The tug was made of leather, roughly stitched, with two bright red handles fashioned from a strip of utility webbing.
Being the MacGyver style, former Navy SEAL that he was, he opted to craft his own toy, proudly proclaiming “I’m not buying one of those. I’ll make it myself” when I encouraged him to get a tug for his newly acquired Belgian Malinois.
True to form, the next time I saw him, he had fashioned a toy out of some old scraps of leather he had laying around.
It was rough in design, lacking the clean lines that store bought toys had. But it was surprisingly well done and sturdy for his first attempt.
“Nicely done,” I said as I examined his work. He smiled cautiously in response, taken aback by my compliment, fully expecting me to tease him about the misshapen toy.
I didn’t tease him. I was legitimately impressed.
Excited to show off his creation, he began playing a fierce game of tug with his Malinois. She was intense and loved the game, occasionally barking with excitement when the tug took too long to find it’s way to her.
He’d present the tug, ask her to “Out!”, reward her, and they’d play again. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.
They were having fun, lost in their game and tuning out the world around them.
“Dammit!” he exclaimed part way through the game, letting the tug drop with as the words escaped his lips. His focus shifted to his hand and on it, I saw a tiny droplet of blood.
I knew what happened. She had clipped his hand, traveling up the tug as they played and transferring from tug to flesh, catching him on his thumb.
She held this trick up her sleeve for as long as I’d known her. Winning was the goal of her game and she knew how to do it. If she made her way to his hand, he’d let go … every … single … time. She was smart, and she’d figured out the game quicker than he did.
I laughed, and in a moment the teasing commenced. We were friends. And it wasn’t uncommon for the two of us to joke relentlessly. He knew it was coming, and he braced for the assault.
“Remember, put BOTH hands on the tug” I instructed.
He knew this. But habit was hard to break. He did as he was told for a few repetitions, but soon, he found his old tendencies and in no time, he took a tooth to the hand once again.
For dogs with drive, tug play can be one of the most valuable rewards a trainer can use to bring motivation to their work. However, it can be easy to get lost in the game and neglect technique, not giving a thought on how to deliver, present, and play with the toy in a way that is the most effective for both the dog and the handler.
I see this illustrated every day as clients regularly reach out for help getting control over their tug-crazy dogs.
“I get bit EVERY day.” they plead.
“He refuses to let it go!”
“I can’t play tug for too long – it HURTS!”
In fact, over a dozen coaching clients I’m currently working with are struggling with their tug game. And they are only a small drop in the bucket.
Problems in play are common. Dogs regularly either miss the mark entirely, clipping a hand in lieu of the toy, or they thrash so hard that it becomes an uncomfortable game to play. Dogs won’t “Out”, they won’t let go, and others travel on the toy, never securing their grip and eventually finding their way to flesh.
What’s meant to be a fun game between dog and handler, evolves into a painful or frustrating endeavor.
But here’s the thing. More often than not, these frustrations come from our own handling of the tug – not our dog’s technique.
You see, there are mechanics to the game. Techniques and strategies. This isn’t simply a drop of the toy and congratulations, reward achieved. There’s more to it than that. And by knowing good technique, you can absolutely make the game fun again.
Here are the top mistakes that trainers and handlers make when playing tug with their dogs.
- Holding ONE side of the toy – Many people see one handled tugs and think that’s an invitation to hold only one side of the tug on their presentation and during play. But you’ll be better served to present and play with your tug flat and parallel to the ground, with both hands evenly spaced on the tug itself. Not only is this a more comfortable presentation for your dog, it also will prevent dogs from traveling on the tug, moving up and down to find a better grip.
- Holding the toy by the handles – When you are presenting your tug and when you are playing, unless you are experienced, holding the tug handles can be risky business. You control the handle. NOT the actual toy. And since the toy is what you want your dog to target, that’s the piece of the puzzle you need to own. It can be so easy for the toy to dangle and flail as you hold it by the handles. And it can be even easier for your dog to miss the target as it moves more readily when you hold it by the handles. But by gripping the actual toy itself, you’ll gain control in your presentation and you’ll better control your dog’s entry.
- Using a LONG tug – A lot of people instinctively think that choosing a LONG tug will keep them safer, but think of this – when a dog pulls back in tug, and they are gripping a long tug, that toy will bend in the middle making it UBER comfortable and in fact, reinforcing for the dog to pull back and thrash. To save your shoulders and your back, get a shorter tug to help your dog play more appropriately.
- Getting Crazy – People LOVE to play aggressively in tug. But to get the most out of your play, tug games should be quiet and calculated. Getting crazy adds too much conflict and fight to a game where the potential for conflict is already HIGH. So don’t growl at your dog. Don’t whip the tug around and give the toy big, active, and constant movements. Keep your game quiet. Keep your toy moving just enough to stay alive, but not so much that it adds stress. If you want to learn how to spot conflict in your game, click HERE.
- Rewarding what they DON’T like (This is a BIG one) – It is HIGHLY reinforcing for dogs to win the toy in a game of tug. So, don’t let them win when they are doing something you don’t like. Now, this might seem like a simple concept and you may be thinking, “Duh Meagan. I know that already.” But in practice, this is one of the most common mistakes trainers and handlers make. They’ll let the dog rip the toy from their hand mid-thrash. Or, they want their dog to drive in, yet they let them win when they pull. Whatever your ideal game looks like, get clear on it, and only reward your dog when they are giving YOU the behavior you like.
Playing tug with your dog can be hugely rewarding. But if we don’t get it right, it can be frustrating and downright painful.
If your dog is pulling, thrashing, missing the toy or traveling on the tug, it’s time to look at your tug handling as it’s the likely culprit. For us to be the MOST effective, we more often than not need to change our own movements to get the game right.
Don’t be haphazard with your tug game. In the end, your dog, your back, and your hands will thank you!