I was playing Jenga with my nephews the other day…
If you don’t know what Jenga is, here is a description from their website: “Jenga is a game of physical and mental skill… Players take turns to remove a block from a tower and balance it on top, creating a taller and increasingly unstable structure as the game progresses. The game ends when the tower falls — completely or if any block falls from the tower (other than the block a player moves on a turn).
The one we were playing was the colossal version and stood at about 3 ft tall.
Now, if you didn’t know already, I’m crazy competitive. It doesn’t matter what I’m doing, I’m in it to win it…
And this game of Jenga was no different.
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We took turns pulling out blocks and stacking them until the tower began to waver. Then, things started to get treacherous. I made a bold move and slowly and painstakingly removed a bottom brick, placing it gently on top, leaving the entire structure balancing on one narrow block.
There was no way I could lose…
My nephew pulled the next block and, as I had predicted, the entire structure came crashing down, blocks throwing themselves every which way across my living room.
I laughed and did my normal post win taunting, and then I challenged them to another round.
But this time, I shifted strategies.
I reminded myself after my first win, that these were my nephews. They were just kids. I mean, they were darn good competitors, but they were still only kids.
I didn’t need to constantly beat them with my mad Jenga skills. I mean, let’s face it. If I did, they’d quickly grow tired of playing the game with me. And they’d probably think twice about asking me to play other board games in the future.
I threw the next game.
My nephew won with a glorious move. And I lost, as my block inevitably made the tower come crashing down.
I wanted him to log a win. To get a confidence boost after his initial defeat. But for that to be effective, he couldn’t know I cheated…
So what does Jenga have to do with our dogs?
For me, there is no better way to build my relationship with my dog than through play, and more often than not, toy play – and specifically a good game of tug – is my go-to strategy.
But playing tug with my dogs, whether my goal is to use it as a reward in my training, to bring motivation, or I’m just playing for fun, is no different than that Jenga game I played with my nephews in my living room that day.
Think about this…
Who wins when you play tug with your dog?
I mean, tug is a very Mano-a-Mano game. It’s my dog vs. me. So who emerges the victor?
Here are some common scenarios I see…
- The handler tugs so vigorously, they pull the toy from the dog’s grasp
- The handler outs the dog, commanding them to let go
- The handler restrains the dog and takes the toy away
- The handler pushes their fingers into the dog’s mouth to get them to let go
- The handler “lifts” the dog off of the toy by their collar
So who is the winner?
I’ll give you a little hint…it’s not the dog.
In some instances, HOW you make the dog lose can increase frustration and thereby motivation for the toy. But this only works with dogs with good drive. And it only works if they log wins more often than losses.
At the end of the day, if your dog loses enough rounds, and never logs a win, they WILL quit.
You will suffer a loss of confidence as conflict rises. They won’t want to play WITH you any more. Instead, they’ll hoard, or play on their own. Or they will quit altogether as they learn the game isn’t one they can win.
Your tug game WILL lose value and engagement will decline.
So what do you do?
To keep motivation and confidence high, and to keep your tug game holding value, simply let your dog win from time to time. Let them best you with their strength. But if you do, don’t be obvious about it.
Here is a strategy that I use often.
- Play tug with your dog.
- Let your dog win.
- When your dog wins, immediately run backward encouraging him to you
- When he gets to you, play for a few seconds and repeat steps 2-4
- If you are struggling to get your dog to bring the toy back, you can let him win and then offer him a second identical toy, waiting for him to drop the first before presenting the second, and begin tugging again
Letting your dog win a game of tug can be huge for boosting his confidence and keeping him engaged in play.
But remember, don’t let him know you cheated.
Just like my loss to my nephew would have been for nothing, had he known I threw the game, your dog has to believe he beat you in a game you actually wanted to win.
Yes, you can ask your dog to “Out” the toy.
And yes, you can take it from him on occasion.
But make sure he wins more than he loses.
Not only will this increase your dog’s confidence in the game and minimize conflict, it will also keep him coming back for more.