How I Accidentally Trained my Dog NOT to Tug

November 8, 2011 at 6:06 pm 4 comments


This is my story of how I accidentally trained Dice NOT to tug while I was trying to train the opposite…

“Get your dog to tug,” for some of us these are the dreaded words we hear from our agility instructors.  We worry that the dog won’t tug and that people are watching. We try to make ourselves seem fun and exciting to the dog by running back and forth while inwardly hoping that they latch on for just a few seconds as the dog looks more and more stressed.  Are you getting anxious just thinking about it? I know I am.  One of the most common problems I find myself addressing in regards to agility training is dogs that don’t naturally want to tug. Can you train them to tug? Absolutely. But you can also teach them to show anxiety when you show them a tug toy, which is what I inadvertently taught Dice to do.  So what’s the difference? I’ve found it has a great deal to do with our body language.

                 It’s no secret that dogs read body language. This is their main form of communication between one another and with us as well. It makes sense that if we are feeling anxious towards what we are trying to train (eg. tugging) that our dogs will pick up on that stress to some extent. In this way we can transfer that anxiety onto the act of tugging while we are actually trying to encourage it. Many of us unknowingly do this and then get increasingly more anxious as the dog refuses more often. Eventually it becomes both a stress trigger for the handler as well as the dog. Sometimes this can start from another stress trigger. With Dice, it began as general stress when she was in a new environment. Because she was worried about her surroundings, she was reluctant to tug. The more I tried to “be fun” while inwardly being worried that she wouldn’t tug, the more she would shut down. The more often this happened, the greater the anxiety became for both of us. It progressed to the point where if I brought out a toy that I had previously tried to get her to tug with while she was stressed she would shut down immediately. I decided I could either buy a brand new toy every time I wanted to train, or I had to get to the root of this tugging problem. I chose the latter J

                There were certain things that Dice was almost always comfortable tugging with at that time: my fabric watch band, and the sleeve of my sweater. I realized that any time I would ask myself “is she going to tug?” I would get an instant stress response from her and she would shut down and look worried. I decided to hold off on doing any specific agility training and just work on my relationship with her. I now realize there was never any stress associated with my watch band or my sweater since I didn’t use them in specific training. I only used them when I was just playing with my dog around the house or absentmindedly in between exercises. I decided to use a few toys at home in the same manner and not worry if she didn’t tug with them right away.

                The results were obvious.  As we both started seeing tugging as a game and less as a requirement, we both started to enjoy it more.  I still wasn’t doing any agility training at the time since I knew that she would easily pattern that all agility must be rewarded with food which is higher value for her (she is a sheltie after all!). We then transitioned the toy into very short crate game sessions that lasted about 10 seconds. I would release her out of the crate, tug for 2-3 seconds, pull the toy out of her mouth, and send her back to the crate. We would only do this 2-3 times and then end the session. If we were trying a new environment, she could usually only do one repetition before noticing her surroundings so I didn’t push her to do more than that.

                You’re probably thinking, “wow! that must have taken forever!” It didn’t take that long before I started to see more successes than failures and knew I was on the right track. I had learned from my previous agility dogs that learning the equipment wasn’t as important as having the drive I wanted. I wasn’t doing any equipment at that time, but I was training lots of foundation drills that I could keep fun and exciting for her. If I wasn’t getting the drive I wanted I would simply give her a break for a few seconds and try again. This also gave me a moment to stop myself from getting frustrated. As my attitude towards tugging lightened, she became more confidence and started to be able to tug in different environments. Even to this day, I still have to be careful using toys in stressful environments. I have had people make comments to me about my dog tugging on my shirt sleeve instead of my leash or a toy. What they don’t realize is that tugging on a leash is a huge stressor for my dog because it was one of the things I tried to “force” her to tug on early on. Because of this I never attempt to get my dog to tug on her leash unless she offers it. Tugging on my sleeve, however, is something we both enjoy and my way to keep her confident and happy in environments that would normally overwhelm her.  So next time you feel stressed about your dog’s tug drive. Stop. Relax. And remember that it’s all just a game.

Happy Training,



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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. toktassarna  |  November 8, 2011 at 6:38 pm

    Thank you. Exactly what I needed at this point. I will think of this next time I´m feeling desperate when my youngster don’t want to tug.

  • 2. 11 – Some links  |  December 11, 2011 at 10:23 pm

    […] Jess Martin on “How I Accidentally Trained my Dog NOT to Tug” […]

  • 3. Deb  |  December 12, 2011 at 12:45 am

    Oh boy my experience has been exactly the same. There are several things I have inadvertently trained my dog due to my own anxiety and not wanting to tug is pretty high up there on the list. Somewhere along the way a light bulb did go off and we are both now having fun with tug to the point where I can get some good tugging in a class situation. Thank you for sharing that post. It will encourage me as we continue along our journey.

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