A Game of Tug is The Best Training Reward I’ve Found
There’s two things in this world my dog Laika doesn’t get tired of – chasing kitties and playing tug. Luckily I found that a nice game of tug will trump terrorizing the neighbors kitty.
Food Rewards Aren’t Always So…Rewarding
When I first adopted Laika we made a lot of progress right away with some basic obedience training using a clicker and some food rewards. As we started to tackle some more advanced behaviors such as “don’t you dare chase that nice kitty” and “please don’t lunge at small dogs” I ran into some problems.
Some situations were just too distracting – my food rewards weren’t enough. I understood it, but I wasn’t sure how to fix it. If I were a young high drive dog I’m sure I’d much rather chase that kitty than get a bite of kibble and pat on the back. So I upped the food rewards – we tried chicken, turkey, and some super smelly store bought dog treats. Still no luck.
Tug Makes Training Fun & Helps Build Focus
Have you seen the way agility dogs look at their owners? They compete in the most chaotic of situations and still seem to never take their eyes off their handler.
That’s the sort of focus I wanted from Laika so I decided to steal their trick – use a tug toy. It’s used often by those that train and work with dogs in the military, agility, and police work as positive reinforcement.
I was lucky with Laika because she had a high play drive already. I didn’t have to prove how awesome a game of tug was – she already knew. Once I started dangling a tug toy rather than a piece of kibble her eyes stayed on me, not on the neighbors kitty. Holding that tug worked at the park, near horses, and while passing small dogs on the trail. *A few small dogs remain too much of a distraction but we’ve made a lot of progress.
Some dogs would much rather play than have a bite of kibble. I rarely leave the house these days without a tug toy – it’s become my favorite training tool.
There is a growing acceptance among scientists that play is very, very important and the type and frequency of play are a really good indicator of a dog’s quality of life. – Mark Evans former RSPCA chief vet
Dogs Love & Thrive With Interactive Play
Dogs thrive off of interactive play so tug can be extremely rewarding. It’s a great way to burn off energy, tap into natural canine instincts, relieve stress, and strengthen the bond you have with your dog. If my dog had her way everything would revolve around tug.
Dogs are the only mammal besides us humans that play well into adulthood. Therefore using play as a reward just seems to natural – and super fun.
We suggest that the domestic dog’s characteristic playfulness in social contexts is an adaptive trait, selected during domestication to facilitate both training for specific purposes, and the formation of emotionally-based bonds between dog and owner. Play frequency and form may therefore be an indicator of the quality of dog-owner relationships. – John Bradshaw, Behavioral Processes – New Directions in Canine Behavior
My Dog Is Always Up For a Game of Tug
Not all dogs are going to be as highly play driven as Laika, but it’s definitely worth exploring. Instead of using food as a training reward switch it up and use their favorite toy. It makes training more exciting, fun, and versatile for dog and owner alike.
If your dog isn’t too keen on play I’d suggest reading these great articles on how to increase your dogs play drive & do you have a dog that doesn’t like to play? Both have plenty of great strategies to help make your dog more interested in playing.
Not all dogs do automatically like a game of tug. It’s a reward that needs to be developed in many dogs. Our opinion is that it always is worth to teach the dog to play if you want to get the most out of the dog you have. The dog might not have to enjoy tugging as much as food, but he should play with high intensity when we present a toy.
Our Favorite Tug Toy
We have a lot of tug toys. We’ve got ones with handles, ones with tennis balls, ones made from fleece, and some that are over 2 feet long. My personal favorite is the simple Ava tug and toss toy from Damien’s Best Dog Toys.
It’s made from really soft cotton rope so your hands won’t suffer while holding on as a 75 pound Shepherd mix tries to drag you across your yard. It’s small enough to easily carry around on walks and it’s extremely durable – though I always put it away when we’re not training or playing. Dogs will rip up rope toys given enough time.
Did I mention how soft it is?
While working with North Country Animal League’s dog trainer I became aware of how important play time and stimulating activities were to the health and happiness of the dogs that stayed at the shelter. As I spent more time at the shelter, I found out that shelters depend on donations from the public in order to provide day to day services such as food and vet care and enrichment items such as toys for the animals are often overlooked. – Mark Scott, Damien’s Best Dog Toys
There are a lot of tug toys to choose from – and your dog will most likely adore any of them. But for me I always reach for our Ava tug because it’s super soft and I love supporting such a great initiative. Being able to help bring the joy of interactive games and play to shelter pets by purchasing an item I already love – yeah I’m sold. One other awesome fact; they offer free shipping on all dog toys.
Damien’s Best Dog Toys are cotton rope toys handcrafted in Vermont. These toys were developed as a way to support local humane societies. Most animal shelters depend on donations from the public in order to provide day to day services such as food and vet care, and often enrichment items such as toys for the animals are overlooked. By purchasing a handmade rope toy from Damien’s Best Dog Toys you are supporting this initiative to donate dog and cat toys to animal welfare organizations. – Damien’s Best Dog Toys
So next time you’re struggling with training grab a soft tug toy and make that training fun.
I have not received any compensation or free toys for this article – I just love soft tug toys.
This post is part of the Positive Reinforcement Pet Training Week blog hop hosted by Cascadian Nomads, Rubicon Days, and Tenacious Little Terrier. Join in on the first Monday of each month to help share your positive training advice and experiences. This month’s theme is reviews on your favorite positive training tools – so join in and share your favorites.
