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Puppy Toy Play Skills

I work on toy play from the day my puppy comes home, it’s easy for bad habits to be created if undesirable behaviors are rehearsed too many times. I also think some of these behaviors are easier to teach little puppies, and can be much harder as they become older and more independent. My dogs have toys all over the house and yard that they can play with on their own. I also have tug toys that I save specifically for training (mostly because they are pretty expensive LOL).

Not every dog or breed will love playing with tug toys. I think you can foster a love of tug if you start early enough, but this will be easier with some dogs than others. I believe in using the reinforcement that the dog wants the most, so if your dog prefers food - use it! Don't force toy play on them if they really don't want it.

When you watch the vidoe examples below - note when I’m tugging with Prim as a tiny puppy, it is very gentle…I am mostly moving around the letting the motion act as the resistance for tugging. We don’t want to be thrashing around too hard on their little, growing bodies. Keep that in mind as they get older, you should be bouncing them around or up and down.

I often reach in with my other hand to touch or pat her while we are tugging, this helps them not shy away when being reached for and some dogs really like that style of playing.

Find the right toy for little puppy mouths. When they still have their baby teeth it's important to use soft toys that are easy to grip. I like braided fleece toys at this stage.

This post will outline the start of the start of my retrieve training and building value for tug. The last game starts to introduce impulse control with the toy. There are other games to continue working on impulse control, but that will be another post ;)

1. Two Toy Switch

The first game I like to play is encouraging the puppy to play with the active toy I have. Start with two of the same toy and make one move around in an exciting way, to encourage the dog to play with it. After playing tug with that toy, hold it still and make the other toy become exciting in your other hand... wiggle it around until the dog decided to leave the first toy and go play with the new toy. Give them a good play session, then switch back to the first toy.

It's important to be gentle with your tugs and let them win some of the time.

Video Example -

2. Toy Returns – Video example for retrieve foundation -

Once the two toy switch is going well, I start to work on toy returns. If I let go of the tug during a play session, I want them to bring it back to my hands. This is the start of the retrieve training. When I let go of the toy, I let go pulling the puppy away from me – creating an opposition reflex that helps them move back towards me (versus letting go when she is pulling away from me). Then I pat the floor or move my hands around while encouraging them to bring it back – I say something like “bring bring bring”. Once they decide to bring it back – a big game of tug continues. I make sure to start this in a very small space (I use my office) so there isn’t anywhere for her to run off with the toy. I don’t want to take the toy very often from her (this is a reason they won’t want to bring it back), so I let her “win” often by release the toy away from me and encouraging her to bring it back to continue more tug.

If your puppy is taking the toy off on their own work on it in a smaller space or use a longer toy. So when you let go of part of it, you can keep a hold on the other end to “reel” the puppy back in. I want them to learn that the most fun part of toy play is tugging with me. I did try this in my backyard with Prim, she took off with the toy to play on her own…so I worked it inside for a few more days before trying again.

3. Releasing the toy

When I finally need to get the toy, I use a food trade. I have a cookie in my opposite hand it touch the side of their muzzle with it. When they let go of the toy to get the food, I say my “give” cue. As they get older, I start to reward them for releasing the toy with immediately cueing them to get the toy again. If the toy is higher value than the food, they may start to not drop the toy for the food…so it’s important to reward them with what they want – getting the toy again!

4. Retrieving a Thrown Toy

Always start with a game of tug to remind them that is super fun and to get them interested in the toy. Then hold them in the collar, toss the toy a short distance. Use excitement building words like “ready, steady”, then let go and use a marker cue that tell them to get the thrown toy like “get it”. Once they pick up the toy, encourage them to bring it back the same way you were doing on the toy returns. It’s important to do this in a small, controlled space. Notice that I was throwing the toy into a corner to encourage her to bring it back towards me and not give her space to run away.

Then I progress to standing up and making it a more formal retrieve. Since Prim was getting good at returning the toy to hand, I started asking her to jump up on my leg to bring the toy to hand without me bending down. One – this saved my back not bending down all the time. Two – this encourage them to bring the toy close to you.

After lots of successful retrieve practice in a small space, move onto a larger area. I always mix in letting them win the toy after they retriever and doing some of the toy returns we talked about above.

If your puppy is running off with the toy and rewarding themselves…attach your toy to a long line or leash so when you throw it, you can keep a hold of the line and help real the dog back in for a game of tug. We want them to realize that tug with you is way more fun than playing by themselves….so we need to limit how much they get to take the toy and run off by themselves.

5. Tug Sit Tug

Once they have an established love of the toy, I start to work on some impulse control. The first game is tug sit tug – where I want my dog to offer a sit and hold the sit while a toy is presented, then only take the toy when verbally cued to.

Puppies with baby teeth don’t have the best grips, Prim would lose grip on the toy while tugging and immediately dive back towards the toy and majority of the time miss the toy and get my hand. So part of the video example you’ll see below is me working on her offering a sit if she loses her grip on the toy – this saved me some blood ;)

This video example is not her first time, so you’ll see me waiting for a bit of duration before releasing her. If you haven’t done this before, as soon as the puppy offers a sit – you will immediately cue them to get the toy. Then I want to slowly show them the toy and make sure they are waiting for the verbal cue (I use “get it”). If I show them the toy and they get up, I pull the toy away and wait for them to sit again. If they fail twice in a row, you’re making it too hard. Make it a shorter duration next time.

In the video I am still using a food trade to get the toy from her, if your dog has a verbal “give” already, you don’t need to trade for food.

I start to make it harder by moving away a few steps, or holding the toy lower. I’ll also start to add in some verbal distractions like “ready steady”.

If your dog gets “sticky” and doesn’t offer a sit, move them a little bit and try again. You’ll see me do a little push away game with Prim when she got stuck, which would then result in a quick sit.

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