Today I made some really interesting observations while working on playing tug with Sei.
Sei has only recently gotten strong enough at playing tug for me to require an ‘out’/’drop’/’give’ cue, so we were working on that today. One of the ways to teach that, is to say ‘drop’, then put your hands on both sides of the toy near their mouths and wait until they let go, then immediately releasing the dog to the tug again (so dropping the toy on cue always leads to more play). I did this three times times, Sei dropped the toy immediately with my hands pretty far away from his face, and things seemed to be going to plan. Until I held the toy out with both hands horizontally and gave Sei his tug marker (release to tug/marker word), and he hesitated. I had to cue him twice more and take a few steps back before he believed me.
Sei hadn’t shown hesitation before this and it gave me pause. I had come across an article/podcast at some point in the past, I think it might have been something by Sarah Stremming? I can’t remember now, but I had read/heard an article/podcast somewhere on proofing done poorly, and how when dogs get hesitant about their release cues, it’s a sign of confusion. This wasn’t a proofing scenario, but the hesitation around an understood release cue was there, so I started looking at the situation for what Sei might be finding confusing. I figured it was likely that my presentation of the toy, with one hand on either end of the tug, held out horizontally so it is easy for him to grab, might look too similar to me having my hands on either side of his mouth on the toy. Really, the difference between my hands in both scenarios is only a few inches.
So, I tried again, but without the pressure for the release. Adding verbal cues is hard for me, and I generally hesitate to add them until I am *really* sure the behaviour is ready. But I was in experimentation mode so I tried anyway. I tried making the toy as ‘dead’ as I could (no motion, which is hard because Sei will keep backing up until there is tension on the toy again, but I did my best), standing up in a less playful stance, and then said ‘drop’. And he spit the toy out (which he had never done with the body language process alone). Then immediately went back to it when I said tug. We tried a few more times in that session, and again this evening without any more hesitation.
I figured something out on the fly in a training session! That might be a first! I get so worried about having to do everything perfectly the first time with Sei, for fear of ruining behaviours forever that I don’t start working on anything at all. It is the little moments like this one, where something doesn’t quite work, but I am quickly able to notice what is happening and pivot directions with no ill effect, that are slowly getting me out of that analysis paralysis. Its not gone yet, but hopefully it will get a bit better!