Gail Fisher's Dog Tracks: For dog owners, there's more to tug o' war than they might realize
First, for puppies: "Three strikes and you're out." This means that if a tooth so much as touches your hand, you instantly make an exclamation such as "Ouch!" to mark the behavior, then remove the toy and ignore the puppy for five seconds. The removal and loss of attention creates a consequence that gets the point across to the puppy. Repeat this up to three times in one play session. The third time, the toy goes away, and the game is over for that session. This is a learning experience that puppies will very quickly get.
Start teaching tug to your puppy using a soft toy such as a felt, braided tug toy. Hold your hands close together, placed just a little more than mouth-width apart so that your hands are close to the puppy's mouth on either side. Yes, place your hands close to your puppy's mouth. In order to teach Rule No. 1, you want to plan failures - make it easy for your puppy to make a mistake so he can learn what not to do. The game continues until and unless your puppy breaks Rule No. 1, or until you want to work on teaching him to give up the toy.
To teach your puppy to let go, place two fingers of your left hand in your puppy's collar, and hold him in place as you relax the tension in the toy. Keep hold of the toy, but keep it slack and limp. Hold still and wait, saying nothing. Don't worry if it takes a few seconds or longer before he lets go. As long as there's no play or fun involved, your puppy is thinking, and learning. The instant your puppy lets go, mark his success with "Yes!" and immediately start to play again, dragging the toy enticingly as your cue to "get it." Your puppy gets the toy back as a reward for giving up the toy. You're also teaching him that responding to your cue to drop it doesn't mean the game is over. In this way your puppy won't be unwilling to give things to you in the future. Repeat this give and take several times during your play session, stopping the game before your puppy gets tired. End with him wanting more.
Gail Fisher, author of "The Thinking Dog," runs All Dogs Gym & Inn in Manchester. If you would like a topic addressed in this column, email firstname.lastname@example.org or write c/o All Dogs Gym & Inn, 505 Sheffield Road, Manchester, NH 03103. You'll find past columns on her website.