Unit Four – Play and Toys

What toys  to use and games to play?

We can use lots of games in gundog training as rewards. Play retrieves are excellent and you can if you choose also play tug. This is a rather controversial subject in gundog training. I myself do not play tug , but I know plenty of positive trainers who do without problems. I’m just not prepared to take the risk, I’m pretty creative enough with my rewards that I don’t need it in my reward tool box.  I have included it here for you to make your own choice.  I do recommend it to pet owners as it is a great relationship building and self control game.

Arousal and Energy

Toy rewards will create motivation they will also create high arousal and use up energy. This needs to be taken into account when training with regards to rests and breaks. High arousal is good because it enables you to teach self-control and gives you opportunity to work the dog in high arousal preparing for the field and helping them manage themselves when in this state of mind.

There is a fine line though, with a gundog you don’t want to trigger vocalisation and too much high arousal play. This will happen with a dog who lacks self-control. So it is about increasing the intensity of arousal as the self-control develops and work them together.

Playing Tug Games

There are lots and lots of different thoughts and ideas around playing tug with your dog these are the main three ideas

  • Don’t play tug with your dog because it can make them aggressive
  • It’s ok to play tug but you must win some of the games to show that your dominant/pack leader
  • It’s just okay to play tug

I work with idea 3 and these are the reasons why

Idea One

This believes that tugging is a predatory game and can make your dog aggressive

Tugging is a predatory game however all of the games your dog plays is predatory play and part of a predatory sequence of events

Chasing is predatory play, catching is predatory play, retrieving is predatory play, tugging is predatory play and pulling the stuffing out of toys and beds is predatory play. Sniffing is looking for opportunity to indulge in predatory play

The predatory sequence goes like this

Eye > Stalk > Chase> Grab Bite>Kill Bite> Dissect> Consume

Chasing tennis balls is chase, retrieving is grab bite, tugging and ragging is killed bite, gutting teddies is dissect

If your puppy has a natural desire to play tug games, then he probably already does inappropriately; grabbing the lead is a tug game, stealing the tea towel is a tug game, hanging off yours or children’s trousers is a tug game.  I would prefer that I gave the dog an appropriate and controlled outlet for these activities



Idea Two

Firstly all current literature and research tells us that dogs are not trying to control our lives, dominate us or take over the world.  Secondly if you are to take up an activity or sport and you continued to lose what would you do?  You would probably give up and do something else. If you win all the tug games your puppy will probably just think you’re not fun to play with and stop playing these games with you, maybe even stop playing with you all together

The only time I would suggest that you might want to not to play tug with your dog is if you are going to train it as a working Gundog to retrieve game in this instance it would be personal preference as to whether you feel this might or might not affect your dogs performance in the field


Idea three

If you watch dogs playing tug games together you will see that there is a lot of variation on who wins and loses, they are just having fun together. Tug is mostly fun if somebody is holding the other end, so it is a great interactive game to play with your dog and is excellent for relationships building because the dog prefers it when you are involved

If you are playing tug correctly with your puppy when you release the toy and let them win, I would expect them to look at you in disgust and slap the toy back on your knee or your hand for you to grab hold of again. This is a good sign that you’re playing tug properly and you have a nice relationship with your puppy. Some puppies are vocal when they are playing tug and you may hear some growls, this is nothing to worry about some puppies are just more vocal than others.



Using tug to teach a puppy to let go

What is important is we have a good start and end to the behaviour, that the puppy knows when it has permission to take the article and also when to drop/let go

Give a ‘take it’ or ‘get it’ cue and start the tug game by encouraging the puppy to chase the toy, keep the tug toys low to the ground so the puppy is not leaping around in the air and potentially causing damage to its joints or running the risk of twisting sharply and pulling a muscle or causing a strain.

Move it around like it’s a snake on the ground


In the early stages of this training and play, allow the puppy to sometimes win the toy

When playing tug and tugging with the puppy make sure that you are quite active in moving the toy

To get the puppy to release bring the toy nice and close to your body and hold it very still waiting patiently for the puppy to choose to let go of the toy.


As soon as the puppy releases, mark this good decision with a verbal marker ‘good’ and start playing again


So the puppy learns if you release the toy it will cause me to play again.  The puppy will become very comfortable and excited about releasing they toy.


Once the puppy is releasing happily you can start to add a verbal cue

You can use ‘thank you’, ‘leave it’, ‘drop’, ‘off’ or ‘out’ as your release command

When I have finished playing tug you can put the Tuggy away and keep it as a training toy. As the puppy releases the tuggy and let’s go, this time exchange for a food treat then put the tuggy away. It is good to have a selection of puppy toys that the puppy has access to all the time and also training toys that are your toys that the puppy gets to play with when with you

This is a great way to teach your puppy to comfortably let go of items, which you can then use this if your puppy has grabbed and picked up something you would like it to release.

This approach is not suitable for bigger, stronger dogs if you are unable to hold yourself still. For example I would not be able to do this with a 7 month Rottweiler. There are two other approaches I use for bigger stronger dog. This however is perfect for puppies


Watch the Video Tutorial


Retrieve and Object Exchanges

These games will help avoid resource guarding and stealing of objects. Resource Guarding is where a dog will show aggression to guard and protect something it perceives of value. This can be food, toys, comfy places or stolen objects.

It is important before you start these games you recap on the “understanding body language and physical contact” session as these will play an important part in the success of this activity

You can start by encouraging your pup to play with the toy, then throw the toy


As the puppy chases and then pics up the toy you are going to encourage the puppy using inviting non threating body language (kneel down, back straight, arms open) towards you, as your puppy comes in you can give your puppy physical praise and verbal praise. What is important is you don’t try to take the object from the puppy, you are going to allow them to keep it and hold it while you give your puppy a fuss.


At some point the puppy may drop the object. As the puppy drops the object, you can either throw the toy again to play, or give the puppy a treat from a tub that is nearby and then continue the play.

If the puppy has not dropped the object but you feel the puppy is close and relaxed with you, then you can then get hold of the object. I say thank you to the puppy as the puppy releases. If the puppy doesn’t release then you can get your treat from your pocket and do a swap.


Don’t play retrieving for too long as puppies can lose interest and get bored, you need to stop before the puppy loses interest and gets bored.


Using two toys for a puppy that is reluctant to bring or give up at toy

You can also play with the pup using two toys. Make sure that the toys are of the same value, ideally identical toys are used.

If you have a dog who is reluctant to bring a toy and come close, it is important you carefully select either a long tug, large teddy or something on a rope like a ball or kong.


To take a tennis balls from a puppy’s mouth is quite invasive and gets right in their personal space. This can make them feel worse about you taking things so I would avoid small toys and tennis balls to start with this type of puppy . With a large toy, tug or ball on a rope you can get hold of the toy without getting in the dogs personal space.


You will kneel or sit down for this to start, have one toy behind your back and throw out the other toy. See if I can encourage the puppy towards you. As the puppy comes as close as it can comfortably, towards you with the toy in its mouth, click. I usually a verbal click in this scenario my verbal click is ‘good’.


Then throw the other toy.  As the puppy drops the toy and goes to get the one you have thrown, you can pick up the dropped one and put it behind your back. I would then again encourage the puppy towards me with the toy it has and then repeat.

You can then start to only click if the dog is a little closer each time until it is happy to come right in and you can eventually put your hand on the toy.

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Copyright © 2019 Jane Ardern BSc (Hons)


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