Tug Training

11/29/2014 News – We have completed another tugging video, this time starring Key (our newest puppy). The video shows Key from 8 weeks old to 7 month in short video clips as she grows and learns using the tug techniques found below! There is a short version that is 2 minutes long and a more complete version that is 7 minutes long. We also have had some discussions about doing an e-book on tug training. We may if there is enough interest.

Short version:
Long version:

We filmed a final video of Muse to show what everything looks like for Muse as an adult. See how she compares to Slayte in the introduction video – they look the same!

We have created instructional videos to show how to use tug training to increase drive and teach your dog to get, drop and a fast retrieve to hand. These skills are essential for disc play and are also used in training for agility, flyball and other dog sports. I like to say the words “drop” and “get” seem to be become hard-wired to their mouth using these methods.

We made each video as short as possible to keep the exercises simplified and to the point. The exact order may vary along with other modifications required for a specific dog.

It is important to add other positive training methods to reinforce these foundation skills. An example of this is retrieval – we shape / clicker train our dogs to retrieve to hand (click here for a good book on the subject).

The video series stars Muse as a puppy starting at 11 weeks old. We start out showing what Slayte can do, demonstrating what we expect Muse to develop into using these techniques (AND SHE DOES!). A unique aspect of this series is that Muse was introduced to these concepts for the very first or second time in these videos. Her inexperience makes the videos honest and realistic as what to expect if your dog is experiencing these things for the first time.

This is not intended to be a quick fix to any problems but rather a training program. These techniques can be applied to dogs of all ages, but is certainly easier and faster to train with a puppy.

Introduction – See what Slayte is currently doing. We believe this is what you should attempt to achieve with tugging foundation.

Exercise 1 Build Drive and Basic Toy Switching (11 weeks old) This is the most important step because you must build strong tug drive before the real training can be effective. Do not continue until your dog really loves to tug!

Exercise 2 Toy Switching (14 weeks old) This is a simple exercise to get your dog to switch between tug toys. As a bonus, “get” and “drop” are also improved. Start with equal or similar value toys. If your dog struggles then use identical toys at first. Build up to using toys that are more different.

Exercise 3 Restrained Recall (12 weeks old) This is a two person game where one person holds the dog and the other calls the dog and runs the other way dragging a tug toy. This exercise is very important to help improve retrieval speed. It should be done several times a week and only when the dog has a lot of energy. This step can be done any time after the dog likes to tug and should be continued all the time. It is very important to run the other way as this entices the dog to run towards you. If the dog is not running at full speed, try to shorten the distance or go back to building the basic tug drive. The “restrained” part of this is very important as it makes the dog want to run to the other person even more as they are temporarily being held. A collar or harness is good to help hold the dog and you should only restrain them about a second or two (once they are amped up). Don’t release them, though, unless they are really wound up and obvious they are going to take off running to the other person.

Exercise 4 Teaching a Tug Command (14 weeks old) Once you can present the tug to your dog and the dog always grabs the toy, you can associate a verbal cue such as “get”. Continue to do a “get” on your body sometimes as that will become important later for a retrieve to hand. Always reward the “get” with a round of tugging.

Exercise 5 Teaching “Drop” (14 weeks old) This exercise starts when your dog is very much into the tug game. When it approaches the point where they don’t want to drop the tug, that is when you know the dog is ready to learn to drop. As with all of our training, there is no verbal cue until the dog is performing the task the majority of the time. It is CRITICAL that when the drop occurs you immediately follow it up with a round of tugging (especially in the early stages of tug training). This reinforces the drop by giving the dog a payoff with a game of tug. This is why it is critical that your dog LOVES to tug. The tug game must be exciting for it to be a good reward for dropping. You want to make sure the “get” is already working. This is also how you can teach a dog to drop that already has the bad habit of hanging on to the toy. If done properly and with patience, your dog can obtain a perfect “drop”. Once your dog understands “get” and “drop” and are very efficient at both, you can put a longer delay between the “drop” and “get” from time to time to help teach some self control and patience. The last video (#9) demonstrates this.

Exercise 6 Retrieve to Tug (14 weeks old) This is something new we decided to try with Muse to help increase retrieval speed. Muse tends to take the toy that you throw and runs away with it, which is a common problem. She holds the toy, which is a good thing but we want her to redirect her running towards us instead of away. The idea is we present a tug toy to get her speed back to us quickly. If your dog tends to run after a thrown toy and drops it, this may not be a good exercise because you want to work more on your dog hanging onto the thrown toy (that is something we work on in other exercises). If your dog learns the game and starts dropping the toy early, anticipating the tug game, try hiding the tug while calling the dog and run the other direction and once the dog gets close, present the tug toy. Another nice thing about this exercise is it provides a secondary benefit of toy switching practice along with drop/get. Notice how short the sessions were. We did two sessions and they were only a minute each. Keep the intensity up with those short sessions!

