DEAR OLD TRAINER: My 5-year old Doberman, Tony, obeys all commands except one—when he brings a stick he moves his head just enough to make sure I can’t get it. When I do grasp it, he wants to play tug of war instead of let it go. What do you do when one of your pack does that?
Jan, Santa Barbara, California
A: Make it part of the game. Most of my dogs drop it immediately because they can’t wait to chase it again, but Rocky, my aging German Shepherd/Border Collie mix, prefers keep-away. He growls and snarls and acts like a tough guy while he does and I suspect the growling is as much fun for him as the keep away.
That’s fine with me. He has been a great dog for so many years he deserves a say in how we do things. We are there to have fun, so if it makes him happy I add it to the game. He growls and I act like I can’t get it for a few tries, then I tell him to drop it. I may have to use my all-right-that-does-it-I’ve-had-enough voice, but when I do he drops it and the game starts again.
Luke, a new Border Collie I just added to the pack, brings me the stick, but when I grasp it he wants to play tug-of-war and growl while he pulls. Suits me. I pull and growl and tell him how strong he is. Every few tries I say, “oh, you’re too strong,” and let go. He loves that part.
Dogs are experts at inventing new variations of old games. It keeps their minds sharp and makes the games more fun so I take their advice.
I suggest you play along with Tony and add keep-away to the game. Let him enjoy taunting the boss but he has to learn to drop it when you give the command. There are several ways to do it. I prefer changing to a command posture, using a serious voice, and saying, “that’s enough, drop it.” If you show him you mean it, he will do it.
There are a couple of temporary solutions. One, have an extra ball and throw it. He has to drop the old one to chase the new one and learns it is pointless to play keep-away. Two, give the “drop it” command and if he doesn’t obey, go in the house and leave him standing alone.
The reason I apply the word “temporary” to those two solutions is you are trying to trick your dog rather than being a leader and teaching him to obey. They are useful for the short term while training Tony to obey the “drop it” command, but it’s a mistake to allow a dog to ignore commands while playing.
Rocky gets to play keep-away any time he wants because he knows part of the game is to drop it when I give the command. That way we’re both happy.
My advice is to watch Tony to see how he wants to play. When he has an idea, work it into your play routine. My one rigid rule is I refuse to chase a dog around the yard. If they want to play chase they can chase each other.
Other than that, what makes them happy makes me happy.
A trainer for more than 30 years, Jack Haskins has rescued, trained and placed more than 2,500 dogs. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.