More and more I see a tread emerging in dog sports, which is causing far reaching issues and and problems, often without the person even being aware. It doesn’t matter if I teach in the UK, Australia, America, Europe or anywhere in the world…. I see this same consistent pattern emerging irrespective of the country, breed or sport.
There seems to be a stigma attached to this specific behaviour which really needs to be clarified and addressed.
So what is the behaviour? What is this problematic dog training trend that is sweeping the world… and causing so much concern?
The problem relates to tug.
Let me explain.
There seems to be a stigma that EVERY dog, irrespective of the character, personality and breed of the dog should and will tug. And there is a part of me that agrees with this sentiment. Indeed I have owned numerous dogs over the years, from various breeds and backgrounds, some regime, rescues with chequered pasts. They have all been taught to tug and ended up enjoying it, and lots have ended up being absolutely crazy about it!
I am confident that this is a topic that I can talk about with an open mind and clear head.
Every dog has the ability to play. Its how mammals learn, educate and interact. That ‘play’ may be social interaction, to create bonds, it may be a pre-cursor to hunting and predatory behaviour. And dogs specifically will fall under this heading. However there are a lot of factors that determine if a) a dog will play b) it can be used as an effective reinforcement.
See all dogs will play, but whether it is the thing that is their ultimate reinforcement, is another thing all together.
My German Spitz Sonic, is a fantastic example of a dog that has been taught to tug. He likes it a lot, but he doesn’t LOVE it. He wouldn’t walk over hot coals for a game of tug. He would for a sausage or piece of cheese. 200% I can say that he absolutely loves his food. Some would say that it’s because I haven’t created the desire for him to ‘crave tugging… or it may be that I didn’t do the right things when he was a puppy, or that I just needed to motivate him more, and there could be some truth in all the above, however if you could sit Sonic down and ask him which be prefers, food or toys, it would be crystal clear. Sonic was a dog that I got when he was about 5months, and was incredibly sensitive and had no ‘tug’ nurtured. In fact, his interest in picking up any items had been greatly deterred. This gave me additional obstacles to overcome, when building his confidence. However over time, and with patience I have been able to create Sonic enjoying tug and being able to perform foundation skills with toys, that mean I can train him more efficiently and effectively. I can use a game of Tug or an informal play retrieve to reinforce him for behaviours, but if he did something that was exceptional and I wanted to ‘jackpot’ him, his preference of reinforcement would definitely be food related.
See, Sonic like so many dogs across the world has been taught to tug and had it developed so that he really really likes it, but he doesn’t LOVE it. And I am fully aware of that. That doesn’t make me a failure, that makes me a smart trainer. See when it comes to reinforcement, it isn’t an book, or method, or person or sport that dictates what the reinforcement is for your dog, the only person that dictates reinforcement and where it stands in the order of preference… it is the dog!
I have owned lots of dogs over the years I have been training, and owning dogs, of various breeds… and I can honestly say that every single one of them has played and enjoyed tugging. However, not all have valued tug to the point of which it could be used as the primary reinforcement when training. My Labrador, Jessie was a dog that I rehomed when she was 3yrs old. She was a trained Gundog and had clearly been ‘discouraged’ from any form of tugging. Over time, I nurture her want to carry a tennis ball into a tug, and then eventually built it up to the point where she would do some bite work. Her reward was to win the sleeve, and carry it around. She was your typical gundog who liked to carry things constantly, be it your shoes when you walked in the door, or pillow or her dog bed. This was the conduit to create her tug. Jessie grew to value this game so much, that she learned to LOVE to tug. She would bring toys to me to try and instigate tugging. She was a typical Labrador that just LOVED food, but I was able to create enough desire to tug, that the two things were interchangeable, with no conflict.
These are two examples of dogs that I had to work at developing their ability to tug. But whilst both dogs developed tug, they did so with confidence and trust. There was no pressure for them to tug, and it took time to develop.
My little Jack Russel Cross, Sugar was a dog that showed distinct apprehension and distrust when you tried to handle her. Whilst she adores people, she definitely showed anxiety when I tried to initiate play.
Here is a video of Sugar’s early tugging.
And here is how it ended up!
For me, the tug was a means to gain her trust and confidence in me. I used the medium of play, to establish that my hands wouldn’t harm her and that my motion and body language needn’t be concerning for her. Over time, she has developed a fantastic tug and now she will happy play with any toy I present and also allow me to make physical contact with her when she does.
The key factors to creating this tug, was that I allowed her confidence to dictate the speed at which we progressed and I never made it a ‘thing’, I was confident it would come at some point, and I also was aware where and when she was likely to be lacking in confidence or distracted and therefore didnt push the tug.
I often see dogs being put off by the ferocity and intensity of the tug, being too much for the dog or the moment. Strength and confidence to play ‘full on’ can take time, and is a ‘art’ in itself. And with some dogs, that just isn’t their ‘bag’. The process and mechanics needed to play effectively need to be homed before trying them with a dog that is reluctant to play. This can take time to master, and as such can hinder the dogs experience until the mechanical skills are fluid.
It would appear that in todays dog training climate, the benchmark for a trainers ability is placed so heavily on ‘tugging’, and whilst this is something that anyone can achieve and master over time, the pursuit of achieving crazy tug can actually cause more harm then good. This is Ego talking and not ‘dog training’ with compassion and consideration. Like everything, there is a balance to be struck.
Often the pressure placed on your dog, to tug be it because of peer pressure, pressure from ‘the sport’, or the culture of training, can create major avoidance and displacement behaviours associated with tug, and therefore the relationship you nurture with your dog. It can even affect the very behaviours you are attempting to reinforce, if the dog is anticipating that ‘tug’ is coming, and the negative emotional response it has to this activity.
There are as many ways to engage and interact with your dogs, as there are dogs themselves. Some like the chase, some like the win, others like physical interaction, or food as an alternative. Being aware of what you dog prefers is crucial.
The benchmark for trainer shouldn’t be the ability to master one skill, but the ability to nurture and create a relationship with an animal who’s perspective and wants, should be taken into consideration to. This relationship should enhance the dogs personality, strengthen their assets and minimising their issues.
Tug is an amazing medium for creating and enhancing a relationship, if done correctly and efficiently. Observing your technique, awareness and tools used, can greatly assist you in the pursuit of amazing Tug!
For a way to help you, develop your tug and enhance your skills, I have put to gather this ‘mini course’ focused on this exact topic!
If you want to learn more about teaching your dog to tug, how to do it correctly and effectively… sign up for my ‘Mini E Course’ “TUG-LIFE’… this is a short and simple series of videos, e book and cool bonuses designed to start your dogs tug off on the right foot!
Have fun and enjoy your dogs!