The puppy tugged hard, trying with all of his might to rip the toy from his owner’s hands. He growled and he thrashed, trying everything he knew in a frantic attempt to claim his prize.
His handler shook the toy, moving it side to side, amping the puppy further with every movement she made.
In an instant, her movements quieted. She held the toy still and called her command.
“Out!” she said, and she remained completely motionless.
The puppy didn’t want to comply. He growled and thrashed one last time, pulling back hard as he did, trying once more to rip the toy from her grip. When his efforts were unsuccessful, he spit the toy out, looking at her inquisitively, waiting for the game to resume.
She presented the toy, and in an instant the game was back on, the puppy pulling, thrashing, and growling, the handler making exaggerated movements to make the game fun.
“How does it look?” she asked me as she repeated the exercise yet again. She was beginning to condition the “out”, and she wanted my feedback.
“Well….” my response was hesitant. This was something I had worked hard to perfect and something that I tended to get a little overly meticulous about. “Looks great,” I said. “There is a little bit of conflict…,” I continued, noting the puppy’s thrashing and growling when she called her command. “But it looks good!”
I prefaced my next remarks by explaining to her that either I could get really crazy about perfecting this very basic command, which would entail changing the game altogether, or I could give her a few pointers to fix the conflict in the “out”, which would fix her immediate problems and probably leave me looking a little less crazy in the long run.
“The thing is….,” the crazy was about to come out…with force….”you are rewarding the dog with something he doesn’t want. He wants to win the toy. You are rewarding the out with a continuance of the game. But since there is conflict in the game, there will be conflict in your “out”. He doesn’t want to let it go. He wants to win it. You can eliminate the conflict if you teach him how to earn what he wants….and if he doesn’t want what you have to give, well then you have to change his wants.”
She looked at me skeptically. “Yep, help him decide he wants what you’re offering,” I repeated.
I had done it now. I had opened a can of worms. After all, I’m nuts about the perfect game of tug. I’m nuts about the “out”. And I’m nuts about using motivation to change the wants of the dog. I try not to suck other people into the craziness. I try to give them basic tactical moves that can clear up their issues without diving head first into theory, strategy, and fundamentals. But sometimes, especially when I deal with other trainers, I just can’t help myself.
I’m passionate, and I get carried away. Sue me.
Now I know there are a lot of people out there that condition the “out” command far differently than I do. Some use compulsion, leash corrections or tension, and force the “out”….or at least make it very uncomfortable for the dog not to let go. Others will use motivation to condition the “out”, starting on toys and working their way up to out work on the decoy. There are hundreds of ways to condition the behavior.
My chosen method is just another one in a sea of many. I choose to condition by rewarding the dog for outing the toy with what the dog wants. And, if my dog doesn’t want what I have to offer, I work hard to change that in him, to make him want my game, and to make him understand that we are on the same team. Plainly stated, I like to teach a dog how to get what he wants. But if I reward with something that’s not all that high on his list….well, there is a chance he might not care enough to comply to the rules of the game.
Here are some pointers for conditioning a more positive “out”.
(Now, I am going to start simple here and ease you into the crazy. Just stick with me.)
- Don’t pull – if you are trying to get your dog to out a toy or a sleeve, don’t pull the object in their mouth. Any pressure on the toy will encourage them to set their grip, to hold on tighter as they worry you are about to take what they feel they’ve earned. Never should you have any pressure on an object you are trying to get a dog to let go of.
- Move less – if you want your dog to let go, calm your game. Many people feel that, to keep a dog engaged in a game of tug, they need to be moving….A LOT. They may be dancing around, flinging the dog through the air by the toy he has gripped in his mouth, or making the toy move all over the place. Movement amps the dog. And the more amped the dog, the more difficult it will be for him to have a clear head when you are trying to teach something new. Calm your game to get a clearer mind, and then, if you want to add movement later, do so in increments as your dog understands the command at the lowest level of stimulation.
- Check for conflict in your game – Conflict in your game can cause conflict in your out. The most common signs of conflict include growling, barking and vocalization, thrashing, and avoidance. I’d love to tell you how to fix conflict in your game, but that would be a novel in and of itself. For now, I’ll just say that you should always be aware of conflict, whether it be with a tug or with a decoy, and you should be working to correct it.
- Understand what your dog wants – If you are using motivation to condition your “out”, to be the most effective, it’s important that you understand the reward your dog is seeking. More often than not, what he wants, and what you think he SHOULD want are two very different things. You won’t be as effective if you reward your dog with, going back to our earlier example, a continuance of the game, when the game is wrought with conflict and the dog wants nothing more than to win. Instead, reward your dog with exactly what he wants. And if his wants and your reward don’t align, you’ll either need to change your reward or spend time reconditioning the game to help him find value in what you have to offer.
