Gail Fisher's Dog Tracks: For dog owners, there's more to tug o' war than they might realize
Last week I wrote about some of the commonly held myths about playing tug o' war with your dog, as well as the advantages. There are, however, two important rules for the owner to teach and enforce.
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.
If you're teaching this to an adult dog, the rule is stricter: "One strike and you're out."The second rule is "give" means let go. You can use any cue such as "out," "drop it," or "off." But whatever cue you select, you need to teach it to your dog, and then enforce it.
How to teach 'tug'
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.
When your puppy pulls on the toy, get into the game - chatter at him, pet and touch him, even push him gently. Don't worry if your puppy growls in play. There's nothing wrong with that. Playing tug is a physical game, and touching your puppy teaches him to accept handling when he's excited.
If your puppy seems reluctant to tug, drag the toy enticingly on the floor in front of him, excitedly encouraging him to "get it." When he does grab it, you can increase his desire to pull by letting go when he's tugging - let him win. Then pull gently on the toy again, and let him win again. In this way, you build your puppy's confidence and understanding of the game.
How to teach 'give'
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.
After a week or so of practice, you're ready to introduce a verbal cue for "give" or "out." By now your left hand moving toward your puppy's collar is a signal for "drop it." So at this point say your verbal cue just before you reach for the collar with your left hand. After another week of practice, your puppy should be dropping the toy on your verbal cue, without your needing to hold his collar.
Playing this game with your puppy provides the opportunity to teach so many lessons - and you both have fun in the process!
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.