Training the OUT!

I think training a good out is super important because it signifies the game is balanced and without conflict between you and the dog.

Many people have trouble playing tug with their dogs and one of the most common problems is getting back the tug. Many people find that their dog will not out the tug and they add pressure to the dog to try and force the dog to hand over the prey.

Does this work? Well sometimes it does but often it comes at a cost.

What’s the cost?

Adding pressure to a dog will often reduce drive, therefore the dog lets go of the prey (tug). Some people really pressure the dog and therefore push the dog out of prey drive and into avoidance. In fact many people believe it is standard practice to drive the dog into avoidance to get compliance to a command, including the out.

Some people ramp up the pressure and the dog just walks away from the game, so you have lost your motivator now.

Some other dogs are hard, there isn’t enough pressure in your tone or voice so tools have to be used. Remote collars, prong collars, check chains are used to push the dog either through avoidance or escape methods.

Some dogs are socially dominant and if you try pressure them they will turn on you.

Is pressure wrong ?

Not at all but whilst it may get you an out, it may come at the cost of precious drive or damage your relationship with your dog.

When I introduce tug to a young dog or puppy for the first time, I at that same time teach the out. It is the cornerstone of my training in drive program which builds a super bond between the dog and the owner, creates balance in the dog and allows the handler or trainer to gain maximum performance from their dog, with the dog offering the out willingly.

You may be reading this and have a problem with the out, I wish I could give you a simple fix but the problem is often built under many layers that need to be unfolded. When I work with a dog that has an out problem, it most often doesn’t take me long to unfold the layers and get the dog outting happily.

In many cases you have to understand that if you approach the problem of a dog that won’t out the same way you have created the problem, you can’t expect to see a change. You will need to take a different approach that signifies to the dog change has occurred.

Your dog will follow suit and make changes too. Once you have your dog in this new learning mode, you need to shape the new behaviour and teach your dog the benefits of outting the tug. Once trained you need to maintain that also!

If I can give you some advice, it is this.

  • The out isn’t the end if the game
  • The out isn’t about you taking back your toys
  • The out isn’t about pack structure or who is boss
  • It isn’t about strength or pressure either.
  • Outting must benefit the dog before it can benefit you.

It should be though always considered an exercise, just like the sit, the down, the fetch or any other exercise.

In other words, never stop rewarding it.

I am sure that there are many people reading this that have come to the d of this article and are disappointed that there isn’t a step by step guide to teaching the out or correcting an out problem. For those people try and understand that, your problem likely lays in the way you play with your dog.

Your looking for a technique rather than focusing on the instinctual concept that your dog works on.Venom Steve-1-4

It is the difference between your technique driven approach and the dogs instinct that commonly creates the problems. For example, when someone asks me, “what do you do Steve when your dog outs the tug?“.

My answer is that I have about 20 different reactions to it, each one being unpredictable and very rewarding to the dog, I never just say thanks and put it away…

As always love to hear your comments!


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  1. Hey Steve,

    Trust all is well with you, thought I would drop you quick line to tell you awesome progress news. This weekend we attended a seminar with Denise Fenzi (AKC obed & IPO), the topic being Drives and Motivations. Jarrah did her outs beautifully, and her tug game has improved so much that, I think that she along with another client of yours, Roscoe the GSD were the best, most prey driven & tug loving dogs at the seminar! (subjective opinion ofc, but I think I’m right).

    Anyway, we have been followed all your advice, which was some months ago now so we’ve lots of practice time to get good. Denise called Jarrah the Alligator dog because she is so determined about her tugging. She also said she was a very stable dog, so I’m very proud of her! 😀

    Anyway, just wanted to let you know the two best tug players were both your clients.

    Thankyou again for all your help!

    • Hey Chris good to hear from you, yep I heard from Jen that Roscoe showed his skills, glad Jarrah did too, long way from the first time I saw her eh? lol.

