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?)