You have your great tug toy; now what?

When we left off last time, we were talking about how to choose a great toy. Now that you have identified one that your dogs shows some (hopefully lots) of interest in…let’s get to the actual play part. Today’s post will make the most sense if you read through the explanation first, and then watch the video at the end.

The first “rule” of play is this: until your dog is really keen to play with you and really driving for the toy – it is pretty pointless to insist on rules. All you will do is lessen the fun and take away from the game itself. To illustrate what I mean, I am posting a video (from September 2010), in which you will see three dogs; the first one is a puppy who stayed with me for just a short week as a foster. She is just a baby learning about the game, and with her I am only working on trying to increase her DESIRE to play. As you will see, I pull the toy along the ground (think of ways to simulate prey… movement away from the dog) to trigger her chase instinct. Once she has hunted down her prey – her grab is pretty good, so I can “tease” her a bit by pushing her back once she is holding the toy, to encourage yet a stronger grip. If and when she lets go of the toy, I take it with me and run away a few steps. What I want from her is to follow me and run after. When she does, she is rewarded with the toy again. 
So, as you’ll see,I have not worried at this stage of training about having any kind of verbal cue for “give” (letting go of the toy) – I simply pull the toy away from her or take the opportunity to take the toy with me and run away from her when SHE lets go…I also don;t incorporate the toy into other training quite yet, but would just continue to work on TUGGING as a skill before moving on to actually using it as a reward..which is what you will see with the next two dogs.

The first clip (of dog #1) is the actual length of that one training session: 48 seconds. This ties in beautifully to this second “rule” of play, which is all about keeping your sessions SHORT. Ideally, when playing – play and train in such short increments, that the dog does not tire and disengage from you. You want to end the game so that the dog is disappointed it ended. Don’t play for so long that the dog gets bored and leaves you!
At the 48 second mark, you will see the puppy look away from me (hint to me that the sessions is going on too long) and I indicate to her “Okay” signifying that the game is now over…she then bounces back and her choice is to follow me again – a great choice, which was rewarded and she was then given a break for a while before another short session.
The second rule is thus: SHORT AND SWEET. Play in very short sessions; end before the dog is ready to end the game.

Dog #2, is my one year old sheltie Pinot, who had just started doing her very first jumping and “forward focus” sessions, with her toy as the reward. The first year of her life I spent building the DESIRE to play (she was not a natural tugger and as you will see in the video – the retrieve is not in place yet either). With her little clip, you can see how she now IS motivated by the toy – she’ll gladly focus forward and hold her sit until released to go get the toy (going over the jump) – but in her case, what I wanted to build toward – was the ability to toss the toy, have her retrieve it and then continue with a game of tug again. You will see her pick up the toy, and me going farther and farther away to encourage her to bring the toy back to me. I have had to do a LOT of running away from this dog 🙂 She has developed into a pretty nice retriever since the making of this little clip…

Dog #3 is my four-and-a-half year old Flat-coated retriever Maggio. He leads me to make a short note on AROUSAL and excitement level of the dog. Maggio plays with enormous strength and intensity. In the video (after he retrieves) note how I ask for a “give” almost immediately. He is one of those dogs who tends to “go over the top”, has incredible strength and it is not so much fun to play with him if he sets the tone or pace of the game. He has a tendency to get very aroused and “high” in the presence of toys – which you can hear in the whining. With him, it is way more important to get verbal control of the “give” than it will ever be with the previous two dogs. 
In the videoed session, I had intended to do some jumping with him also, but his arousal was so high, I opted for a change of plans instead: quiet heeling around the jumps. Quiet? well, he was over-aroused and could not do it quietly, so the play and jumping session got cut very short. After a calming break, I took him out and we worked on one single thing: heeling around the jumps without whining. Because of his tendency to get so “high”, I will sometimes have to put the toy away for a while and go back and reinforce with food instead of a toy. With food, it seems he can keep his brain inside his head, but with toys – it is sometimes just too much. The arousal can then escalate into other unwanted behaviors…one of them being the very annoying whine, which is not a behavior I particularly care for.

So, the lessons intended with all of this:
1. build the desire first.
2. play and train in very short sessions.
3. pay attention to the level of arousal and be ready to modify your plan if needed.


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