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Tug Rules and Engagement Plan

By Sally Bushwaller | Last Updated: July 25, 2021

I am a big fan of tug. The reason I like it so much, especially for working dogs is that it can do so much for your relationship with your dog. It does not cause aggression as was commonly thought in the old days.


Tug teaches your dog a lot of good things.

Tug Rules

Getting the Toy Back (In Order of Preference)

  1. Freeze the tug against your body so there is no play/slack in the tug. Don’t tug back, just hold it. It will not be fun for the dog because you are no longer tugging, and he will let go. The second the dog lets go, mark it, and immediately re-engage him in tug. This teaches the dog not to guard or play keep-away with the tug toy because he knows he will get it back right away most of the time.
  2. Ask for a DROP IT or OUT. A treat trade may be necessary initially.
  3. With one hand, gently and slowly take your dog’s collar underneath and raise his head up. Then wait until the dog opens his mouth and calmly and slowly remove the tug. If you move quickly, your dog will rebite the tug before you are ready.

Wait for dog to sit spontaneously. Immediately mark the sit, pause, then praise quietly when the dog continues sitting calmly for several more seconds, then tell your dog GET IT (or something like that) and engage him in another short game of tug. Restarting the game is the reinforcement, no treats necessary.

Repeat as often as you like, but if your dog’s arousal becomes too high, end the game. A little growling is OK, but not crazy over-the-top growling. That means your dog is overly aroused. If your dog growls too much, stop the game, wait for a sit, then reinforce by starting the game again. Your dog will learn that if he gets too carried away, you stop the game.

When ending the game, give the dog a treat and put the toy away. I always want tug to end in a good way with a reinforcement to maintain it’s power as a reinforcer.

Add in the retrieve. While tugging, let the dog win. As soon as he has control of the tug, back up a step or two cheerfully calling him to you. The second he moves towards you, grab the tug and reinforce him by continuing the tug game.

Tug Engagement Plan

Week 1: Each day, do 10 – ten second (at least) tugs with him. Immobilize the tug and wait (don’t tell him) for the DROP IT. You can occasionally tell him to do it. The second he drops MARK the behavior and immediately reengage him in the next trial of TUG.

Week 2: Alternate the week one exercise with allowing him to win the TUG. Take a step back, happily calling and encouraging him to come to you. Don’t make this like a formal recall. The second he comes to you, immediately reengage him in the next trial of TUG. We want him flying back to you to play another game of TUG. Doing this builds his recall.

If your dog will not bring the toy back to you when you let him win, go back to the week 1 exercise for a couple more days.

Week 3: Do most of the trials by letting him win the TUG and then flying back to you, but you can increase the distance he has to go to get back to you.

Week 4: Add TUG RETRIEVING in the form of the TWO TOY GAME. The only difference is you will be adding in tugging lots of the time when he brings the tug back to you. Sometimes he will just chase/retrieve the toy.

The Two Toy Game

Start this game with two toys of identical or equal value. Get your dog excited about the first toy and throw it. Let them run and pick it up. When they are clearly on the way back and close to you, begin to tease them with the second toy. Tease them with the second toy until they drop the first toy. When they drop it, immediately throw the second toy. Be careful that you don’t tease them too early or they will drop the toy too far away.

As they get good at this game, you can make it harder for them. After they drop the first toy, wait for a spontaneous sit with eye contact before throwing the second toy.

The PhD level of this game is to wait for a spontaneous sit with eye contact and then require that they wait while you throw the second toy. This is tough but doable.

This game teaches your dog to give up toys voluntarily to you, because they will immediately get another toy–there’s no down side for them.

Photo courtesy and © Sara Renee Beaver.

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About Sally Bushwaller

Sally Bushwaller is a Certified Pet Dog Trainer-KSA, CNWI (Certified Nose Work Instructor) in Chicago and has been training dogs professionally since 2005. She has a particular interest in correcting dog’s behavioral issues via positive reinforcement and currently has two 11 year old Weim bitches, both rescues.

2 responses to “Tug Rules and Engagement Plan”

  1. Sheila says:

    Great to see someone who is engaged in the sport of nosework. My question is Asher is 2 years old,and loves nosework Novice titled in several organizations.The problem is he is also in Rally..what is the best way to transition between the two. I am having trouble keeping his head up in rally because its head down nose to the ground in nose work. I currently use a harness for nosework and a show lead for rally.

    • Sally Bushwaller says:

      Hi Sheila,
      My experience after many years of training both my own dogs and others dogs in sport and mostly behavior work is that what many people view as a training issue is really ring stress. In AKC you can’t use treats to reinforce your dog for good behavior. In nose work you can. So dogs get stressed and exhibit signs of this stress, which trainers call Calming Signals. When your dog is not able to get the reinforcement he normally gets, it is stressful and he exhibits signs of this stress. Intense or sudden ground sniffing is a calming signal. Here is a good website to learn more about Calming Signals: I actually stopped doing competitive obedience with my dog who only needed one more leg in utility because she was so stressed about it. She was doing what you are describing. I’m not saying you should stop showing your dog. But you have to look at how you can get your dog to feel less stressed in the ring. This is how I would do it: take your dog to as many unique environments as you can and practice a couple rally skills. Practice at the pet supply store, parking lots, next to the front door at Costco, Home Depot, bank, etc. At first do only one skill and reinforce, then do two in a row before reinforcing, then three, etc. Practice for 5 minutes and stop. You are building two things — duration of behavior without reinforcement and adaptation to new environments. The more you can do these two things the better your dog will get in rally.

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