Do you want to Improve Your Training? Part 1

Many trainers ask “how can I improve training my dog?”

There are many reasons to enhance and improve training sessions with your dog. However, often the main reason is to improve the rapport with your dog so that you can be more successful when you are in the ring.

The first great rapport building training is playing with your dog.

Part 1. Play Tug
Playing tug with your dog is one of the most important skills you can have. Playing tug provides great value in your training sessions for many reasons:

  • Playing tug keeps your dog excited throughout the session.
  • Playing tug helps develop transition skills so that you can easily go from one exercise to another with your dog focusing on you.
  • Playing tug helps balance rewards between treats and play.
  • Playing tug teaches your dog to alternate between play and work.
  • Playing tug keeps your training sessions fun and interesting for both you and your dog.
  • Playing tug gives both you and your dog a mental break and a relief from the stress of doing a skill or exercise.
  • Playing tug is a wonderful way to maintain attention and focus.

Play a lot with your dog in training and keep a good balance between treats and tugging when rewarding your dog. A good rule of thumb is to play with your dog about three times more than your work your dog. So in a 10 minute training session, you should play 2/3rds of the time or about 6 minutes.

Increasing Play Desire – Do you need more ways to increase your dog’s play desire?
It is difficult to train your dog without rewarding your dog. I feel that the more reward options available to you, the better. With my dogs, I focus on developing toy drive and balancing the value between food and play. I like to maintain an equal value between the two. This enables me to choose which reward I what to use and when during a training session.

Food is a good reinforcement for giving several rewards during a short period of time, such as while heeling or when you don’t want to break your dog’s position as in stays. On the other hand, play is great when you want build your dog’s drive and speed. Tug is also good to keep your dog engaged with and focused on you. Therefore, it is important to be able to switch between food and tugging during training sessions.

I prefer that my dogs play tug rather than chase a toy. A dog that is chasing an object is occupied and focused only on the object. When a dog is playing tug, the dog is engaged and focused on you! If the dog likes to chase a toy, but won’t tug, try to develop the dog’s love for tugging by tying a long string on a long fluffy toy then dragging the toy on the ground. This will help arouse the dog’s prey drive and get the dog crazy about chasing the toy. In the long run, the advantages of playing tug with your dog are worth the effort and time to teach your dog to play tug. For some dogs, tugging will be the ultimate reward in training. In this case tugging becomes the thing that he will die for. For other dogs, food will be the main reward but they can still enjoy playing tug. Who knows, with time and persistence the dog’s priorities might even change.

When starting to train young dogs, I plan an end goal. Ideally, my goal is that my dog will grab the toy when it’s presented, tug enthusiastically and release the toy when asked. If I throw a toy or release the toy while tugging, I want my dog to come right back to me and “push” the toy towards my hand to start another session of tugging. This action is starting a “game” of tug (i.e. the dog is inviting me to tug with him). Dogs delivering the toy to my hand and “starting” the tug game are my end goals. Keep in mind that this behavior is what I want for training. Therefore, at homes, toys are NOT left out for my dogs to play with on their own. Toys are used ONLY for the interaction between my dog and me.

Here are some tips to help get your dog crazy for playing tug;

  • Keep tug sessions short.
  • Stop playing at the height of his excitement.
  • Ignore your dog during the day (no attention or petting) to get your dog to “want” your attention. Require your dog to spend time away from you (in a crate or in another room) before you train or play.
  • NEVER push the toy at your dog or shove a toy in his face. Make the toy simulate the actions of a small animal trying to get away from your dog. This will excite your dog more to chase and grab the toy.
  • Crate or tie your dog to a fence and let him watch you play or interact with another dog. If you don’t have another dog, then tie him to the fence and let him watch you play with the tug toy by yourself. Make sure that your dog and anyone watching thinks that you are having a WONDERFUL time.
  • Tease your dog (something your mother always told you not to do) with the toy then put it up where your dog can’t reach it (somewhere in your house, I like on top of the fridge). Every time you pass the fridge, play the “what is it” game. Pick up toy, saying “wow what is this” and then putting it back on top of fridge again. After a while, the dog will be jumping to see the toy.
  • Be persistent and patient. Once your dog enjoys play, don’t let the dog decide whether he wants treats or tug. Balance the enthusiasm for both!

Another way to teach your dog to play tug is to transfer the value from food to the toy. Although this method can be tricky and good timing and training skills are needed, it can work. It is important the criteria is raised as quickly as possible and your dog is really engaging in a game of tug before given a treat. Sometimes using a lower value food treat (dry treats or kibble) is better than high value treats. Your timing is important, make sure your dog is truly engaging in tugging before saying a reward marker or giving a treat. As with any play, remember to be exciting and active. When watching dogs play together, think of how they interact with each other and mimic their actions. Jump around, laugh, play growl, and present different sides of your body to your dog. Snatch the toy and run away with it, let your dog grab the toy as he catches up to you. ENJOY yourself, and the dog will have fun too!

Here are a few last tips that will help build tug in your dogs:

  • Start all your training sessions with a game of tug. Energize and excite him.
  • Play tug with your dog for an average of three minutes for every one minute of training. Playing should be a part of your training.
  • Once your dog will play tug, play with him in new environments and different situations. This will generalize the tugging behavior.
  • Find “fun” toys to play with including long fuzzy toys, balls on ropes, etc.). Mix and match the toys and use a variety of toys during training sessions.
  • Grab the toy away from your dog if he loosens his grip (rip it out of his mouth). Tease him with it before letting him play with it again. Be a little kid and enjoy yourself.
  • Stuff squishy smelly food (roll over, chopped meat, cheese, etc.) into a webbed toy or on a toy with ridges. Tie a string on the toy and let your dog smell and lick the toy then as he starts to nibble the toy, slowly move it away from him so that he tries to grab it to stop it and get the food. Make it a teasing action and praise him for putting a paw on it or biting on the toy.
  • Pick up all toys in your house and never give your dog free access to toys without you interacting with him.
  • Always reward your dog for the good choice of playing and NEVER reward your dog with a treat if he refuses to play. Worse comes to worse, give your dog a training time-out by putting him in his crate and reattempt to play tug later.


Here are a few really great “dog” items I use in everyday life and in training. Click on the link or image and it will take you to affiliate Amazon.

DebbyQ’s Picks

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