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I adopted an 18 month old pit bull from a shelter about a month ago and I have been trying to train him to play tug and fetch to help strengthen our relationship and give him efficient exercise.

However, I am having trouble teaching him to let go of the rope safely. I have already taught him to take it and let go on command, but when he's playing, this doesn't work anymore. Once I bring treats into the situation, he loses interest in the game.

So, I have tried several techniques to make him let go of the without treats. For example, I have tried to hold the toy completely still or letting it become limp, but often when I do this he tries to bite the toy again to get a better grip. The further my hand is on the toy, the more he moves his mouth, which makes this dangerous. I've had the most success by putting my hand much closer to his mouth and holding both ends of the rope. Usually then he doesn't bite as much (so as to avoid biting my hand), but occasionally does bite the rope again and accidentally nips my hand. When he does this I try to yelp and leave the situation, but this usually doesn't affect him too much (maybe he can sense my yelp is not earnest).

I have tried a couple other things including putting my hands over his eyes, which doesn't do anything and feels dangerous, and also moving his direction when he tugs to stop the game.

To me this is a necessary thing to teach him, as he has a lot of energy and I'm afraid some days I will not be able to take him on a 2-3 hour walk as I'm fortunate enough to do now. I only wish I could have had him as a puppy so that I could have taught him this before his jaw got so strong.

Are there any other safe techniques I can try that do not involve food?

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One of the biggest mistake many dog owners do is trying to pull something from their dogs mouth. To a dog, this feels either like play or like stealing, and it always creates counter-pull. The absolutely biggest mistake some dog owners do is causing their dogs pain on order to make them release the toy, like pinching their lips or slapping their noses. This is the most counterproductive thing you can ever do, because you want your dog to like the toy as a reward, and mixing reward with pain achieves the complete opposite.

I found some very good and short instructional videos on Youtube:

(In case you were wondering about some strange words you hear, he uses the common German commands "aus" meaning stop or leave it and "platz" meaning lay down.)

In the first video, he explains how to hold the toy: Cover both ends of it with your own hands, leaving enough room for your dogs snout plus an inch left and right. Don't pull the toy away or twist your hands, or your dog might miss his target and nip you.

He also explains that it's extremely important to allow your dog to continnue playing with the toy immediately after he released it on command. If he's a good boy and releases the toy, he gets to play. If he doesn't, you stop playing with him and make the toy uninteresting. If you stop playing after he released it, you don't reward him for his obedience and he has no incentive to follow your command.

In the second video, he explains how to make the dog release the toy. There are 2 main methods and a third one that should only be applied if the dog refuses to release the toy otherwise.

  1. Switch one toy for another of the same kind while giving him the command to release. Once your dog understood the mechanics, hide the second toy behind your bag and give the command to release, then immediately engage him with the second one when he released his toy.
  2. Hold the toy stationary without tugging at all. He can try to tug it, but you'll neither budge nor play with him. That makes the toy uninteresting and he should release it. It may take some time, but you must not start tugging at all until he released the toy. Then immediately start playing again as a reward.
  3. Please note that I'm not a fan of this method because you can do things very wrong and chances are that people on the streets approach you about it.
    Pull the non-constricting collar of your dog to the very front of his neck and lift just enough that his front paws don't touch the ground anymore. If he was properly leash trained, he should release the toy. Immediately engage him in play to reward him.
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