Sunday, July 17, 2011

Denise Fenzi Seminar: Be the Bunny

When people say they can't tug with their dog, they usually mean one of two things. Either they literally cannot tug with their dog because he isn't interested, or they refuse to tug with their dog because he becomes out of control and refuses to drop the toy when told. But no matter which problem you're facing with your dog, Denise's advice is the same: be the bunny.

It's honestly that easy. Since tugging taps into prey drive, you need to think like the small, furry mammal that your dog wants to catch. This means you need to do two things: you need to choose the correct toys, and you need to use those toys correctly. Of course, “correct” is relative to your dog's level of drive, so today I'm going to tell you about the different options Denise shared with us.

Choose the Correct Toy
Anyone who has wandered down a pet store aisle knows that there are tons of toy options out there, from the floppy fleeces to the tough tugs. Denise outlined four basic things to consider when choosing a toy.

A tug toy for every dog. Photo by Robin Sallie.

Length. Generally speaking, the length of the toy you choose is dependent on how willing your dog is to tug. Reluctant tuggers sometimes do better with longer toys because it reduces social pressure. Dogs who are high-drive, on the other hand, typically do better with a shorter toy. As odd as it sounds, Denise demonstrated that the dog who accidentally mouths you in play will usually do so less often when he has a shorter toy because it helps him understand exactly where he can and cannot put his mouth.

Stiffness. The amount of floppiness or stiffness in a tug toy can make a huge difference in how your dog plays. Limp toys tend to encourage the more reserved dog to grab hold of it because it has more movement and thus better simulates a bunny. For dogs who don't easily “out” or drop a toy, though, this can actually make the problem worse. Since limp toys keep moving, even if you're trying to hold it still, the dog's already high prey drive is continually simulated by the sight of the movement. A stiffer toy is a better bet as a result.

Fill. This category is very similar to the prior one, but it is slightly different. While the level of stiffness in a toy refers to how easily it bends and moves, the amount of fill has to do with how densely it is stuffed. A toy can be stiff yet squishy. In fact, squishier toys tend to be more engaging, probably due to their resemblance to bunnies. But, as above, this will make it harder for the dog to “kill” the toy, and thus make the more motivated dog feel less inclined to drop the toy.

Cover. Finally, we need to consider the exterior of the toy. Denise said that 90% of all dogs will probably work best for a toy with a more textured cover. This is because something that is rougher, like burlap, is easier to grip, and thus tug on. And while a slick outer shell made of something like firehose material is demotivating for a lower drive dog, for the truly determined dog, it's the best choice because it makes him work harder than you do.

Use the Toy Correctly
Tugging requires you to do two things: first to engage the dog, and then to disengage him when you're done playing. I've already written about how your choice of toy can impact a dog's willingness to play, but that's only half the story.

To teach us how to tug well, Denise encouraged us to think about what a bunny would do if a dog was chasing it. It would run, and it would not stop moving until it was far, far away. It would probably move erratically, in hopes of fooling the dog. It would probably panic, and get quicker, too. Even once caught, it would keep fighting back, hoping to somehow escape. But bunnies don't slow down, beg the dog to bite them, and they certainly aren't suicidal enough to move towards the dog.

With that in mind, when you're trying to engage a lower drive dog, Denise said you should try to pique his interest by keeping that toy away from the dog. In fact, she challenged us to keep the tug out of the dog's mouth for a full fifteen seconds. The point of playing with prey drive has nothing to do with whether or not the dog puts his mouth on the toy. Rather, the goal is for the dog to enjoy himself.. By telling us not to let our dogs grab the toy, Denise allowed us humans to let go of the “rules” and instead focus on the fun.

Once the dog does grab the toy, you need to keep it moving. Of course, the amount of movement you choose will need to be matched to the dog's interest, but the toy should never stop moving. If the dog isn't gripping well, short, quick tugs tend to make most dogs bite down harder since it will seem like the bunny is escaping.

Denise recommended playing in a figure 8 pattern, sweeping the toy back and forth in front of you instead of pushing and pulling it towards the dog. Not only does that come dangerously close to a suicidal rabbit, but for higher-drive dogs, that can tilt the game from a mutually enjoyable interaction to a contest to be won.

Speaking of higher-drive dogs, those are the ones that can be difficult to disengage. At the seminar, we saw dogs who either didn't want to let go, or who would let go when told but then immediately regrab the toy- and usually accidentally nailing his handler in the process. To get the dog to “out” the toy, you must again think like a bunny.

Dogs do not let go of their prey until it is dead. Dropping an injured bunny often means losing dinner- adrenaline allows even gravely injured animals to escape. So, to get your high-drive dog to drop the toy, you need to do three things.

First, lock up your arms, and hold the toy still. With more powerful dogs, Denise would sort of brace the toy between her legs so that she had enough leverage to keep it from moving. Again, your toy choice matters here. If you have a floppy toy- or even a stiff one but with a floppy handle- it will be very difficult to “kill” the bunny.

Next, wait until the dog lets go. You don't need to yell at him, or grab his collar, or even force it out of his mouth. If you can keep the toy from moving, he will probably let go of it pretty quickly. Denise showed us lots of neat things to accelerate this process- she's pretty deliberate about how she positions her hands and wrists- but you'll have to go to one of her seminars yourself to get all the finer points.

Finally, once your dog has let go, reward him by allowing him to grab it again! There is no better reward for a toy-obsessed dog.