      Well done, Steve

  2. I saw Steve recently about this exact issue. I tried lots of different techniques and failed – trying to wait it out on a dead tug, 2 frisbee swap, food and a few other methods. so prior to seeing him I had 5 years of failure in getting an out. It was a pretty ingrained problem.

    For me a new technique wouldn’t have solved the issue of WHY she wasn’t outing in the first place. With a good dog (like mine :p) with nice drives if there’s a problem with the out it’s likely a handler issue. My problem was related to how I played with her, I taught her wrong, causing possessiveness of the item, and conditioned that in pretty comprehensively. Derp. Most of our consult was not teaching the “out”, it was Steve explaining about drives, how and why she’s possessive and methods to overcome that. Giving me enough education to see where I was going wrong in the first place.

    The out came easily then. It wasn’t the “training” that did it for me, it was the understanding of why I was failing that I was missing, the actual method probably didn’t even matter so much really in the end. There’s lots of effective methods of teaching an “out” to a dog, getting an owner to understand how to create in their dog a mindset where it sees “out” as way to get to a tug game reward is trickier. It wasn’t about training the dog, the dog’s fine, she just does what I set the conditions up to make her do given her drives, the problem was i was setting the conditions up for her to think tug was about possession of the toy, not about the actual game itself.

    At the end of the consult I bought some nylon & firehose tugs, and Steve gave me a leather one as gift. I didn’t realise how valuable the leather tug would be, it is the perfect surface for Jarrah, she loves it to tug, it’s been the best surface for her to learn our new way of playing, which I never would have discovered except for that gift.

    So, an update Steve, on where we are now, since this looks like an appropriate spot to mention it (I hope it is). On the nylon & firehose tugs she’s great, I get a nice clean out anywhere we go. 😀 On the leather tug at home I get a good clean out, I haven’t tried it out in the world yet but I am actually quite confident she’d do well with outing it even in the most exciting of environments now. On the French Linen, well she adores that surface, she’s sticky on it still, it’s a bit self satisfying for chewing even if i stop actively playing, we get an out on it in the house but it’s not a nice quick, clean one like I get with the other toys yet, so I wouldn’t be confident with an “out” on that french linen tug outside the house & yard yet. We will get there though. I haven’t played with the frisbee for a good while since fetch enabled the self satisfying away from me and having to work so hard to get it (swim fetch) that helped facilitate that possessiveness, but as a tug toy it’s canvas surface is pretty hard and unyielding, so I guess it’d rank alongside the nylon toys, were all possessiveness conditioning of that particular item to be put aside.

    On the possessiveness front we are doing well I think. I am doing a lot of leaping backward as we play and encouraging her bring the toy forward to me, which she’s doing really well with. when I let go and move back she is pushing into me to tell me to grab the tug and play more. When she does that I give her a really good game. There’s still room for improvement there, but we’re progressing well.

    On the fetch front with possessiveness, I am using food drive instead of prey drive to get her to fetch items. I mentioned I have a few balls lying around the house, that being ever present, are zero drive invokers for her. She isn’t into playing with them. One is a kong dental kind of ball, I have taught her to bring it to me, by putting a bit of kibble in it’s crenellations. She brings it to me when she wants another bit of kibble put in it. She ‘s not quite putting it in my hand, I could get that if I were a bit more stringent about what I reward when she gives it, right now she only just has to touch me with her nose anywhere on the body with the ball in her mouth then put the ball down, and i mark and put a bit of kibble in the ball. It’s actually become a pretty cool game, since it’s a food drive, not a prey drive game it’s pretty relaxed, and a nice little extra reinforcement on the idea that bringing items to me is great, in a different context from the usual tug games.

    So thus ends that 5 years of no “out”, now we have a really good “out” and her mindset in seeing tugging as the reward as opposed to possession of the item being rewarding like before. What I wanted was to be able to use the tug as an effective obedience reward. Which it is now, so far all i am doing is easy stuff like sits, stays and downs so i don’t delay between the out and the tug reward for more than a few seconds atm. The rehab has been lot faster and more easy than I had anticipated, but I am erring on the side of caution a bit with that, and making the time between out and reward quite short just to be sure, I could probably stretch it more than i am doing quite comfortably. So there we go, tug, best possible obedience reward for a dog like this – we can finally take advantage of it! Yay.