- Quit making the game about possession (Gasp! Now this is where I’m about to get myself in trouble and where all the Internet bullies get angry at me) – It’s common in bite work for the game to be about possession. The dog is rewarded with “winning” a toy over and over again, for months and months, and he’s praised for possessing it. But if the game is always about winning an object, then the “out” becomes counter productive to the game that has been so heavily reinforced. Think about it – if I teach you that your entire purpose in life is to win an object – that the object is your most prized possession and that you should hold onto it, possess it, and own it – how confusing would it be for me to tell you now, to let it go? Think about how difficult it is for me to tell you that in the advance stages of bitework, you’ll not win. Instead, you’ll simply need to let go and often come back to me. How unsatisfying is that? And how do you get what you want in that exchange? You don’t. And plainly stated, that sucks. If I can’t reconcile those two lessons in my own head, I can only imagine how tricky it would be for my pup. Instead, I teach my dog the game is about….well….the game. And once I get my dog wanting that game more than anything, getting him to out is easy. (Now I will say that there is a time and a place for letting a dog win and own a toy. In the early stages, this may be a necessary evil. But I quickly begin to make the game about the actual game, not an object. And by doing that, I can stop conflict before it even begins.)
- Start young (Gasp! Here I go again, getting myself in trouble) – Because I make my dog want the game instead of the object, and because I use only motivation and no compulsion to condition my “out”, I can start the command young with no ill effects. I begin my dogs on “out” just as soon as we’ve mastered our game of tug. If they are playing the correct game, they are learning the “out” is simply another part of the game, and it’s still fun. Now if I were to use heavy compulsion to condition the command, or if my game was about possession, I wouldn’t be able to condition my “out” early. But since that’s not the case, I can condition my “out” right away, saving myself the headache of having to undo reinforcement history later in my training. No pinch collars, no “choke outs”, no electrics. Just a clean “out” and a strong dog. Trust me, it works.
Now I’ll qualify all of this by saying that it’s essential for you to know the specifics to changing the game for any of this to be effective. And that will come later.
But I’ll tell you this from experience:
My first dog was conditioned with compulsion – She is the most conflicted on the “out” and the weakest of all of my dogs.
My second dog was conditioned first for the game to be about possession. Then, we introduced the “out” with motivation and layered in compulsion. With upkeep, her training is okay. She will out most of the time. But without upkeep, I can’t get her to let go without getting on her. She is stronger than the first dog. Part genetics. Part better training. But her “out” is definitely a “do I really have to?” command.
My most recent dog rivals my second dog in strength. The two are neck and neck. If anything, he may be a bit stronger. But he outs clean….every….single….time. And at just under two years of age, I’ve never had to use compulsion on his “out”. No electrics. No prong collars. No raising my voice. Even with everything in the Universe being thrown at him in bitework, he outs clean.
I’m just sayin’…..
My new puppy on the other hand is naturally selfish. He wants to win and own everything and would rather retreat to his lair with his possessions than bring them back to me. In fact, his daddy had some outing issues in his career – I’m assuming this is probably why. While I am a little behind because life got in the way of our training and I’ve seriously slacked, I’ve worked very hard to effectively change my game. I’ve got him bringing the toy to me to engage, and I’ve got him playing with no conflict whatsoever. I’ve just started conditioning the “out”. I’ll let you know how it goes.
After surrounding myself with dozens upon dozens of working dogs over the years, I can tell you honestly that the “out” is one of THE MOST conflicted commands. I’m not saying my way is the right way, nor am I telling you all of the regularly prescribed techniques are incorrect. I’m just telling you what works, what has CONSISTENTLY worked for me regardless of the dog at the end of the leash and what works for me with the least amount of conflict.
While I’m not a strictly positive reinforcement trainer (as many on discussion boards would love to think), I believe strongly in creating clarity and understanding with positive reinforcement before applying any compulsion, so I don’t jump to punishment or negative reinforcement too soon for conditioning new behaviors. Because of this, I can’t really speak to compulsory methods of conditioning the “out”. I’ve tried it only once…..and I’ll not revisit that experience.
What I can tell you is that, in all of your dog training, if you understand what it is your dog wants in any specific moment and you teach your dog how to earn what it is he wants, his understanding of your lessons will skyrocket. And if he doesn’t want what you have, through calculated training steps, it is possible to change his wants to better suit your program. You just need the patience and determination to pay attention to your dog and stick with it.
By understanding the game and understanding your dog, and by conditioning the “out” as simply part of your game, you can achieve a reliable and conflict free behavior both on and off the field.