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The Thieving Puppy, or How to Teach the Rules of Tug

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Ask Professor Boo is our recurring, positive reinforcement dog training and behavior question and answer column. If there’s a question that you would like to ask Professor Boo, please feel free to contact him.

Q: We’ve just got a new puppy and while he’s got all the rough-around-the-edges things that go along with being a puppy he does one thing that’s driving us crazy: everything becomes a game of tug. If he grabs a pillow off the couch – tug. If he grabs a towel in the bathroom – tug. If he grabs our pants – tug. How can we stop him?

A: First things first: tug is an ingrained behavior but that doesn’t mean that you can’t shape and give it rules.

It is more fair – and makes for a much happier dog – to shape behaviors they love than try to “break” the dogs of them.

If we step back for a moment and think about tugging, just what is it that we’re looking at? In short, you’re seeing a social manifestation of millions of years of their evolution.

As canids evolved and their hunting techniques developed to allow the hunting of larger prey, they faced new issues: bigger prey requires a collective effort to take them down and how would the group divide up the results?

At some point – millions of years ago – by chance one of them grabbed one end of a kill and another one grabbed the other end and what started as a solution to communal hunting and eating back then we see today in dogs as “tug.”

That is why you can see tug begin to manifest in litters of puppies barely stable enough to walk: it’s in their genes.

Bringing this back home to your new pup and how to shape his tug addiction, here are what I like to call…

The Rules of Tug

  • Engage the game with a cue like “tug” or “take it”.
  • Use a toy large enough so that your hands will be clear of the dog’s mouth. I like to use only one or two designated tug toys because this reduces confusion and the dog’s desire to tug everything under the sun. It also focuses their tug energies on their Super Special Tug Toy – and for that I just love the Tennis Tug!
  • When the dog pulls or shakes side-to-side, relax your resistance or drop the toy completely. (You can continue the game this way if your back and arm joints are strong enough but – if you’re like me – stick with the straight-on tug).
  • When the dog pulls front-to-back or straight-on, keep your resistance on the toy and play the game.
  • If the dog’s teeth hit your hand or clothing at any point, drop the toy, fold your arms, and look or even walk away from the dog.
  • If the dog’s paws briefly land on you, you can choose to do the same look or walk away. If they are using you as a lever with the paws up against your body, drop the toy and look or walk away.
  • The dog will probably come back to you with the toy after something like this. When they do, ask for a sit and restart the game using the cue you’ve chosen.
  • If the dog begins tugging any article of clothing, disengage from the dog and give them a time-out from you and the game.

These are the rules I use for our own dogs at home, and with both consistency and patience in their application they do a fantastic job of both giving the dog what they want (a great game of tug) as well as giving us what we want (rules and boundaries). It is also a great way to build trust and wear out that puppy!

In fact, tugging is so hard-wired into most dogs that you could very well find yourself shocked to see how quickly they’ll adapt to the rules. Tug is of such high value to them that they’ll jump through hoops to play it consistently.

Good luck, let me know how it goes, and stay positive!

 

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