    Thanks for your help Steve!!

  3. hey Steve, thanks for the advice.

    I tried the “collar” method, and while most dogs might let go within a few seconds, Rosko wouldn’t. He’s stubborn, and I challenge anyone to out-wait him. The prey item is his, and he’s keeping it, damnit! I had “success” if you can call it that, with an e-collar, but what you said about “wont out unless your within collar grabbing distance”, well, something similar applies. Rosko would out when he saw me reach for the e-collar transmitter! Dang, he is too smart for me! I can see why some trainers would have success with this method – with SOME dogs. After a long time, it kinda worked, but there is still sometimes a slight hesitation which differentiates Rosko from a really well trained dog.

    I tried substituting food, but while Rosko’s food drive is very, very high, his prey drive is higher. You could see the look in his eyes as he weighed up whether giving up the tug toy was worth the food reward – you know, he’s looking sideways at the food while holding on for dear life. 🙂 Eventually he would give in, but it meant waiting until his prey drive had come down a couple of notches. Next time, same thing. And next time, and next time…..

    I’ve watched all 4 hours of the Ellis DVD, and I don’t know how helpful it was to me. I watched him work with his Mal, which was absolutely mind blowing!!!! Wow! So yeah, I can see why you can’t give us a “generalised technique” that will work with all dogs, and why good trainers can appear superhuman to mere mortals, because they’ve worked with a dog since puppyhood, and done all the right things along the way, or because they’ve picked the right dog for their demo.

    Anyway, I’m going to try the multiple tug-toy method because I reckon that will work. It will work because as soon as he sees the second toy, he’ll want it. btw. I would have come back for more consults, but it’s a long way, and I kind of gave up on reaching competition standard. It’s a pity that Rosko didn’t end up with a better trainer than me. (Funnily, people who watch us train often come up and say how great he is, and I’ve even heard from people who have been told by other people about “the amazing German Shepherd”. It’s all relative.)

    • Hi Dub, thanks for your reply, having a very good dog since being a puppy gives us the opportunity to teach a dog only what we want them to learn, but of course you need to know how lol. Michael Ellis is a great trainer, I haven’t had the opportunity to watch the video’s but will some day, but I know his work and respect it.

      I seem to get a lot of people who have watched the video’s coming to me as they can’t seem to apply the methods, I guess this is because what works for a high drive Malinois may not work for all dogs and dogs that don’t have a clean slate waiting to be written on.

      I think many programs aim at getting the result but not taking how they want the dog to think into consideration.

  4. Because Marianne, what you have described is a technique, a number of steps, I explained that each dog is different and that playing tug is instinctual not technique driven. The way I would train this is going to be based on the dog, its drives, nerves and previous tug / out experience.

    It isn’t as simple as 123.

    Who is the trainer who is the best in the world that uses these steps, I will guarantee that she will not relegate teaching the out down to a number of pre set steps.

    • I get that you don’t want to give the exact method, or a step by step process, but this post doesn’t even give the slightest hint about how to do it, which is quite disappointing considering that your fb post about it made it seem like it would answer questions about training the out. I get that it depends on the dog, but I think if you’re going to write about it, you could at least have included an example or two. This post simply tells people what not to do, which isn’t going to help anyone.

      • It is funny that you say it wont help anyone, we have received emails already saying it has. On our Facbook page it says that “Steve shares his thoughts on training a great out”.

        It doesn’t say that I will be teaching a step by step approach. Come to a workshop or lesson, if that is part of the topic list you will see how to train it with a number of dogs.

        If I write out a generalised technique and you try this with a dog that is defensive, aggressive or fearful, you would be bitten or it wont work, simply because you would be applying the technique to a dog that it working through instinct.

