Dogcharmer: The tug of puppy love

Who’s in charge in a game of tug-of-war?

Griffin loves a good game of tug-of-war. —Courtesy Tom Shelby

Dear Dog Charmer,

We are hoping that you might settle a family dispute. We have a 6-month-old pup who loves to play tug-of-war. Some books advise that tug-of-war is a good game for dogs to play, helping dogs burn energy and gain confidence; this is the side my husband takes. I’ve found that the more our puppy plays tug-of-war, the more she tends to bite. She is very gentle, but uses her teeth more on us, which I find disagreeable, and which causes considerable stress when we have visitors with young children or who are less comfortable with dogs. Any advice?

Curious in Cooperstown

Dear Curious in Coop,

The easiest part of being a dog trainer is training the dog. The hardest part of being a dog trainer is what I call the “leash transfer,” getting the owners to do what I tell them to do to get their dog cooperating. Having had over 800 training appointments a year, I quickly realized that in addition to training the dog and training the owners, a third skill was needed, that being the tactful expertise of a mediator. The first line of the question above is asking me to settle a family dispute. I’ve lost count of all the “how to” quarrels and disagreements I stepped into the middle of when it came to parenting the dog. As for the tug-of-war dispute, you are all correct, or will be with a little bit of training.

With repetitive consistency, your dog (based on the picture I’ll call her Grif) can easily attain a large vocabulary. Tug-of-war is a great game, as long as you initiate, and control the game. She needs to be taught “Drop it!” (The “Drop It” command can save her life if she picks up gum with xylitol in it). 

Offer her the tug toy saying, “Grif, wanna play tug?” as you hold it out for her to grab. In your other hand is a treat, and after a bit of happy growling tug play, put the treat under her nose as you say “Drop it!” In the great majority of cases the treat will be more attractive than the toy and she’ll immediately drop the toy for the treat. If she’s one of the rare-but-intense tuggers, you may have to ratchet up the treat to a piece of people food. 

As for her putting her teeth on you gently, teeth and flesh are a “No-no!” Have Grif drag 4 feet of a flat leash with the handle cut off (only under supervision and not in a crate). When she mouths you, puts her teeth on your hand, don’t pull your hand away, but rather grab the leash, and with a little pressure on it tell her “No teeth,” and release the leash with a smile and quick thank you praise the split second she takes her teeth off you. 

At 6 months of age, Grif is right in the heart of “punk age,” experimenting with what she can get away with. As she matures and gets more cooperative, cut the drag leash shorter and shorter until it’s unnecessary. But don’t be in too much of a hurry. I remember a Doberman of about 9 months of age that saluted you with total obedience when he dragged the leash, and flipped you the bird when you took it off. 

Good luck and enjoy the tug games.

The Dog Charmer 

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