You know you need a good reinforcer. And you know that playing with toys has great benefits specific to the sport of dog agility. For most handlers, toys are easier to throw, carry, and manage on course than food.
Tugging is a complex skill made up of several different parts, and just like training weaves or contacts, people sometimes rush to get the finished product without realizing that their dog lacks drive for the behavior.
Start your tugging in the context of play—you want a dog that is happy, interactive, and physical with both you and a toy (or several toys). Actual tugging will be a small part of this play session, and you shouldn’t be overly concerned about it.
In the video below, watch my 8-year-old daughter play with a sheltie puppy. The sheer delight and joy of the interaction between child and puppy should be your goal. You’ll see them slip in some tugging as well.
In this second video, I play with a 5 month-old kelpie puppy. At this stage of training, focus on how your dog feels about the interaction rather than how well they are tugging.
Eventually, the way I tug with my dog will be more structured. They will bite the toy on cue without biting me, release the toy on cue, tug amidst distraction, and retrieve the toy. But first my dog needs to know that the tugging game is worth playing!