Thursday, August 5, 2010

Play styles and realization

Before I got a dog, I had very specific ideas of what a dog was. One of the major ideas I had centered around play: Dogs like to play fetch. Period. Tennis balls, frisbees, sticks. Anything you could toss a dog would chase after. As far as I was concerned fetch was the number one thing dogs loved to do.

So when we were planning on getting a dog and I went to Petsmart to get treats and toys and beds and all the other paraphernalia one needs for a new dog, fetching toys were high on my list. I came back with a frisbee and tennis balls galore. I was all set for my marathon fetching sessions.

One of the first thing I did when I got Dahlia was show her the ball and toss it out into the yard. At this point, I expected the typical dog reaction: an excited and somewhat frantic race to the ball. Instead I got this:

Mom I do not understand what it is you have done...

She watched the ball fly away from me and then turned to look up at me with this sort of bored and confused look on her face. I could almost hear her thoughts: Mom, why did you throw that thing?

A dog who doesn't fetch? No, this isn't possible, right? Even if she doesn't bring the ball back to me, surely she would show interest in getting the ball, chasing the ball, right? But no. Not even a movement toward the ball. Not even a muscle twitch that told me she was interested in going after the ball. I found that utterly unbelievable. How does a dog not learn how to play fetch in the first two years of her life? I was sure she was play deprived and I would have to show her how to be a proper dog. I swear my motto when it came to dogs was Dogs Fetch.  That would be Canis Fetchis in Latin.

I spent many months getting her interested in toys and then pulling hard to get her to let go of them so I could toss them. Eventually, she started to get it.

Look Mom, I can fetch!

But still, I would have to tug on it to get it out of her mouth and throw it again. I didn't want to teach her a drop it command only because I was afraid doing so would make her lose interest in the game. I wanted her to play and playing should be on the dog's terms, right? So I would tug and tug and finally get the toy and throw it. She'd fetch it and the game would begin again.

Except she would lose interest after about 3 or 4 tosses of the toy and just lay down. I started to believe my dog was just not playful.

But then I began to realize something else. The times she was really playful and really got into the playing were the times when I was tugging on the toy. And I began to realize how many photos I had of her playing tug.




Dahlia loves tug. Loves it. I don't know why it took me this long to figure it out. Maybe it's because I was so locked into fetch as the ultimate in dog games that I didn't take the time to really watch her and realize that, while she enjoys fetching to some degree, she really lives for tug games.

Of course, there's the other side of this: A lot of people used to proclaim tug "dangerous." The reasons ran the gamut from making your dog more aggressive to making the dog dominant (especially if they're allowed to "win" the game). Many people have come up with very strict rules for tug games. You are only allowed to play the game if...If you don't let the dog win... If you teach them to drop the toy...If you don't let the dog leap for the toy. The list goes on and on.

I admit to playing this game with no rules. In play, my dog has leapt for the toy and has even made contact with my arm once when she miscalculated where the toy was. Dahlia is usually a quiet, calm dog, but we're working on agility now and I'm trying to build up some drive in her. Tug seems to be the way to do it. It really amps her up and I'm thrilled to see such excitement and drive coming out of her. I feel no need to put rules on it. Rules may end the play quickly with a dog like mine.

So we play tug with complete abandonment. She loves it. It's become a huge reward for her and I'm using it as a reward more and more. She greets someone nicely and relaxes while I chat with them? She gets to play tug afterward. I used to redirect her to fetching, but I'd throw the ball and end up having to get it myself. I've taken to letting her play tug with the leash on walks or bringing a toy and letting her tug on that. Recently, I've obtained a leash specifically meant for tug games. It's made out of braided fleece and has sheepskin woven into it. It's perfect for the dog who loves to tug!

Tug toy and leash were obtained through Tillie's Tuggies. A portion of the proceeds go to Glen Highland Farm, a local Border collie rescue. After having the leash and tug toy for only a couple days, I can honestly say that I highly recommend them for dogs who love tug games!

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