In the past month, I’ve had several emails asking which skills I teach to a young dog first. When you have a new dog or puppy, trainers want to get everything right from the start and this causes a lot of stress.
Most trainers focus on behaviors like recalls, or sits and downs. But there’s one training objective that I value above all others—every handler must develop a very strong reinforcer for their dog, like tugging on a toy or eating treats.
A reinforcer increases the likelihood that a specific behavior will happen in the future. When my dog does something awesome like rescue a child who has fallen down a well, I give her a reinforcer because I want her to do that awesome thing again in the future. This seems obvious to most dog trainers.
Here’s the critical part that most trainers miss—in order for food or tugging to be reinforcing, they must be strongly desired by your dog. This means your dog will do anything to get them, in any environment and amidst any distraction. The majority of trainers don’t bother training or proofing this skill to a very high level, so when the environment becomes more distracting, their dogs aren’t as interested in tugging or eating food. Without an effective reinforcer (reward), the behavior you’re rewarding also suffers and you end up with a dog who performs mediocre behaviors.
You and your dog can succeed in agility using either food or tugging (some dogs use both very well). My activity of choice is tugging so this is the most important skill I teach to my dog. Tugging is a complex skill with many different parts (the chase, the bite, the tug, the release, and the retrieve). Once I have tugging, I then teach attention. Once my dog has mastered these two skills, meaning she can do them anywhere with any distraction, she will learn everything else quickly.
All of my tugging training leads to one ultimate behavior: the ability to tug on a leash. Why? Because you can take a leash with you into the ring, and it’s conveniently available to you right after you finish your run. Think about it—the rules allow you take a toy into the ring!
In the video below, I demonstrate how to properly tug with your dog on a leash, including how to switch from two-handed to one-handed tugging and back again. Make sure to share with your training partner so you don’t leave them behind!