Tug…….. Ivan Balabanov Melted My Brain.

Man…… I took a trip to visit Ivan Balabanov like 8 months ago. And that set off a direction of thought or study, that made my brain melt.

I realized that I had been looking at tug with a weak microscope.

Like…… If you have a weak microscope you can see to a certain depth. But, if you get a higher powered microscope….. You can see a level of detail you missed.

Well….. Ivan’s Microscope is strong as hell. And, he gave me access to a “lens” I hadn’t used yet.

I saw it from a depth I had never realized before.

That sight. That perspective….. Made me go back and look at EVERYTHING associated with it again. With new eyes.

I re-watched hours of Ivan, Bernhard Flinks. And others. Talked at length to Mark McCabe, and Chad Mackin. I have turned over every rock I have ever looked under…. Just in case I missed something.

And the shit I found…… Changed everything.

Tug…… Isn’t even what I want to call it anymore. It pigeon holes it into an idea. And it’s too simple.

It’s biologically fulfilling play to develop relationship, and a fluency in drive, impulse control AND relaxation.

But…… That’s a shit name. So…… I’ll just call it tug still I guess.

Here were my realizations as they occurred.

– At Ivan’s place, he introduced me to the idea of different “aspects”, or “elements”  of the game. Watching him play tug with the different dogs there was like watching a method actor do improv. He Brawled with some. He played keep away with others. There was Frisbee play. And ball on a string. Hell, there was toys on a string, and he would let the dog parade around with the toy in it’s mouth. Once…. He was working a dog that wouldn’t engage. Ivan ran around kicking the toy around like he was a lone kid playing soccer in the rain. Then…. When the dog looked at him….. He froze. And crouched. And “stalked” his way towards the toy. AT some point the dog looked like “hey…… What IS that thing you’re looking at?!?!?”. And he ran towards it. Ivan raced him there and ran away with the toy. Repeated this a few times till the dog got there first. And Ivan “Stalked” the dog. They played a spirited game of keep away, with the dog possessing the toy, for a bit. A HUGE no-no in the “orthodox” tug world. Then…. This developed into a really spirited game of “normal” tug. Was an absolute beauty to watch him work. His game was deep. And well rounded. He knew how to read the dog. And draw out “their” game. I was inspired. Really, truly, inspired.

– This realization that I had somehow “missed” a full understanding of the game made me go back and look at some of the material I had examined and gotten away from, or flat discarded, as I developed into my previous style of game. I saw Ivan running dogs in what looked like “victory laps” with their toy. And doing little “calming” sessions in the middle of play. I remembered studying Bernhard Flink’s material years ago. He does a TON of that stuff. I had discarded it, partially because common wisdom associates that stuff with progressing to bite work. And, NOT straight tug. If doing tug just for fun and obedience it usually got discarded. Also….. In Ellis’s keystone video “Power Of Playing Tug”, he flat says NOT to do it, as it creates “possession” in dogs.  Later in the vid, he says he may use it in “some” dogs….. But usually not. Anyway, after seeing Ivan break many of these “rules” I realized he gives dogs the responsibility of understanding that this is game play. And so, any “possession” is part of the game. THAT level of understanding is more on par with Kayce Cover, and Chad Mackin’s concepts. So, it fit nicely with how I now see dogs. So, I broke out the old Flinks vid. And saw a lot of good stuff. Especially his “Into My Arms” gig. He brings the dog in and does what is essentially conditioned relaxation!!!!!! Holy shit….. Worlds starting to merge.

– I realized the value in a more full modulation of drive. The ability to not just use impulse control while in drive. But, the ability to actually relax while in the presence of the item! I immediately started using  The “victory laps”, and “into my arms” in my game. I realized, that to be truly congruent with the concept I’m after, I wouldn’t “snatch” it away from them when in my arms. That makes “into my arms” a partial “loading” moment. And keeps them a touch more in drive. I began either running them back out and engaging from there, or giving them their “release” cue and THEN snatching it to re engage. That way I get a more full modulation. When engaged, they are at 100% drive. When they “out” (and during obedience) they MUST be in more control of their drive but they are still ON! They’re like at 90%. When they run a lap, they are at like 75%, and with the clarity I inserted….. In my arm they get down to like 50%. It’s a much more well rounded game. Asks for more emotional fluency. And……. APPEALS TO MORE DOGS!!!!!  Yep, more dogs are engaging with more spirit! Not all dogs just want to bang all the time. And here’s where it all became clear.

Here’s a video of me using these “arousal modulation” ideas:

– I realized that there are 4 distinct “aspects” to the game. They are:

1. Stalk: This can be that moment just before you grab the toy! You know…… The “claw” you hold above your dog…… and then….. Suddenly…… GET THEM!!!!! You know. what I’m talking about. This is a cat…. But this is clearly the “stalking” moment. That still, loading moment!

