The Zen of Tug

Originally posted on a prior version of my blog around 2011-2012.

This weekend I attended my first dog seminar. The topic was Drives & Motivation, and the presenter was Denise Fenzi, one of my favorite dog (and people) trainers.

The topic was very timely for me, because I’ve struggled with trying to get Sienna interested in playing with toys for years.

I was going to write a post with my seminar notes, but that would have been one really long post. Instead, I’m going to talk about the issues I’m working on with Sienna, and how I’m applying what I learned at the seminar. Hopefully it’s more interesting this way for the rest of you, as well!

If you train or compete in agility, I’m sure you’ve heard about how important it is that your dog tugs. I’ve decided I’m mainly doing obedience for now, but even in obedience, tugging seems to be very important, especially among positive trainers. I’ve been feeling rather handicapped for a while because my dog doesn’t really play with toys. And she definitely Does. Not. Tug.

day 20/365

day 20/365 by shehan peruma on Flickr

I’ve tried to shape it. I had some success, but I realized it was going to take a long time (maybe not as long as my 2 year retrieve, but long enough) and that Sienna might never learn to like tugging for its own sake, although she’s happy enough to grab a toy to earn some food.

Luckily, tugging was one of the things we talked about a lot at the seminar. One of the points Denise made was that you have to find out what motivates YOUR dog, and use that. And it’s OK if your dog doesn’t tug.

Hearing that gave me a great sense of relief, and made me realize that I was actually putting a lot of pressure on myself and my dog that I hadn’t been aware of. Oddly, now that I know Sienna doesn’t have to tug, I think I’ll be a lot more successful at teaching her. Funny how that works.

When teaching a dog to tug, it’s important to find the right toy. Denise brought several examples of different toys for dogs at different skill levels. Puppies and beginner dogs like Sienna should start on floppy, soft toys with a lot of movement. The “Fenzi Frenzy” is a great example, designed and made especially to get dogs and puppies interested in playing.

The Frenzy tug toy

As the dog gets more skilled and interested in tugging, move up to smaller and stiffer toys.

Leather rag – for intermediate tuggers.

Retriever Bumpers

Bumpers – for advanced tuggers

I almost bought a Frenzy, but the little accountant on my shoulder told me that I just spent a lot of money on a seminar, and I already had a lot of toys that the dog doesn’t play with. I should probably try teaching her on those first. Also, the Frenzy is designed for playing with the dog close to you, and Sienna tends to yield immediately to any pressure I put on her, however unintentional. I have yet to convince her to chase a toy on the ground while I’m sitting. She’d rather climb into my lap instead.

One of the toys I have is similar to another one of the beginner toys we saw at the seminar. It’s a real fox tail sewn to a 4 foot leash. (I got it from, but they apparently don’t sell them anymore and I couldn’t find anything similar online.)

This toy takes advantage of a drive that Sienna is very strong in – chase. I want to put it on a flirt pole but I haven’t gotten to that yet, so I’m using it as is. I’ve tried to get her to chase it by whipping it back and forth on the ground, but Sienna just stands there staring at me like I’m loony tunes.

Now I know why. I learned at the seminar that a better way to start the dog on this kind of toy is to drag it behind you. “Behind you” is pretty important for tugging in general – a lot of the dogs there this weekend improved their tugging a lot when the handler moved so the dog was beside or behind them. Facing a dog puts a lot of pressure on her. Some dogs deal with this by growling and tugging more frantically. Other dogs fishtail back and forth, because they’re trying to get out from in front of the handler. Really soft dogs like Sienna don’t even look at the toy.

So today I finally got a chance to take the fox tail out and try the things I learned. I dragged it behind me while I jogged, trying to keep it about eight feet in front of Sienna. Eight feet turned into three, and jogging quickly turned into running, because she actually liked this game! She tried to get the fox tail, which is nothing short of a miracle for this dog.

I tried not to let her get it. It seems very counter-intuitive when you’re teaching a dog to tug, and you really, really want the dog to tug, to not let her catch the toy. But it’s very important not to! Because, as Denise says, a rabbit isn’t going to stop and let the dog catch him. Making the game too easy or dangling the toy in front of the dog’s face is confusing for the dog. Normal prey doesn’t act like that. When you’re playing with the dog, you must ask yourself, what would the rabbit do? WWRD. That cracked me up, but it makes total sense.

Whipping the toy in the air is also confusing for the dog, because rabbits don’t fly. And you’re supposed to keep your movements small, because while the dog is chasing the toy, she’s aware of you on the other end of it. So keep the fighting squirrel-sized. Keep the intensity squirrel-sized. In Denise’s words: Be the squirrel.

So now I’m going to have sticky notes on my wall that say “WWRD” and “Be the squirrel.” Oh well, my boyfriend already knows I’m crazy.

It works, though! With these things in mind, I got my completely toy-oblivious (but squirrel-loving) dog to enthusiastically chase my fox tail toy and try to eat it! She even caught it once. Unfortunately, I was so shocked and thrilled that she caught it that I immediately dropped the toy and started cheering for her. She liked that, and started to do zoomies, but lost interest in the toy. Once the prey stops moving, it’s dead and the dog doesn’t need to fight it anymore. Thus it’s boring.

Another thing I could do better was keeping the toy chase sessions shorter. As I’m reading through my seminar notes, I found one that says to play Give Me a Break (from Control Unleashed) while teaching toy play. Play for 10-15 seconds with the toy, then stop and talk to the dog, praise, connect with her. Then more toy, and lather, rinse, repeat.

So next time I try playing tug with Sienna (I’m amazed that I can say that, though it’s still remedial tug) I need to remember to play GMAB, and not drop the toy when she grabs it. I think I can do that. I’m still really impressed that she’s interested in the toy at all! I’ll keep posting our progress.



  1. You had me nodding all the way through this post – I seem to have done a lot of nodding today for some reason!
    I’ve never had a problem with tug, my dogs all play a mean game of tug. But fetch? Well that’s a different story. They just don’t get it! I’ll throw the toy and they just stand there looking at me. It’s almost like they’re saying, “well go on then, you threw it, now go fetch it!”
    I thought I was the only one who’s dogs didn’t understand how to play one of the 2 most popular dog games.
    It’s great that you’re making progress with Sienna!
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