Pup U
October 17, 2023

Playful Pup 201: Learning to Let Go of the Toy

This is the second lesson in our PuPU series, Playful Pup. In this lesson, you will learn how to get your dog to let go of the toy when playing tug-of-war. 

Pug playing tug with a rope toy

This is the second lesson in our PuP U series, Playful Pup. In this lesson, you will learn how to get your dog to let go of the toy when playing tug-of-war. 

Getting dogs to let go can be very frustrating for many people! Our attempts to pull the toy away or surprise a dog can sometimes make him more likely to hold on tight, no matter what we try.

Learn To Let Go

There are many possible ways to teach dogs to let go. Each requires patience. For dogs who love tugging, the opportunity to continue pulling is often the best reward. This means that your dog will learn that letting go is fun - because then he can play again.

Wait Them Out

After a short tug session, hold the toy still. Freeze up. Brace your hands against your leg if you need to. Hold the toy at about dog head height and wait. If your hands are not braced, the wiggling will probably be fun for him. Your dog will eventually let go - sometimes, this takes many minutes.

The moment your dog lets go, immediately give him permission to get the toy again. Give him a great tug session. Keep the toy active during tug time so that your dog really enjoys the game and can see a clear contrast between motion and stillness. Then freeze up and repeat the process.

Initially, you may have to wait a few minutes. But after about 5-10 reps, most dogs will let go more quickly - because they’re learning that letting go leads to more fun. 

Toys with many extra dangling legs, strings, or decorations are not as good for this activity. However, a basic stick-shaped rubber, plastic, rope, or fabric toy can be great.

Over time you will see your dog let go the moment you freeze up. This makes the game perfect for puppies. For example, if your puppy grabs clothing or something he shouldn’t have, you can just hold the item still, and your puppy will let go!

Treat Bribe

Start playing tug with your dog. We want enough play to be fun; 10-20 seconds is too short for many dogs to find it enjoyable. Then, hold the toy still with one hand. With the other hand, offer a high-value, smelly treat right at your dog’s nose. When he lets go of the toy, toss the treat to the ground. You might even give a few bonus treats. Sometimes it might take a minute for a dog to let go when new to this activity. 

Engage your dog in play again and repeat the process. Some dogs won’t go back to playing after getting the treat. You can keep playing to persuade your dog to play, or you can end the session and try again later.

Another Toy

Once you’ve finished some tug time, pick up a different toy that is the same kind or more fun. Invite your dog to let go of the one he has and grab yours for more fun and games. This is a great activity to make the game about interaction with you rather than just holding onto a particular special item. When you are the best resource, the reward is more powerful.

Add a Cue (Command)

Many families make the mistake of adding a “drop it” command when they want the dog to let go rather than when a dog is likely to let go. Unfortunately, this teaches dogs that “drop it” means to grab on harder because the person might try to pull the toy away!

Instead, try the above activities and play until your dog eagerly lets go of the toy. When this happens, we can add a cue.

Give your “Drop it” or another cue right before you present the strategy (freeze, treat, or second toy). Most dogs will catch on within a session or two and immediately let go on the word because they know what is happening next.

We will need to practice with a variety of toys and in a variety of environments to build reliability, but this is a great start!

Need a refresher? Check out Playful Pup 101: Tug of War Basics or get personalized one-on-one help today! 

Ready for the next step? Check out Playful Pup 301: Toys on a Stick for Dogs