I know that when you ask for obedience, or even a wait to grab the toy…… The classic “impulse control” value of tug….. Your dog is showing control….. BUT…… They are loading! In their mind, they are stalking the prey, about to LAUNCH! It’s not the same expression as Chasing. That brings us to……

2. Chase:  Pretty classic. You move the toy to get the dog to chase. You throw the toy. Make it dance. Etc….. But as Ivan showed me…… You can literally “keep” the toy and make the chase almost be of YOU. You can also chase the dog when they have it. Some dogs find that HUGELY rewarding. (your gonna want to keep a long line on the dog unless, or until, you have a solid “bring it” command. This will let you change to a different aspect when you’re ready!)

3. Fight: The essence of how people see tug. Swinging the dog around. Tug of war. But…… Learn your dog. Some dogs are game. They don’t need reinforcement to stay in the fight. But, a lot of dogs need to feel like they are “succeeding”. Let them take it from you sometimes. (yeah…. I know….. heresy). Or at least….. Let them pull you around from time to time. Most dogs just need to feel like they are “in the fight” to enjoy it.

4. Celebrate: This is the victory lap. And the “into my arms”. I am using them both now. Victory laps give a natural DE-escalation in the intensity. And let them celebrate their “win”. Into your arms helps backchain conditioned relaxation. And, gives an even more drastic drop out of drive. Like I said, I cue when that aspect is over so they aren’t left to possibly load and slip into “stalk”.

This understanding of the aspects lets me “see” all the games. Like Ivan plugged me into the matrix.

Fetch is ALL chase and celebrate. Chase on the way out. And celebrate on the way back.

Spring Pole is ALL fight. There’s no chase. No win to celebrate.

The way most play tug for obedience…… It’s Stalk, and fight. Even if they throw it…… They don’t encourage celebrate. They want the dog to punch right back in for the fight.

Watch that “Chief’s Game” again with new eyes. You’ll see less time i high arousal and fight than a typical game. Lot of celebrate. Into my arms, victory laps… Much less fight.

Here’s a video of me playing with a different dog. Look for the aspects. Tons of Stalking and Chasing. Good bit of Celebrating. Very little time spent in Fight.

When I watch Ivan’s game….. He works them all. As needed. With fluency!!!!

And THAT’s the goal.

Understand the different aspects.

Learn YOUR dog. What games they find rewarding.

And, if there’s a “reason” for them to play a different game, you will be more able to ease them into that style by blending it with the game they DO like.

UPDATE!!!!!!!!!!                 UPDATE!!!!!!!!            UPDATE!!!!!!!!!!             UPDATE!!!!!!!!       

Since this post originally went up, Ivan has produced new videos called “Possession Games”, and “Chase and Catch” that teach in amazing detail all these exact concepts. And…. Much, much more!!!!!

Do yourself a favor…… Go to TrainPerView.com and buy his “Possession Games” And “Chase and Catch” videos. They are paradigm shifters for sure!!!

They will be required watching for anyone that trains with me from now on!

Anyway…… I hope this helps you in your path of developing your game.

And, learning your dog!


And keep me posted.

(PS- I have since added “Search”, and “Consume” as additional aspects of play, because I have begun food play like Ivan teaches in his “Treat Chasing”, and “tracking” videos as well….. But…. That’s a whole different article!!! Stay tuned).






Comments 8

  1. Adam

    Good stuff Jay! I’ve been transitioning tug to a more distracting environment and every time I have to start at zero to build engagement. Tug has been much like food: when there’s other shit going on, my dude couldn’t care less. I waved the tug in front of him the first attempt, no dice. So I hit record on the phone and started working some of the principles starting with a throw of the tug to see if he’d engage. I like to shoot short videos to catch what I’m missing when working with my dog. Not sure if the blog supports links in the comments, but if you get a chance, check it out. Tug is fun. 😀

    1. 3badbullies

      Nice! When you let him “take” the toy away from you…. Let him “earn” it a little more. Like…. He should feel like maybe he actually got it from you. He digs the fight. So if he got it from you as a result of the “effort” his celebration would be “more”. When you just let go, not necessarily as a result of his big effort….. The celebrate tends to be a bit “wandering”. Let him “earn” it, and I bet he’d be prancy as shit in his run outs. But, cool to see people playing with the ideas! Thanks for sharing.

      1. Adam

        Thanks for the tips man, I’ll give it a shot! When I let him circle/celebrate I can see his struggle with fixating on other distractions we well. Neighbor in their yard, etc. He’s getting it, but I’m definitely still learning. 😀

  2. Erica Boling

    Ivan is awesome!! I’m soooo very lucky to have started training with him years ago… To this day, he still has had a tremendous impact on my training and my relationship with my dogs.

  3. Henry Kobel

    It took me 5 yrs. to understand some of the points Ivan was trying to get us to understand. I believe that if you were to name the 5 best dog trainers in the world it would be remiss not to name Ivan.

  4. Katharina

    Nice play and beautiful insights. Just one thing missing or maybe just not emphasized much: Play more, train less. 😉
    Have a look at a dog and kid playing together. Often they are totally thrown away by play, cause both of them really play, not train and think, what might be apropriate technique right now. Sometimes one goes too far, well… But in aspect of enthusiasm I found it really helpful.

    Best regards.

    1. Post

      YES!!!! Totally agree. Ivan doesn’t preach the “short, drive building” sessions. He wants to play til spent, and then hang around and watch the sunset with his buddy. It’s a beautiful concept.

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