Engaging Your Dog

As a professional dog trainer teaching anywhere from 7-10 classes a week, and working with countless behavior issues, by far the most common issue I see is lack of attention to the owner. The dogs learn that they can get more reinforcement from the environment than they can from their people, and that’s where all the trouble starts.

When the dog gets more pleasure from engaging with the environment than the person, I know the relationship is damaged. The damage is almost always NOT a result of harsh punishment, but usually a result of old fashioned thinking, “I must be in charge all the time and dominate my dog.” This simply isn’t the case and in fact, the opposite is true.

Think of a horse. If you put a bridle or halter on a horse and try to force or pull them, they will resist. It’s the same thing for dogs. Dogs respond much better when you don’t try to force them to do things. We want our dogs to want to work with us, but how do you get to that point? That’s the million dollar question.

It all starts with engagement. Engagement is getting your dog to want to be with you, working and having fun. If you have engagement, the obedience part of the equation is a breeze. An engaged dog would rather play tug, do some retrieving, or some fun treat training with you, than run off to sniff a fallen log.

Play and fun is the key to good engagement. Make it a point, especially when your dog is a pup, to play with them every day. Instill their prey drive, by teasing them with a tug toy, making it squirm around on the ground. For our weims, you can add a WHOA into this process, by making the toy “fly” away every time the dog jumps on it. At some point, the dog will stop and stand still, that is when you MARK (click or say YES) and reinforce (give a treat or re-engage the dog in a new round of chase the tug). Often times you can let the pup get the toy so they don’t get frustrated. But add in the “fly away”” often.

I wouldn’t do any hard tugging with a puppy until they have their adult teeth. Tugging should be reinforcing, and if you tug too hard, you could hurt their necks or it could be painful to their teeth if they are losing baby teeth and have adult teeth coming in.

It doesn’t need to just be about tugging. Most of our dogs love to retrieve. Use this love of retrieving to engage your dog.

Work on getting your dog to follow a food lure. Walk around and reinforce them very heavily when they are with you and paying attention. This is not about being in heel position. It’s about being “present” and engaged with and having fun with you.

Once your dog will engage with you in your house, it’s time to take the show on the road. Play with your dog in every different place you can come up with—the front or back porch, the front or back yard, the garage, the parking lot at the grocery store, the parking lot at the park, in the park, in your office, etc. The more new places you can think of to play and have fun with your dog, the better.

As your working dog gets a little older, he will start to see new places not as something he needs to go investigate or be stressed about, but as a cool new place to play with you! You want your dog thinking “what neat thing are we going to do here?”

As you may have guessed, 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. So read through my Tug Rules and Engagement Plan and give it a try and build a new relationship with your dog.


Tug teaches your dog a lot of good things.

  • It builds your relationship with your dog.
  •  When stressed, your dog seeks you out as a source for resolving his anxiety, with a game of tug, instead of engaging the environment.
  • It teaches him very good self control.
  • It teaches him to retrieve and bring the tug back to you and not play keep away.
  • It gives you a good recall!
  • It builds confidence.
  • When the desire to tug is powerful enough, you can use it as a reinforcement instead of food.
  • You always control the tug toy by deciding when the game starts and stops. You store it away from the dog, and bring it out when you decide to play.
  • Make sure your dog knows you are causing the tug game to happen by clearly moving him around with the tug. Don’t let him tug a static toy as that puts him in charge of the game and makes it harder to get the DROP IT or OUT.
  • Keep sessions short, 2-4 minutes or shorter (maybe even 5-10 seconds), to keep arousal low. Several short tugging sessions in a row are better than one long one.
  • If one tooth even accidentally touches your hand the game is over and try again later. Make sure you play fairly by offering the tug in such a manner that he won’t accidentally bite you.
  • Get them excited and tugging for 10 seconds. If dog becomes overly aroused (excessive growling) more quickly, stop sooner, even after a couple seconds.
  • Let the dog win a lot. This will ensure that he will want to bring it back to you. If you always win, he may start to want to possess the tug which is one step away from guarding it.
  • Always store the tug toy out of sight.
  • You can get the toy back in one of three ways, in order of my 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.


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.


  • 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.

One thought on “Engaging Your Dog

  1. I have a question on how to even get my 14 week old chocolate lab/German Shepard mix pup excited to play. He only gets excited for other dogs. I’ve had him for 4 weeks now, I took him home when he was 10 weeks old and he is just so mellow, I can’t figure out how to get him to play. I got him to learn the basic commands remarkably quick just using food, so he listens and is very smart. He just seems bored with everything and with me. I tried the tug engagement excersises and its like pulling teeth to get him to even bite the toy! He just wants the food!

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