At this point, Muse began losing teeth every day. She was showing some signs of discomfort when tugging and there seemed to be some lack of interest. We stopped tugging for about a month because we didn’t want any bad memories to develop.

Exercise 7 Starting the Retrieve to Hand (4.5 months old) This exercise is where the “magic” happens and the dog needs very strong tug drive. Get a good tug session going and let go of the tug toy and immediately run a few feet in the opposite direction. Hopefully the dog will begin to bring the tug right to you. For now they only need to bring it close enough for you to grab the toy and give another round of tugging. If you run away and the dog only meets you half way, you can try running a short distance again or retry the exercise at a shorter distance. Even doing this exercise with a couple of feet of distance to start with is sufficient for it to be effective. You need to be exciting, happy and goofy to get the dog to want to chase you. When we tried this with Muse a week earlier, she would run away with the tug toy – she wasn’t ready. If your dog runs away instead of coming towards you, work more on the previous exercises (namely 1, 2, 3, 6). Keep the distances as short as necessary to get a solid retrieve and slowly increase the distance. You can start to use a little bit of oppositional reflex which is if you push your dog away from you, they will want to come towards you. Just give a light push to the dog’s shoulder/chest area to push them away from you. As soon as you let go, you run back the other way a few feet. This technique will be used more in the advanced retrieve to hand video (#8) if you aren’t sure how to do it. Keep in mind tugging is the reward. This exercise should be the tipping point to where the dog really begins to excel in their tug training exercises. It is a good idea to try this technique at least once in every session if your dog has most or all of the other tug training skills. If it starts to work you may only want to do it once or twice in a session then do it more and more frequently as the dog gains confidence with it. Don’t get greedy and do too many of these in a single session when first learning it or it may work against you by losing effectiveness.

Exercise 8 Retrieve to Hand (Putting it Together) (5 months old) In this exercise, we use everything up to this point with the goal of retrieve to hand. Your dog should have strong tug drive and should already be able to bring the tug toy towards you. As with the previous video, get a round of tug going and run a few steps the other direction and try to coax your dog onto your leg to tug. In the second half of the video, we show how to use this technique with frisbee. When learning a retrieve with frisbee, we always reward with a round of tug. Convince the dog to bring the disc to the same position. If you are a disc dog competitor, this will make toss and fetch easier with fast retreives to your hand. If you aren’t out of breath after a round of this, you aren’t working hard enough! Once your dog is doing this consistently, use a word like “hand” to cue it.

Exercise 9 Summary (5.5 months old) This video is mostly to show how Muse looks with the full set of skills and matches the introduction video with Slayte. We added the verbal cue of “hand” for retrieving to hand and also demonstrate a self-control exercise. The last part of the video is to show how to use tugging with toss and fetch disc practice. A retrieve to tug like demonstrated in the video reinforces a fast retrieve to hand. You may wonder how you phase this out of the game for competition. The dog eventually does the fast retrieve to hand simply out of habit and you should already have an instant/reliable drop command at this point. We always do some tugging in practice for toss/fetch just as reinforcement. When we compete there’s no tugging.

The video series was a bit of an experiment to see if Muse truly would develop with the same exact skills as Slayte. Using these methods consistently, Muse has turned out identical to Slayte in terms of tug training and has reinforced our belief in these exercises. Key also developed these skills in the same way as Muse making it 3 in a row for our team.

  1. Jeff, you did a great job with Muse, we can’t wait to see her competing

  2. Hello from mexico! Im going to use your tips in my two dogs; Havanna(a 1.6 yo pitbull) and Sookie (3 yo GSD mix) they tug lightly now but i want to use the tug as a reward outside, Havanna is a natural but she wont tug outside or she will just grab the toy and then go away…. Sookie only grabs the toy inside the house.
    I have a question in the step one you say that i need to get them crazy for the tug, how do i get there? They are more focused on the toy now than 2 weeks ago but they are not going nuts about it…im using two rabbit skins as toys. Any advice to increase their drive for the tuggiong?

    • Using a long tug toy is a good way to increase drive. Usually the dogs find that more exciting. Also toys with lots of fur or ones made from sheepskin can help increase drive. You’ll just need to be more animated and do a bit of “keep away” to increase drive. Make it fun. The sessions should be short and intense for best results. Good luck! Look forward to hearing how it works for you!

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