Things Your Dog Will Love: Tennis Tug

The Tennis Tug is a great dog toy that combines positive reinforcement with a strange magic that enthralls every dog I’ve ever given it.

Tennis-Tug-MainIf your house is anything like ours you’ve probably got dog toys everywhere on the floor in every room.

It’s a fact: dogs love toys. They love toys so much that they’ll make anything into a toy given enough time, boredom, and lack of supervision.

Toys are also one of the most powerful tools to have in our positive reinforcement bag of tricks and there’s always been one that I keep hidden away – only pulled out on super-special occasions – whose value at the moment I take it out is almost as good as a bag of hot dogs.

When I need to go nuclear with dogs to distract them, direct them, or just to reward them, I push the button with the Tennis Tug.

The Tennis Tug is deceptively simple in its design, which is essentially a three-foot length of braided fleece wound through a tennis ball at the end. Woven through the Tennis Tug, however, is a magic that I’ve never been able to put my finger on but which seems to flip a switch in the head of any dog who loves Tug.

I started using the Tennis Tug at ARF in Beacon with a dog who has some resource guarding issues.

I know it sounds crazy to play tug with a resource guarder, but we only play according to the rules and only began once he had a pretty good drop-it command.

The magic of this game was that he didn’t have to guard it:  he knew that he could drop-it when asked and he’d get it back again.  It has done a great job in helping me reinforce simple commands for him and a great job at teaching him that many things just don’t have to be guarded.  (Stay tuned for more on crazy Wesley in future posts.)

When puppy Pinball came to live with us, I was in the middle of writing A Dog Named Boo and had to devise a game that he could play while I typed.  Tucking the tennis tug securely under my foot or thigh – when sitting – I could work as he tugged away.

I can’t tell you why you would want a Tennis Tug, but I will tell you what I use it for:

  • With Wesley at ARF,  because he got the Tennis Tug for good behaviors I was able to begin whittling away at some pretty big issues in return.
  • If Pinball is in one of his “I’m young and have a lot of energy so why not eat the pillows?!” moods, I can redirect this level of energy to the Tennis Tug which wears him out and saves my pillows.
  • Finally, if the dogs have just been really, really good I’ll give them the Tennis Tug for a couple of minutes just for fun.

The Tennis Tug is a great dog toy that’s cheap, pretty durable for a tug toy, and I think your dog would get a blast out of it.  Mine certainly do.

Remember:  this is a supervised toy.  Do not leave it with them alone because they will eat it!

Always present it to them, play for a bit, ask for a drop-it, pay for that and put the toy away when finished.


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

Teaching your dog the rules of tug and setting up boundaries helps control their natural tugging behavior and gives you both what you want.


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.

[dropcap]Q[/dropcap]: 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?

[dropcap]A[/dropcap]: 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!