Friday, March 11, 2011

Building a solid tug

Cohen is a very food motivated dog, and 95% of her training has been via food reinforcement. She's a breeze to handle with food, for which I've always been extremely grateful.

However, now that we're beginning to dabble in sports it's becoming increasingly apparent that she would benefit from a strong toy/tug drive. Last week my agility instructor approached me and said that I would essentially be selling myself short if I wasn't able to get Cohen motivated for a tug on the course. Oh my.

The problem is that Cohen loses all interest in playing when food is around, or when she expects food. Her tugging was also quite weak (more bite and slash instead of tug and hold). And more irritatingly, she's always adored playing keepaway. She can always be called back if she's playing with people, but with dogs her recall turns to mush as she leads them on a merry chase. So when we're working with tugs in class her eyes are always on her neighbour's toy which is of course more appealing than her own.

I've been aware of this problem for a few months now and have been working on improving her drive to tug. I'm really starting to see an improvement, but she's not ready to tug in the distraction and toy filled sports class.

I bought a special tug toy that I keep above my dresser that I use for the most exciting tug games. Cohen's eyes get wide and her tail starts to wag when she sees me reach for it. The increased frequency at which we tug has helped immensely with her grip and she's now much more capable of holding on instead of constantly biting at it. I also played around a bit with shaping a tug, which Cohen did well at to start but both her and my interest waned before we progressed too far.

Now I'm faced with the challenge of weaning her off food rewards in agility class. The problem I have is that I'll have a toy and throw it ahead after she's completed a line of jumps, but she doesn't give it a second glance -- she'll circle back to me for a food reward.

With certain obstacles I'd use the toy as a secondary reward -- if she ran to it and played with it I would reward her with food. But I felt as if this approach meant that I was rewarding the going for the toy, not the behaviour on the obstacle.

Any ideas on how I might start switching from one type of reward to another? Right now I'm focusing on getting Cohen more comfortable tugging in class, but we've still got a ways to go yet.

Also, here's a video of a particularly fun quasi-tug session. If only she were always this into it! (You can really see how shiny her coat is here too!)


  1. What about the tug toys you can put food in from ?

  2. That's not a bad idea. I looked at those a while ago but opted to try something else. Maybe it's time to look at them again.

    Someone in my agility class uses a stuffy stuffed with liver and tripe to get her non-toy-driven dog excited. It's probably time I gave that a go too. Thanks!