Cascadian Nomads Bethany says
I have attended several positive reinforcement training workshops that spent days focused simply on play rewards. One thing all the trainers I have worked with agree on is that it is important to have a favorite toy specifically for training time/a training reward. Maybe this is just a competition training thing because all the workshops were based on training various dog sports. I don’t currently train for competition but I still have special tug toys in each dogs training bag that is for a training reward only. The behavior theory is that the special toy is just that, special, and playing with it is notably different than just regular playtime. When I did compete, it was much easier to get and hold each dogs attention when we played a little special training toy tug before entering the ring. And the very best shows were when we won a tug toy!
Thanks for joining Positive Reinforcement Training Week this month. I 100% agree with your disclaimer. Soft tug toys are my favorites too. Wilhelm is with us but Brychwyn and Huxley prefer something more chewy and noisy… Herding dogs! *insert sigh and eye roll here*
Jen Gabbard says
That’s interesting to know that workshops & professionals like to add focus to one special toy – I didn’t realize that. It makes a lot of sense from all the research I’ve read that shows dogs clearly assign values to their toys so having one super special one will always be a great motivator. And because I love soft toys like you I guess I made our own special tug toy without realizing it. And yes to the sigh about herding dogs, my last dog was an Aussie mix and unless it squeaked or moved around he didn’t hold much interest.
It's Dog Or Nothing says
Mauja and Atka won’t tug – they really have no interest. I can’t even remember the last time they played tug with each other (last summer maybe?). Atka has become super ball motivated recently so that has been a great reward for him. Finding non-food rewards for pyrs is always a tough one as they aren’t typically toy motivated. It’s just not in their nature to have that drive so I’m taking advantage of Atka’s love of balls right now!
Your article made me think about how many dog owners I’ve run into that say their dogs don’t like to play or don’t like toys. This usually comes from people that don’t seem to be the type that would want to get down on the floor with their dogs and play either. It always leaves we wondering whether it’s in their dog’s nature to not want to play or is it that the owners don’t make it a priority to play with them. I guess I just can’t imagine a dog that doesn’t like to play in some fashion.
Jen Gabbard says
It’s hard for me to imagine as well considering how highly play driven all my dogs have been. I have read a lot about older dogs getting adopted out who seem to have never been taught or had the opportunity to play which is really unfortunate.
Tenacious Little Terrier says
Mr. N doesn’t have that much toy drive but I’ve been working on and off on building it with a fur tug paired with food. I did teach him how to fetch using food.
Ruby has TREMENDOUS toy drive, but unfortunately it doesn’t transfer to the great outdoors as a distraction or reinforcer. We play tug daily and if I miss our usual time (right after dinner) she will remind me by barking at the closet door where her tug toys are kept. Boca will play tug but prefers to “win” and take it to her bed to chew (whereas Ruby brings it back and shoves it into my hand), and she’s also much stronger than Ruby so we’ve been working on some tugging manners.
Jen Gabbard says
I love that Ruby reminds you of when it’s time – Laika does the same thing when our schedule gets messed up. It’s amazing how important a routine is for them. I could totally see her shoving it back into your hand as well, I know that feeling well.
Kari Neumeyer says
Some of the dogs at the shelter where I volunteer just love tug… they’ll grab their leashes and won’t let go. I brought in some tug toys, hoping to redirect this drive! Great post! I’m impressed she’ll choose tug over chasing kitties.
Jen Gabbard says
I think I always laugh when I see dogs grabbing their leashes and tugging – mostly because it’s not happening to me I suppose. I can’t believe it worked around kitties either – and it’s worked well with deer, squirrels, bikes, and big cars but we still have an issue with some small dogs.
Kari Neumeyer says
It’s one of those things that people are quick to call “bad behavior,” when it’s so natural for a dog to do. Don’t punish the dog for tugging on his leash… give him a good tug toy instead!
KB - RompRollRockies says
I trained a SAR dog, years ago, and we had one special toy that I used to play with her when she found her “victim”. It was a simple tug toy but she went wild for it because she never was allowed to play tug except in that one context.
After I left SAR, I transferred this notion to recalls. I had one tug toy that I used only to reward a great recall. It was so motivational!!
Sadly, I’ve had several serious spinal surgeries and I can’t play tug anymore. I haven’t found any other game that motivates my dogs as much as tug. Now I use a special fetching toy that I use only for training rewards… but I’ll be the first to admit that it’s not as great as tugging!
I love your post, and I wish that I could use the tug toys that you recommend!
Jen Gabbard says
I’m so sorry to hear about not being able to play tug anymore; it’s something I’ve started relying on so heavily I’d be at a loss without it now. I love watching trainers doing SAR work and the like – they really know how to motivate a dog and get them in a high performance more, I learn so much from watching them work together.
jana rade says
I wish I had it that easy. Cookie does enjoy a rug or fetch every now and than but it’s not really so,etching that drives her. What drives Cookie is chasing down animal tracks.
Would you use this on a walk? My guys are getting better at passing dogs in their yards, but trying to pass another dog walking in the opposite direction is horrendous. Delilah will almost 100% respond to treats and there are times when I’m throwing treats in the road in front of us, trying to get them to move forward. I sure would love to figure out a positive way to get them past walking dogs.
Jen Gabbard says
It has worked on walks for passing by large dogs & horses (still with a bit of distance) but it doesn’t seem to work with those pesky small dogs for some reason. I’m still trying to figure out a way to keep Laika calm while passing little dogs. So I think it depends on how much they’re focusing or triggered by a passing dog. I still can’t get the vision of Laika spitting out chicken on our walks.. Seriously dog who spits out chicken?
Hahaha, I have Labs, they NEVER spit food. 🙂