To Tug or Not to Tug?

At some point long ago, the notion became popular that playing tug of war with your dog can make him become aggressive. This still surfaces in my training appointments if I ask the dog’s owner how they like to play with their dog. They may list some games they enjoy with the dog, but then add, “Of course we don’t play tug with him, because we don’t want him to get aggressive.” Or they admit that they do play tug with the dog, but they say it in hushed tones, sheepishly, as though they have been caught at something forbidden. My favorite is when I come right out and recommend tug of war, and they are so relieved to hear it’s ok: “Oh thank goodness, we’ve been dying to play tug with our dog but my friend said that was a bad idea.”Tug

So today I offer my perspective on tug of war in case you might like to consider playing it with your pooch:

Tug intrinsically has a competitive component to it (which I suspect is what makes people fear what it may teach the dog—after all, it’s not called “tug of peace”). But perhaps it is no more competitive than a game of fetch, in which a valued object has to be shared back and forth between the dog and the person. When you think about it, tug of war is a game that requires true cooperation. Without you, your dog cannot play it, and visa versa (you’d look silly trying!). Tug of war can teach your dog to share with you (because you’ll teach him “drop it” so you can gain instant control over the toy), how to get fired up and then calm down (because you’ll reward his dropping it with a chance to restart the game, on cue), and that without you there is no tug, but with you, there is a lot of fun to be had (because you’ll play with a special tug toy that you’ll present, when you feel like it, as a reward for coming when called, just for fun, or on a rainy day instead of a walk).

Here are a few pointers to keep in mind:

  • Generally speaking, tug is not as good a game for kids to play with their dogs as fetch is (simply because of the many, quick decisions that have to be made; plus, it is too physical a game for most kids to be able to control well).
  • If your dog is in the habit of releasing the toy and quickly re-gripping it, such that he grabs it closer and closer to your hand as you play, I recommend you get some professional advice before continuing. He may be a little too competitive and need some customized rules for the game. (The same goes for dogs who get grabby with their fetch toys.) 
  • All those teeth, and the play growling that can accompany tug, make some people uneasy. If you don’t enjoy that, or you’re not sure whether your dog is just kidding around, then either find some other games to play or get some in-person pointers on how to make tug fun for both of you.
  • If your dog already shows aggressive displays around objects he doesn’t want you to take from him (this is called resource guarding), tug is unlikely to be a good game for him. But fetch could be dicey, too, since it also involves reaching for something your dog wants. So get professional assistance with that issue before settling on a game that’s right for you.

What if you’d like to play tug with your dog but he’s just not interested in toys? Start by teaching him that toys are exciting by introducing fetch. Use lightweight, braided fleece toys like the Tuff E Nuff Tug that are the right size for his mouth, and drag them a few feet from him as though you were enticing a cat to play. Above all, let him “win” and grab the toy out of your hand so that you can build his confidence in the game. Keep sessions very short (3 minutes, tops) and end with him wanting to play more. Give it a try! You may find you and your dog have a whole new way to enjoy each other.

What is a “food motivated” dog?

With the rise of reward-based training for the family dog, food treats have become a popular way to teach dogs new things. Most people participating in training classes, or just trying things at home on their own, have no trouble with this. They offer the dog a treat; he takes it and eats it, end of story. Then there are those who would like to use treats to reward their dogs, but they describe their dog as “not food motivated.” Here are two main thoughts to consider on this subject:

First, treats can be a very clear and effective way to reward your dog. But they are not the only way. Make a list of all the things your dog already likes, and find a way to use those things as rewards.

If your dog loves tug of war, save that as a reward for training coming-when-called. If he loves toblondielick blast out into the back yard, save that as a reward for sitting still until you release him (if he gets up before you’ve released him, close the door before he slips out). If he loves people, reward him with their attention only when he’s got all four paws planted on the ground. This approach is based on a law of learning called the Premack principle (in other words: eat your broccoli and you may have dessert).

Granted, if you are trying to teach a very precise behavior or small movement on your dog’s part (a certain trick for example), food is much easier to deliver accurately, quickly, quietly, anywhere, with less of a pause between repetitions, and with more nuance since you can vary the types of treats. It is also (generally speaking) superior as a reward if you are trying to keep your dog’s relative arousal level in check (for training relaxation on a mat, for example, or working on reactivity toward other dogs), and can even help monitor it (if your dog suddenly starts grabbing at the treats or stops swallowing them, he may be winding up too high or too low to learn anything useful at that moment).

Which brings me to my second thought. No matter how strongly you believe otherwise, your dog is motivated to eat food. Otherwise (how shall I put this?), he would no longer be with us. What may be lacking is his ability to take treats as rewards in training situations. While there are extreme cases in which a few more steps need to be taken, the following tips nearly always do the trick to teach a dog to eat treats during a training session: 1) Do not ‘free feed’ your dog his daily meals. Put mealtime on a schedule and take away uneaten portions after 10 minutes. 2) Use treats that your dog likes, not ones that you think he should like or wish he would like. I know a dog who used to turn his nose up to steak, but would jump the Empire State building for a bit of cheese. 3) Be willing, at least initially, to use ‘people food’ as training treats. Fed in tiny quantities (a handful of pea-sized treats), this should not make your dog fat. Fed in the context of training (not people supper time), this should not cause your dog to beg. And fed using common sense, this should not make your dog sick (dogs are omnivores and natural scavengers, so they are built to handle a varied diet; avoid items toxic to dogs).

