In my last post I yapped about the ills that often arise when people tug with their dogs. If not the cause for permanent hyper-arousal, mouthing, competition and even aggression, it is often a major contributor, and that statement is based on my professional experiences. For most of my career I circled in like-minded company. Neither people I learned from, nor my friends, including a few agility buffs, were tuggers. That changed a few years ago when, as a result of our move across country, I connected with a number of new colleagues who do tug - and have a wonderful cooperative relationship with their well-behaved, well-rounded canine sidekicks. Especially Adina MacRae jogged my brain and got me to rethink.
So, why is it that dogs with similar backgrounds can play the same game, with the same intensity, and some turn out better than okay, while others develop a number of nuisance behaviors problematic enough that their owners seek professional help?
A fundamental difference is that my tugging friends entertain their dogs with a variety of physically and mentally stimulating activities. Tracking and other nose games, herding, fetch, agility, learning tricks, hanging out together, going for a walk, and obedience are some of the things their dogs are, at least equally to tug, motivated by - and yours should be, too. If your pooch is fixated on the toy, and only interested in tugging, eliminate it, get him keened on a number of fun activities you do together, and then introduce the toy again. Hopefully it won’t be most sought after interaction any longer, just one of many he likes.
Another thing that all pro-tuggers have in common is that their dogs know and obey commands. The ones particularly important in relation to tug are: tug, give and settle.
“Settle” means that the dog, after you convey that you are done attending to him, is able to chill. My command word is “all-done”, not settle, and serves as general information that I am about to return to human-only stuff.
If the pooch stays aroused and scans the environment who he could pester next, don’t tug, or interrupt the game often with calmer activities, for example finding the toy you hid while he obeyed a down-stay position.
“Give” and “tug” put the game under your control, and that is a crucial, possibly the most important aspect of playing tug the right way.
“Tug” starts the interaction, and it should never start without that command.
With “give”, your dog must instantly release the toy, and not re-grab unless prompted with another “tug”. Lay-tuggers rarely have a give command that actually works, and pro-tuggers characteristically have a solid one in all kinds of situations.
The dog should never snatch for the toy unless he gets verbal permission. You should be able to dangle a leash, the toy, or a rope in front of your dog’s nose without him grabbing it, and you should be able to run without your dog hanging on to your pants legs, or even the toy you’re dragging behind you.
To recap: the word “tug” serves as a clear invitation that the game begins; “give” interrupts it and you absolutely can, in fact should, reward your dog with continued play, and “settle” or “all-done”, whatever word you like better, ends it and the dog is expected to chill and leave you, and others, in peace. Those are the rules, and my tugging colleagues have them and most of my clients, well, don’t, and that’s why they have wild dogs and my friends good dogs. That is not to say that theirs don’t get quite excited during play. There is nothing wrong with that. It is unrealistic to expect that a living, feeling being is always in the same, calm mood. That is not natural, so be prepared to hear some fierce growls coming from your little darling, but as long as tug is cooperative play and not a power struggle, the growls are happy sounds and not warnings.
If played by those rules, it doesn’t matter who ends up with the toy. No, your dog won’t transform into the alpha if he gets to keep it after you disengage, but he will be dominant, at least in that context, if the game is a competition over the toy and he always comes out on top. Dogs should be more driven to interact with you than possessing a toy, and then who wins in the end is irrelevant.
Even with rules, tug is still not my favorite, first choice activity with a dog. I like to channel his mouth in a work-oriented way – retrieve, carry things, open things, but I can also, now, appreciate its usefulness for certain dogs, in certain circumstances:
~ You can redirect a leash, sleeve, and pant-leg grabbing puppy to have an appropriate object between his teeth.
~ Agility and flyball aficionados energize their dogs with a tug toy before a run, and distract them from darting into the crowd after.
~ Tug is great to train a dog who rudely, or very exuberantly uses his arms and paws naturally, boxers come to mind, to use their mouth more.
~ It can be a great distraction for the canine worrier who reacts to environmental triggers, for example other people or dogs. The tugging dog’s focus is with you, and while the environment is still on his radar, it is not a big deal.
~ Every playful interaction with the owner increases the bond, and raises confidence and security, and thereby helps a timid and shutdown pooch come out of his shell.
If you must tug, if you can’t help yourself, at least do it right. Done wrong, you foster instinctive, competitive mouth games your dog inherently is already good at. When you bring rules into it, you teach obedience and train the thinking brain. Not from the top down, but as a collaborator. You convey that you are a wonderful playmate as long as he keeps his senses and stays responsive while excited. And that’s a good thing.