        To help you though, here is an example: –

        The dog in this situation is a socially dominant rank aggressive German Shepherd.
        The dog will not release the tug and if any pressure is used the dog will bite. This is due to pressure being ineffectively used in the past.

        I back tie the dog on a harness, this means that the dogs energy is spent partially through the harness not monstering the tug.

        I have five tugs laying by my side, I play tug with the first one. The dog grips and wont let go, I drop the tug and present the second one, as the dog lets go of the first one I say give. Give was used with this dog because out has been poisoned.

        I repeat the same steps and the dog outs faster on tug two once I let it go.

        Dog is now holding tug three and I stop the game by holding the tug still. The dog thrashes the tug and I allow my arms to go loose.

        The dog can do nothing except out the tug, when he does I give a release cue and allow the dog to re grip this tug and I play a great game with him.

        This process is expanded to only use one tug, it keeps the dog in one drive (prey) the whole time and the dog outs because he believes it is to his advantage,

        • Thanks, that actually helps a lot. I get that this doesn’t work for every dog, but examples are always helpful and adds to my training tools, and I can create different variations of this method depending on the dog I’m working now that I know the specifics.

          Curious though, how is holding the tug still while the dog is tied up different from grabbing the collar or leash? The point of grabbing the collar is for the tug to go limp, and collar grabbing would’ve already been conditioned as something pleasant, and isn’t something the dog hates. (I get that with this dog it would be dangerous to grab the collar, but it seems like just another variation of the same game).

          • When you reach out to grab a dogs collar, you can stimulate oppositional reflex, the dog see’s an action such as this as pressure. If the dog is like the one I described and you add pressure it will bite you. When you use a back tie the dog is being held back from you, not held back by you.

            If you condition the collar grab as something the dog likes, it is an extra step that needs to be trained so you can run this collar grab method, and it still may trigger oppositional reflex. It also only leaves you with one hand to hold the tug and puts you in a position to be bitten by the wrong dog.

            Some dogs will never find the sensation of having their collar grabbed pleasant due to a poor history or genetics.

  5. Hey Marianne, the problem with grabbing the collar is that it can produce fallout that we don’t want. Things like the dog wont out unless your within collar grabbing distance. Dogs that chew or mouth the tug are usually doing so out of stress and this can cost valuable drive and it can also transfer chewing onto something like the dumbbell.

    You can use food but you are also teaching the dog to come out of prey drive for the tug and go into food drive. This in itself can present problems so it isn’t the way I like to go.

    Keep in mind that all of these are OK if your playing a simple tug game, but if you want to train in drive or train the dog for work or sport, then having a clear headed dog that understands the out is a rewarding exercise is better.

    • So you’ve explained how not to do it. Why don’t you explain how to do it?

      Btw, the method I use is also used by one of the best trainers in the world, and her out is very reliable, and a distance out would just be a matter of working up to it, wouldn’t it?

  6. This is how I train it:

    I get the dog tugging nicely, then I give the out command. When the dog doesn’t let go (which he doesn’t because he doesn’t know the command) I grab his collar (or the leash) and just release the tension on the tug so that it’s all very boring. Most dogs will let go after a few seconds. As soon as the dog lets go, I mark (“yes”) and give the tug back and keep tugging. Most dogs learn to let go instantly within 2 minutes.

    Some dogs start chewing the tug instead, and for those dogs I give the command, then present a treat in front of their noses with my other hand. Dogs lets go of tug to get the treat. As soon as the dog has swallowed the treat, I give the tug back and keep tugging. This usually takes 3-4 repetitions before the dog let’s go when given the command. Very important to give he command, THEN present the treat, not the other way around.

    This is also how I train “drop it”.

  7. Michael Ellis has created a DVD through Leerburg all about tugging. It goes for about 4 hours with a section on outting that goes for nearly an hour, so it’s completely understandable that you can’t encompass the ‘out’ in one blog post!

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