How To... Get The Toy Back After Play
How easy or difficult this is will depend on how old your dog is, how strong-willed he is and how much he wants to keep the toy. However, it is always possible to positively teach any dog to release the toy on cue with the right approach.
There are three stages:
- Finding a way to get your dog to release the toy
- Rewarding him for letting go
- Teaching your dog to let go on cue
In all cases, keep any rewards out of sight as your dog comes back to you. Keep hands away from his head and neck, and well away from the toy, and stroke him on the back instead. Try to forget about wanting to take the toy and concentrate on praising your dog for holding it instead. Wait for a while, to teach him that he can come to you without you trying to snatch the toy and to allow him time to get a bit bored with holding the toy (see 'How To Teach A Willing Retrieve' for more details).
Then work down the list below - if the first technique doesn't work, try the next one.
Offer your tastiest, smelliest, highest-value food at first so he gets into the habit of releasing as soon as food is produced. Keep the food out of sight as he arrives (in a back pocket perhaps), give a cue (such as 'leave'), just before you present the treat, wait for him to drop the toy and then feed immediately.
Offer another toy
While holding either your dog's collar or the toy he is holding, offer the chance of a game with other toy. Keep the new toy moving, wiggle it enticingly and keep it up until your dog starts to let go of the toy he is holding (concentrate on the new toy rather than your dog). As he begins to let go of the toy he carries, give your cue (e.g. 'leave'). Reward by throwing the new toy as soon as he releases.
Another way to do this is to allow your dog to be free, but to tease him with the new toy until he drops the one he’s holding. (Make sure he has brought the toy up close to you first before offering the second toy so you don't have to go far to pick it up.) Work hard to make the new toy seems really exciting but watch him out in your peripheral vision. Give the cue to ‘leave’ as he begins to drop the first toy and then throw the other as his reward for letting go.
Wait it out
Hold the toy in one hand and your dog’s collar in the other and bring him as close to your body as you can get. By doing this, you can keep him still, and if he is still, he cannot play, especially tug of war. Then just wait. Wait until he gets bored with holding the toy. As you see him begin to open his mouth, give your cue (e.g. 'leave') and offer another game as soon as he drops it.
If it is taking a long time, you can sometimes speed things up by gently pulling his collar in the opposite direction to the toy. However, some dogs strongly resist any pressure to release the toy and so it can be better just to wait.
Be patient and be prepared to wait for quite a few minutes until your dog releases. The next time you do it, it may take the same amount of time but, gradually, successive releases will happen more quickly and, given many repetitions, he will let go instantly.
Some dogs resist letting the toy go if you are holding on to it so, if your dogs holds on longer than 3 minutes, try letting the toy go instead but still holding him close so he cannot play.
Use a slippery cylindrical toy, such as a piece of hard plastic water pipe (from a builder’s merchants). It needs to be wide enough so your dog cannot grip it in his back teeth and has to hold it at the front of his mouth. The 'toy' can then be rotated when you want to remove it to loosen his grip and then gently slid out of the side of his mouth.
Warning: never put your fingers or thumbs into a dog's mouth to try to pries open his jaws. He could adjust his grip at the wrong moment and end up accidentally injuring you severely. Most dogs have the power to crush bones and can easily injure you if they think they are clamping down on a wriggling toy.
Rewards for letting go
Rewards need to be high value enough so that, next time you ask him to 'leave', your dog wants to let go more quickly. Think about what your dog wants at that moment. Is he hungry? Does he want the food? Does he want to play more? Make sure that whenever your dog releases, even if you had to make it happen, he gets the reward he wants instantly. Over time, and with many repetitions, he will begin to realise that it is worth giving up the toy as he gets something worthwhile for doing so.
Some dogs just like to hold on a toy. They don’t want anything in return; they just enjoy the feeling of possessing the toy rather than running after it or playing tug. These dogs are the hardest to reward. Some will respond to food. Some will respond to an exchange with a very favourite toy that you keep just for this purpose. Otherwise, just recognize that your dog enjoys holding onto the toy and don’t be too quick to ask for it back. It also helps if you let him carry the toy to and from play sessions so he has longer with it and it becomes less 'valuable'.
Putting release on cue
To put the toy release on cue, wait for the moment your dog begins to think about dropping the toy. Watch for subtle signs that he is getting ready, such as slight jaw trembling, mouthing of the toy, or relaxing of the muscles in the face. When you think he may be about to let go, give your cue (e.g. 'leave’'or 'drop'), quietly and without impatience, then wait until he releases before rewarding well. Eventually, after many repetitions (be patient), he will begin to release one cue.
If you repeatedly take the toy away and keep it, your dog will begin to avoid letting you get it. Play fair by throwing the toy again as soon as you get it, or exchange it for a tasty food treat. By doing this, you are teaching your dog that it is always worth giving up the toy to you.