a short game of tug, one of his highest valued activities. Over a short period of time, he associated the peal of thunder with something fun, and actively searched out a toy to play with me. Preventing a problem, not waiting to treat one, is classical conditioning at its best. Thanks, Pavlov!

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Decker waiting for a toy.

If your dog is suffering from a behavior problem, consult a behaviorist or a trainer who is familiar with working with phobias and fears.