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Toys as Reinforcements (the Tug Toy as a Training Aid)

Let’s face it, the best possible reinforcement is when you both get something out of the behavior. And to my mind, using balls and tug toys instead of food, gets me just as wound up and happy in a training session, as my dog gets in being trained. Now that’s a high value reward.

In addition to being just plain fun, using toys also builds the most important component of the human/dog team…the bond that forms between you and your dog.

Now admittedly, there are dogs that really just don’t know how to play tug or any other game, especially those dogs who were trained via the old brute force method. Those unfortunate dogs simply do not have the experience or ability to just let go and have fun. Their life was created based on the fear of making an error. Experience has taught them that the result of an error is receiving the negative that goes along with error, be it a smack on the rump or the sharp correction of the choke collar. It’s better to not even try.

But don’t believe for a moment that it’s just force trained dogs that don’t want to play. Genetics certainly does play a part in developing personalities.

In dogs and in people, we all don’t like the same things. Think of how boring it would be if we all did.

But take heart. We can, with some time and understanding, turn those wall flowers around full circle to become the life of the party.

So even if your dog is a party animal (pun intended) or one of the quiet and shy types, let’s set up a little training technique to bring out the best of both.

First, if you don’t know what Operant Conditioning is all about or what a clicker is used for, before you start this exercise, go the Featured Articles page on this site then read and digest “What is Operant Conditioning a/k/a Clicker Training.” That background will triple your benefits, because then you should know when and how to utilize a reinforcement, whether that reinforcement is a tasty treat or playing tug.


First, let’s deiced what toy we want to use. Bud will let you know what is best. There really are only two options (more if you get technical, but then you’re just being a pain). Is Bud a chaser or a tugger, or both? And for the sake of this training article we are going to focus on the tug.

There are plenty of tugs to choose from, but don’t try using a squeaky toy or piece of plush or any comparable item. It won’t work, or hold up. Check out what tugs are available on the internet. (Shameless plug, take a look at the dog supplies store on this site.) Just make sure you get something that is sturdy and size appropriate for your Bud. You don’t have to spend big bucks for a tug toy, there are plenty of them on the market.

Now that you have a real tug, let’s get something straight. You are going to be very possessive about it. THIS IS YOUR TUG. Sure, you take it out so you two can play with it (during training sessions of course) but when playtime is over, “I take my tug and go home.” The tug is a special toy, not something he can have access to whenever he feels like playing or chewing on something.

Before Bud can see a tug as something that qualifies as a high value reward, we have to convince him that it is special.

Dogs like some people (in actuality probably, a lot more than just some people) really want whatever they can’t have and that is the basis of getting Bud to develop a real passion for the art of tugging.

Start off with in your best upbeat, happy, and crazy voice. All the while you are jumping around and acting like you just finished your 12th cup of coffee, saying something like “Buddy, do you want the toy? Let’s go get the toy! I know you want the toy. I have the toy” etc.

Now we all know at this point that Buddy has no idea what “toy” means. It doesn’t matter right now though, because you are just so happy rambling, jumping around, and acting excited, and (if you did your job well) Buddy is also now just as wound up as you, and is just beside himself with enthusiasm.

Nobody can teach you how to get Buddy all worked up and excited. It’s a feeling thing, so stop now and lose all of those inhibitions. (Hey it’s a dog, he likes it when you get all goofy, plus — and I promise you this, he will never judge. So as the saying goes, let your hair down.)

When you both are just all hopped up and in a tizzy over this toy, it’s time for the dramatic presentation of the toy. Go get it from where ever you had it stashed and show it to him, but don’t give it to him, or even let him sniff it. He gets nothing. You are a selfish little brat who is playing with this toy all by himself, throwing up in the air, swinging it around, putting it in front of his face then teasing him by pulling it away before he can get it. You can even throw it (but you better be fast because you have to get to it before Buddy does. If you are slow of foot, you may get some advantage by tying a line to it so you can jerk it away towards you when he gets near it. Just make sure that while he is chasing it he doesn’t catch it.)

This is a short little exercise. So, when Buddy is at a frenzied high point in the game; the game just stops. You just stop and take your tug toy and go home (put it away). That’s it for the first session. Like they say in Show Biz, “always leave ’em wanting more.”

We are going to build on that playful theme of “no, it’s mine and you can’t have it” for a few more sessions. Please, just make sure you put plenty of time in between the sessions, and keep the sessions short and exciting. This way, the game doesn’t get old, tiring, and boring.

Now, it is at this stage where the finesse part of training this comes into play. While you are excitedly playing “keep away” from Buddy, you let him win, and he gets to bite it, but just for the briefest of seconds. Then a little more fun playing keep away and then he gets to win again, but this time just for a second or two, and then do it again and again and again. What you are trying to do is build his desire to where he doesn’t want to let go and give it up. That’s when you get to start to play tug. Easy at first and let him win, but as time goes on and he starts to get a taste of victory and wants to win more and more, you can progressively build on how hard and long you tug and when to win.

Always make sure this is a FUN game, but with a catch. Never let Buddy decide he is tired and has played enough; always stop playing before that point. You always end the game while Buddy is still wound up. Like I said before, “always leave ’em wanting more.”

Lastly, there are a couple of rules you must enforce while playing tug.

1) It’s your tug toy (I think I may have mentioned that earlier).

2) When you say “out” (or stop, or whatever you say) Buddy immediately stops tugging and relinquishes the toy to you, awaiting further instruction from you as to what’s next. And it can be start to playing tug again, or back to work on whatever exercise you are working on, whatever you decide.

3) Buddy starts to play tug the moment you give the okay command.

Those Rules are for more than just showy obedience. They are there to instill your control in the game, and Buddy is never allowed to get possessive or claim the prize as his. If he does claim ownership and you can’t control him from keeping the prize — AND THIS IS SERIOUSUNTIL YOU GAIN THE NECESSARY CONTROL OVER BUDDY, YOU ARE NO LONGER ALLOWED TO PLAY TUG WITH BUDDY.


Okay, you have now trained a dog who is a happy fun tugging fool. Just the sight of the toy drives him over the edge. How is that going to make Buddy a better trained dog?

Here is how. Let’s say you are working on heeling, and Buddy is doing a bang up job, I mean the best he has ever done. Those eyes are just locked on you. You two are just style and grace personified. With that kind of work, you just have to reinforce Buddy’s behavior.

Well hanging on your side, or scrunched up in your pocket, or tucked into your trousers behind your back, is your trusty tug. As you are heeling, when the behavior is just spot on, bam. All of a sudden, out of nowhere comes the tug and Buddy seizes the moment and jumps for a friendly game of tug on your command. Remember, we are not going to make this a marathon event, and get both of you hot, sweaty, and tired. It is just a bit of play. Then you give the release word, Buddy stops and both of you are back to work.

So in closing, the bottom line is this: for a dog with the proper foundation, the game of tug can be used whenever (or whenever practical) as a reinforcement, thereby causing an increase in the frequency of occurrence of a behavior.


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