December 15, 2011

Teach Your Dog to Release the Tug Toy

This quick, easily taught 3 step method works best for dogs with a very strong drive for tugging and no desire to let go. If your dog won’t stop tugging even when you wave a hot dog in front of him, this method is for you.

Step 1: Immobilize the toy. Your dog loves the action tugging creates. If you no longer provide resistance to your dog’s tugging, this lessens her enjoyment and will usually provoke a response–like releasing the toy. I like to trap the tug toy with both hands against my thigh.

Step 2: Give your cue. Say it immediately after you have stopped tugging with your dog. My older dogs were taught to release the toy when I said “leave it” but I’m using “thank you” with my new puppy. I start using the verbal cue with the very first repetition I attempt with a new dog.

Step 3: Restart the game. As soon as your dog lets go of the tug toy, IMMEDIATELY restart the game by giving your cue to take the toy (mine is “get it”) and moving the toy AWAY from your dog. Moving the toy away from your dog is critical as this will instantly stimulate her prey drive and make for a very satisfying reward–another game of tugging. Your dog will learn that the quickest way to a great game of tug is a fast release of the toy when cued by the handler.


Q: My dog took a while to let go of the toy.

A: That’s okay. Some dogs may take several seconds to let go of the toy; just wait for them to let go, and IMMEDIATELY give your “get it” cue and move the toy away from them.

Q: I can’t immobilize the toy because my dog is too big and stronger than me.

A: You can try using a leash to prevent the dog from pulling away from you, but you must find a way to immobilize the toy or this method will not work. You may have to try a different way.

In the video below, I demonstrate the 3 steps with my experienced, 9 year old border collie Rook and my new 6 month old border collie Miriya. Miriya has great toy drive but very little food drive, and will not stop tugging for any food. This is just her 2nd session working on this skill, and you can see her steadily improve as she begins to understand the structure of the game.

Enjoy your training session!

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  • What to do when dog gets something way more valuable than toy. For example my dog gives away any toy, but when he finds food while walking with him outside, he gets angry, refuses to give it away and tries to run away. What should I do?

    • If you believe in treat training (some people don’t or heaven forbid some dogs don’t [Love my food motivated labs!]), you could try carrying a very high value treat around with you on walks. When my puppy has something she shouldn’t (lately it’s been pinecones), I ask for a “trade”. I present the other option and wait for her to spit out the offensive item. A trade gets a “nice” (my marker word) and a treat.

      If she refuses the trade (and that will happen) – it often means that she made a choice to find her new toy better than my trade. This choice requires a correction. I want her to make a better choice next time. One pop with a leash on her collar to start with the command “trade” again, but sterner. If she drops the item (even if it’s on accident), I give her the reward for the trade.

      If she does not, I give another correction without saying a thing, reel her in on her leash, and pry open her mouth to take the item. No treat. One bad choice = misake. Two bad choices = defiance. If you don’t believe in treat training, substitute treat with any high value reward (toy, silly praise, cuddles) whatever works best for you and your dog. It has to be spectacular, though. I’m amazed at dog trainers who have good dogs and their dignity – I’ve never found it to work out for me.

    • This method won’t work for that because it relies on the dog giving up the toy because it’s not really what they want; they want to tug and releasing is the fastest way to get you to play.

      With a dog that has gotten some sort of food, the food IS what they want.

      Your best bet is going to be to teach progressive self control. Susan Garrett’s “it’s yer choice” game is great for teaching a dog to wait for permission and make good choices 🙂

  • You could also drill a hole thru a ball and put a thin rope thru it so you have something to hang onto to hold it still for the “immobilization” part. I would just put a thin rope with small knots on both ends so you have two “handles”, not a loop of rope or clunky ball on a rope toy. I play flyball with a ball addict, you do not want to stick your hands in there! Some hard core ball addicts won’t deign to play with a ball with a big rope on it & I would make sure he thinks it’s just like a regular ball (throw it/play with it like you would a regular ball).

  • I like this method and plan to try it for tugging toys. Any suggestions on how to adapt this method to get your dog to drop a tennis ball on command? I have a high tug/toy drive Golden Retriever whom I have to physically wrestle to get a tennis ball out of his mouth. Waving luscious treats in front of him does not work. Mouthing a tennis ball is like crack, apparently. I have never had a Golden who liked tennis balls better than food so this has not previously been an issue. Thanks!

    • Susan, this is a tough issue that often leads to positive punishment which can damage the handler-dog relationship and makes training sessions an anxious time for both dog and handler. The solution is to apply a variation of the “two toy game” which is well described on pages 31-37 in Dildei and Booth’s “Schutzhund Obedience: Training in Drive.” Basically, you will throw ball #1 for your dog and whip out ball #2 and play with it yourself or with a helper while you wait for your dog to drop ball #1. The moment they drop it, you throw ball #2 away from you and your dog. For this to work, your dog’s desire to chase the ball must be greater than his desire to chew on it by himself. I will post an article and video with details of this game sometime this week.

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