Thursday, June 14, 2012

Denise Fenzi Seminar, Part II: Tugging

Today’s post topic is what I learned about tugging from the seminar. Any misinterpretation of Denise’s explanations are totally my fault.

When it comes to playing with our dogs, tugging is often considered the ultimate interaction and a better reward than food treats because it ensures the handler is involved in the reward process, not just handing off a cookie. It builds energy and, if used sensibly, strengthens the dog/handler relationship.  Many times we are lead to believe that being able to play tug with our dog is the answer to all our problems. I’m not saying that isn’t true, but life is full of exceptions. What if your dog has zero interest in tugging and is all about The Cookie?

At her seminar last weekend, Denise stressed that a motivator is not a motivator if your dog does not want it. You could have the most awesome fleece-bunny-fur-food-stuffed-French-linen-bite-stick tug in the world but if your dog doesn’t find tugging rewarding and you are unable to find a way to engage his interest with the toy, it is not a reward.

That’s NOT to say you can’t teach your dog to tug and down the road he’ll be able to enjoy tugging and find it rewarding. You can.

If your dog tugs now, does that mean all your troubles are behind you? Will playing tug miraculously fix your training and motivation problems?

Only if you understand that there’s more to successful tugging than letting a dog bite a toy and hang on while you swing him around.

Denise pointed out there are several elements of tugging many of us don’t think about beyond the simple mechanics of teeth on a toy. Understanding this from the dog’s point of view can help both dog and handler enjoy the game more. I had never thought of any of these, so it helped my understanding tremendously.

Tugging is essentially a prey sequence. Different dogs find different points of this sequence more rewarding than other points. Imagine your tug toy as a live rabbit and you may have a new appreciation for how your dog views a “game” of tug. Yeah, that’s kind gross because it's not going to end well for the rabbit but remember we’re looking at it from the dog’s perspective. Here are the stages of the sequence:

• Prey drive - all about sighting, stalking and chasing the prey
• The bite - the initial contact with the prey
• The fight - the battle to subdue the prey (generally the most interactive part of tugging and what most people think of when they visualize a dog tugging)
• The re-bite and/or shake - the killing bite to snap spine or neck
• Possession - dog takes toy and runs off with it (Look what I caught!)
• Tearing up the toy - eating the prey

Dogs may be higher in one or two elements than in others. Phoenix absolutely LOVES chasing and making that initial bite but is lukewarm about a sustained fight. His eyes actually dilate in anticipation when I produce a tug or ball on a rope. Jamie, who was never an enthusiastic tugger, simply loved to take the toys off by himself and field dress (gut and eat) them.

Denise pointed out that a dog who enjoys the prey and initial bite parts of the sequence may not enjoy being asked to tug strenuously for long periods of time and if asked to do so, may soon be turned off of playing tug. Likewise, a dog who really enjoys “fighting” will not be satisfied with brief tug sessions and if you constantly have them “out” the toy and end the game, they may soon lose interest as well.

I suspect tugging with some dogs could be a case of “Be careful what you ask for, you might get it.” If the handler is not enthusiastic about or physically capable of sustained tugging, this might not be the answer either handler or dog are looking for. Tugging with a 25-pound sheltie is considerably different than tugging with a 55-pound Belgian. There are days when tugging with Phoenix is simply physically not enjoyable for me. I’m a weenie.

Denise noted that using a tug as a pacifier will eventually spoil the value of the tug. How often have you seen people standing or sitting at a trial, allowing their dogs to chew mindlessly on a tug while the handler chats with friends and ignores the dog? While a few dogs don’t care who or what is attached to the other end, most dogs enjoy the interaction tugging provides with their handler. Using a tug as a pacifer can dilute that.

A few technical aspects about tugging that Denise mentioned included:

• Keep the tug moving. Don’t stand still with it. Few dogs will find a dead (non-moving) tug any fun. This means effort on your part to get the dog engaged.

• When playing tug, if the dog drops the toy (you’re holding the other end), that’s not  your problem, keep moving, encourage the dog to “catch” the toy again. When they get it in their mouth, give little tugs instead of steady pressure.

Who knew tugging was such a complicated dance?

Finally, what if your dog absolutely has frickin’ zero interest in tugging and nothing you do can change that? Reward with food! No one is going to come arrest you.

But don’t deliver the food quietly while the dog sits there like a lump. Food does NOT need to be a sedative but it largely depends on how you deliver it. Have the dog leap for the food. Turn the food into a tiny piece of prey and have the dog chase it in your hand. Throw it. Toss it and let the dog catch it. Make it come alive.

Don’t obsess about delivering the food to reward in the exact position - this can be helpful in some situations but try marking the behavior with a clicker or verbal marker, then allow the dog to leap for his reward.

1 comment:

  1. When people come to a Susan Garrett seminar with a dog who doesn't tug, she makes them RUN with the dog. Susan uses tug as a 'balance break' - a break from the work and a stress reliever - and also to keep the dog's arousal level up. Running accomplishes a similar thing for dogs who don't tug.