Instead of thinking of your dog as “not food motivated,” think of him as reward motivated. This should open up whole new possibilities for your training.   

How to teach a nose touch

What is a nose touch?

 You say, “Touch!” and your dog swiftly bops the palm of your hand with his nose.

Why teach a nose touch?

  • allows you to position your dog any way you want (like beside you on  a leash walk, away from a toddler if they get in a tight space, lined up for the vet to examine him, for a photo, or to teach a trick like “twirl in a circle”)
  • gives your child and dog a great game to play together
  • helps a puppy to learn to come at your hands with a closed mouth (self control is a delightful thing)
  • gives your dog something to do when he might be nervous (like in the waiting room at the veterinarian’s office, waiting his turn in group class, or in between ears when you’re cleaning them)
  • refocuses your dog on you if he is staring at another dog, a cat, or something else that is none of his beeswax
  • helps dogs feel happy about people’s hands near their faces
  • can be transferred to other objects, like shoes, so you can teach your dog to nose touch people’s shoes instead of leaping on them in greeting
  • helps dogs who are nervous about objects (like a vacuum cleaner or wheel barrow) feel more confident (it becomes a nose touch game rather than a “what the heck is that thing!?” encounter)
  • zillions of other uses

 How to teach a nose touch (please read brief instructions below first; the video moves fast)

The video shows only Session One. In subsequent sessions, you will build up greater understanding, put a cue word on the touch behavior (“Touch!”), and incorporate the nose touch into the above uses. It only takes a few 1-minute sessions to master this.

For your first session, keep one hand clean and keep treats in the other. The clean hand is the hand your dog will touch with his nose. Use tiny, non-crumbly treats. 

Step one—Hide your clean “touch” hand behind your back. This will pique your dog’s interest. Your dog may nuzzle the other hand holding the treats.  Just ignore that and make a fist around the treats.

Step two—Present your rigidly flat palm out to your side, roughly nose- level with your dog. Say nothing. Just wait. Make sure your thumb is parallel to the ceiling.

Be ready! Many dogs will immediately bop your palm (or at least sniff it) the first few attempts. This is sheer luck (see video) but you still want to be ready to reward.

Step three—The instant he bumps your hand with his nose, keep your touch hand right where it is as you say “yes” and deliver a treat with your other, treat hand. Ideally, reach over and place the treat as close as possible to the spot where your dog bopped your palm and let your dog take the treat at the spot. (In the video I keep the food hand separate because that happened to be easiest for this puppy.)

 Repeat 5-6 times in a row. If your dog gets stuck:

·            look at your touch hand, not the dog

·            hide your hand and then make it reappear (“flash” it); works for most dogs

·            just be patient and let them puzzle it out

·            reward “almost” touching to help jump-start the process

 Congratulations! You’ve completed your first touch training session.


Tips to note: In the video, there were a couple things I would do differently had I not been working in grass, and with a stationary video camera on a tripod. 

For each new attempt, back away from your dog a step or two to encourage them to stand (rather than them getting stuck in a sit position). It is not a “sit” exercise and will only complicate things during later sessions.

If your dog tends to sit rather than stand, say “yes!” when their nose bops your palm, but rather than reward the dog in a sitting position as I was often doing, toss the treat onto the floor. That way your dog will go after the treat and be “reset” in a standing position for the next attempt (note: does not work well on grass because the training session turns into a treat hunting expedition).

Please let me know what you think of this video attempt; one of my clients requested it and I think it’s a great idea to post a video from time to time. (The text came out awfully small—I will make it more legible next time.). Thanks for watching and happy training!


Dogs do what works

People often tell me their dog is out of control or lacks manners. It is, in fact, pretty common for dogs to get 


in the habit of bouncing around in gleeful anticipation of something they want very badly. Take meal times, for instance. At the first rustle of the dog food bag, the dog goes a little berserk, leaping around, spinning, and even barking.

You may not appreciate all that commotion, but maybe you aren’t sure how to get the dog to calm down. Good news! Your dog will do whatever he learns will hasten you filling his dish with dog food. If bouncing around like a maniac is followed by you feeding him, it’s a good bet you will see that behavior at future feedings. By the same token, if keeping all four of his paws on the floor and standing (or sitting) still in one spot keeps you dispensing his supper, that is the behavior you’ll start to see offered automatically by your dog. It really is that simple.

Just go cold turkey. You reach for the bag. Dog goes nuts? You retreat. Dog stays calm? You continue opening the dog food bag. Dog then goes bananas? You step away from the bag. If he really escalates, leave the room. Dog calms down? You open the bag and scoop up some food. And so on. Your dog is going to want to skip this cha-cha-cha he is causing you, because it delays feeding. If you are silent (no commands, no “good boy,” no “ah-ah”), and simply and immediately move either toward or away from the food preparation (depending on your dog’s behavior), you will teach him that calm, quiet dogs are fed quickly. Most dogs, after just a couple of days, get the idea. Dogs do what works!