Friday, June 17, 2011

Maligator chomps

I've gotten a couple of comments about what to do when your dog's play style is so rough it's not a lot of fun for the human end of the partnership and cookies seem like a much safer reward. I probably don't have anything new to say about it, but I'll throw my two cents' worth in cuz I know where you're coming from and I usually have a few bruises to prove it.

Phoenix was pretty hard on my skin until I learned how to play with him in a way that wouldn't leave me headed for the first aid kit at the end of the session. I'll be honest, we still have our share of OUCHHOLYSH*TTHATHURT episodes but they are becoming fewer and fewer. He is a very physical dog and I will accept that playing with him isn't going to be like playing with a maltese. Yeah, there are going to be some bumps and scrapes along the way and that's just the way it is, especially since I have chosen to engage him physically. If he were ever gentle or dainty in his play style, I'd probably rush him to the vet!

One important thing for me was realizing that a dangling toy, held with only one hand, was simply an invitation to "climb" the toy with his teeth. What was at the end of the toy? My hand. So doing chase recalls with a toy flopping at my side was pretty much an invitation to bloodshed.

Probably the best thing I ever learned about playing with him was to give him a specific target to bite. That took a lot of guesswork out of the equation on his part and took the focus off my sleeves or pants legs as potential targets. I use a lot of Schutzhund-type, working dog tugs as toys, along with the occasional plush, squeakie thing or a ball on a rope, but no matter what type of toy I'm using, I make it a point to hold it with both hands and present a very clear YOU BITE HERE surface. I've never done any formal bitework with him but it is very clear he enjoys chomping things as a reward - I just need to control WHERE he chomps.

He rarely misses. If he does make contact with my fingers, it's usually because I moved the tug at the last minute, after he'd already launched and couldn't correct his course, or because I wasn't holding it "properly" in the first place. If I have my fingers splayed all over the thing, I'm just asking to get chomped.

Another thing is to watch the dog's arousal level. Probably the first piece of advice I would have for someone whose dog bites out of arousal (and I am NOT an expert on this in any way) is "Don't practice bad behavior." If he gets mouthier as he gets higher and higher, stop working before he goes over the top. Let him have a time out to regroup and drop below redline. Another idea is to scream YEOUCHTHATHURTOMGIMDYING and refuse to play for a few minutes while the dog considers the fact that he might have just killed his play partner and that pretty much ended the fun. If the dog finds the behavior rewarding and/or is allowed to repeat it, he's going to keep repeating it.

I know when play hurts, it's really tempting to slide back into using cookies-only rewards. But safe and happy play that can be enjoyed by both partners is a powerful thing and worth building, even if you can only play for brief periods before the dog escalates over the top. It's about trust and respect on both sides, even though that's obviously easier said than done when you're dealing with a big, physical, high-drive type of dog. It's up to the handler to establish boundaries of what is acceptable and what isn't.


  1. This resonates with me a good bit, especially since I am sporting a new bloody finger from playing with the dogs last night. My normal response is to screech loudly, which with my dogs results in immediate dropping of the toy and "asking" if I am okay.

    Then, if it seems to be happening too much, we do a little self control work, where they only grab things in my hands if I give the "get it" signal to them. Otherwise, toys in my hands are off limits.

  2. Definitely a good point - my dogs are NOT allowed to grab toys out of my hands, they're too big and that's just rude and bossy behavior, not to mention the potential for fingers being in the way. I will present the toy to them with a specific "get it!" cue and then it's game on.

  3. Maybe Sophie is part Malinois or Phoenix'S long lost cousin. We use a tug in flyball and agility. If I am not holding that tug properly then fingers get crunched. In her defense the moment her teeth hit my skin her mouth pops open but OUCH does it hurt.

    But oddly enough, while the tug makes her world go round in flyball and agility, I have a ridiculously hard time getting her to play with it as a reward in obedience.

  4. oh boy do i know this type of dog. I pretty much use the same presentation methods as you do, a clear schutzhund tug presentaiton with both hands. Loki hardly ever misses. and furthermore he wont' even go for a tug at all unless he has a clear shot. all i've ever done with him to teach him to target so well is the "i'm not playing with you anymore because you hurt me" time outs. but still he's a very hard player and i wouldn't let just anyone play with him at that level. while i let children tug with him, i monitor his arousal level and step in if i think it's too high but he's a smart dog and he dials down his power for who can handle it, including my "made of sugar" siberian who has hip dysplasia and can't wrestle as hard with him but can wrestle, just not as hard. while i don't usually let just anyone play with him, i do let him choose to play with friends of mine if he invites them. if/when he invites tug, it's because he trusts and likes the person so i encourage it, but all the same monitor levels of arousal because of who he is, how strong he is and his type of play. whenever i do get bruised today, 9 times out of 10, it's my fault for bad presentation or clumseyness. i'm always in awe how sharp these tug-mouthy dogs are in their brains... very sharp dogs. btw: we run into BT's and Mal's quite often out here in CH. There's really great Mal at the kennel where Loki and Juno stay. She's beautiful and so tiny! and we met another male BT on our regular trail walk that Juno just flirted with endlessly. big sigh...