And that, my friends, is a very quick overview of how to play tug with your dog. I was amazed to discover that when I was mindful of the no suicidal rabbits edict in conjunction with the 15-second rule, I had a dog that liked to tug! In fact, Maisy was so enthusiastic about it that she woke my husband up in the middle of the night to ask him to play. (He was unamused.) Tugging isn't Maisy's favorite thing ever, but she does seem to enjoy it. Since Denise told us that the drives we use are the ones that get stronger, I'm going to play with Maisy now and then. If her desire becomes large enough, maybe I can use it in training. Or maybe not. Either way, it will be fun for us both, and will help develop our relationship further- and that will make a difference in her performance, too!

I would love to hear if you try any of these suggestions, and better yet, if you have any break-throughs as a result, like we did. That said, it's very difficult to describe in words what Denise so wonderfully demonstrated, so if it doesn't work, please, blame the me as the messenger, and not her techniques. I assure you, Denise was brilliant in her ability to solve tugging issues, and just watching her play with the various dogs was worth the cost of the seminar alone. (Have I mentioned yet that you should totally go if you get the chance?)


Ninso said...

Disc dog drive building 101 right there! Great post! These are all the things I try to teach beginning disc doggers about tugging with their dogs!

2dogcrazy said...

When Kane was a puppy, he was very polite about playing tug. He was interested in it, but he would drop the toy as soon as I would reach for it or grab hold of it.

In order to amp him up more, I used a combination of teasing and his "Leave It" command. I would wiggle the rope around and act like I was having a blast with it until it was obvious he wanted to join in on the fun, and then I would tell him to Leave It. I would put it up against his face, tap him with it, wiggle it around enticingly in front of him, all the while telling him to Leave It. Once he was just about jumping out of his skin to get it, I would let him have it.

Once I got his drive for tugging amped up, THEN I worked on controlling it.

Ci Da said...

I took part in Susan Garrett's most recent e-course, and tugging was a huge part of it. Cohen's tug was okay (and she had a marvelous drop), but now it's really coming along. She'll even tug in the presence of other dogs now!

Some things that helped me:

Getting down on the dog's level. Looming over them can be stressful.

Discourage regripping by ending the play if the dog attempts to regrip. It becomes less of an issue as muscle strength is improved.

Pretending to lose my grip drove my dog nuts! I'd let the tug slide through my hand, letting Cohen think she was close to winning. It helped tremendously.

I re-purposed a scarf my aunt made me out of re-purposed fishing net. It's loose (lots of places for Cohen to snag her teeth for better grip) and incredibly strong. It's the best tug toy I have right now.

Some dogs love fur. Some do not. Cohen finds fur irritating, and she'll go out of her way to avoid it if she can.

Tug when you're just home from work when your dog is most excited to see you. Always leave the dog wanting more.

Ci Da said...

Sorry I'm double-commenting!

Another thing that occurred to me: let the dog choose its toys. Another one of Cohen's favourite tug toys is an old backpack. She goes NUTS for it. She loved my old dressing gown, so I made a tug out of the tie. I've heard of people using paper towels to get timid dogs tugging. Be creative!

Patty said...

I am going to try to work on keeping the toy still. Right now I usually step on half of it so she can no longer move it. As soon as she can't shake or tug she usually takes a step back and offers a sit. She gets a treat and lined up again for another run. I want to speed up the drop command and will try rewarding her with more play until drop is speedier.

Sophie has a high tug drive. But it took some testing to find a tug that worked for her. I tried at least 6 different tugs before I found one that she can't get enough of. It ended up being a long tug with a fuzzy covering. That poor tug is on its last leg and will need to be replaced soon.

I definitely play keep away with the tug. Especially before a flyball run. I show it to Sophie. I move it around. Let her get close but not catch it. And then I hide it and line her up to run. As she turns from the box, I drop the tug into sight and she picks up her speed to hightail it back to her tug.

Great post! Thanks for sharing. I wish I could go to one of her seminars. They sound very interesting!

Sophie said...

Lola very, very much loves it when the tug toy is erratic. If I push and pull it toward her, try to rip it out of her mouth, whip it around with her on the end - she loves every second of it.

Jess, on the other hand, came to us with Tug Drive in spades. She actually prefers it if the tug is put in contact with her. (Gently) Slapping her about the muzzle with it is the quickest way to get her to latch on. I don't know if it's a Jess thing or a breed thing (from her Staffie inheritance?), but Lola is generally more reluctant to take a tug up in her face, whilst Jess will grab on quickly.

I do need to work on Lola's tug drive outside, though. I really ought to get her a fur toy!

Chakanyuka - Clickertraining and more said...

With dogs who find it hard to let go of the toy I love to shape "Open Mouth".
Sometimes it is even best to let go of the toy, if the dog can not "out" it.
I just click, when the mouth opens however slightly and toss a treat on the floor. Most times it needs 4-6 repetions of that for the dog to let go of the toy and eat the treats. After eating we start to play again or the dog picks up the toy again. Then we shape some more "Open mouth". When it gets predictable, when the dog will spit out the toy we'll add a signal.

Joanna said...

Dragon's two favorite tugs are a pair of knee-high socks tied together into a loop and a soft fabric ball with a loop of rope coming out so that I can tug with it. I've also got him tugging with his tennis ball now -- I just hold onto the sides as it's in his mouth.

He does like to tug a lot, and can play for a long time, but I have trouble getting him to really latch on and rev up. I'd love for him to just start growling and yanking really hard.

His grip is better if I'm holding the tug up higher, but I worry that that's bad for his back.