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Is It Okay to Play Tug-of-War With the Dog?

Adrienne is a certified dog trainer and former veterinarian assistant who partners with some of the best veterinarians worldwide.

Among dogs, the game of tug remains a favorite. Source: pipalou,

Among dogs, the game of tug remains a favorite. Source: pipalou,

Playing Tug-of-War: A Dog's Perspective

In ancient times, wild canines didn't have access to squeaky toys, Kongs, frisbees, and tennis balls. Just as the children of prehistoric cavemen used to rely on toys made of sticks, rocks, and bows and arrows, wild canines had to get quite creative and invent games made out of commonly found items.

Perhaps a favorite toy back in time was the hide of some unfortunate prey animal. One canine would likely grab one side while the other grabbed another, and soon the first game of tug was invented. I guess it's also possible that young, wild canines have also played tug-of-war with long sticks or the elongated bones of carcasses once all the meat surrounding them was removed.

Nowadays, dogs have access to much more sophisticated toys. Tug toys have been made on purpose for Rover's delight, and many are purposely crafted to allow the game to be played between dog and owner. But is it OK to play tug with your dog?

Wait! Wasn't there some notion claiming that playing tug encouraged aggression and that allowing the dog to win would make him think he's the alpha, dominant dog who would take control of everything in the household?

A better understanding of dogs has revealed that dogs aren't trying to rule the roost every chance they get. With the whole dog dominance theory debunked, more and more professionals are understanding that dogs are just opportunists that engage in behaviors that have a history of being inadvertently rewarded versus acting out to command the household. Perhaps how Professor John Bradshaw puts it goes a long way, he claims:

"The most pervasive and pernicious idea informing modern dog training techniques is that the dog is driven to set up a dominance hierarchy wherever it finds itself." He further explains: "They don't want to control people, they want to control their own lives. It is what we are all aiming for—to keep control of our own lives. It is a fundamental biological urge."

About tug-of-war, Bradshaw further comments by saying:

"Dogs were allowed to win tug-of-war games played with a person, over and over again; understandably, this made the dog more keen to play with people than when they were forced to lose every time, but there were no signs indicating that any dog became 'dominant' as a result."

So it looks like from Rover's perspective, a game of tug isn't a power struggle, but more likely it is just plain old fun just as other structured games such as fetch. It teaches the dog that being around you is fun.

According to the ASPCA, playing tug can be a great outlet for a dog's natural urge to grab and pull things with his mouth. I personally use tug to redirect nippy pups and train them better bite inhibition.

I also use it as a reward for dogs who love this game. Many dogs are very toy motivated, and some even prefer a game of tug over treats! Of course, as with all games, tug must have a few rules to follow. The next chapter will show how to play tug with a dog and what to do if the game gets out of hand.

How to Play Tug-of-War With Your Dog

When played by the rules, a game of tug improves the dog's self-control and helps the dog learn how to gauge its arousal levels better, which translates in a better-under-control companion, explains dog trainer and behavior consultant Jolanta Benal.

What kind of tug toys work best? Ideally, tug toys with handles make it easier for the owner to grip one side. The best ones are made of rope, bungee material or fleece and are about 1 to 3 feet long.

A Word of Caution

While tug can be fun, there are though a few cases where the use of tug may be counter-productive and require management training or behavior modification intervention: in the case of dogs who tend to guard food and toys, and in the case of dogs who haven't developed good bite inhibition when they're aroused.

In the first case, it's best to consult with a dog behavior professional for help. Resource guarding can be dangerous if not tackled correctly.

In the second case, it's a good idea to seek out the aid of a trainer to demonstrate some bite inhibition techniques. These latter dogs who nip when aroused may do best initially playing tug for brief periods of time making sure to keeping the game low key, using a soft, soothing voice.

Then, criteria can be raised by making the game gradually more exciting, but again it's best to seek the help of a professional for this, you don't want to be bitten in the process!

How to Play Correctly

Now, how to play tug correctly. All dogs who play tug should know how to release the toy on cue. The common command for this is "drop" or "give." The method Ian Dunbar suggests is based on the fact that most dogs will drop the tug if you stop tugging, freeze and present a treat. The dog will likely drop the tug toy to get the treat. The moment the dog drops the toy, praise, reward with the treat, then ask the dog to sit and then invite the dog to play again.

After some time, the dog should drop without even seeing the treat, and then later, the treat can be intermittently replaced by the life reward of resuming to play tug.

The game of tug is played by moving the tug back and forth, side-to-side (avoid up and down as it may hurt the dog's teeth) for about 10 to 20 seconds at a time. A dog should not be scolded or intimidated for failing to release the tug; most likely, the dog just needs a bit more training on learning the "drop" command. It's important to keep the game fun and upbeat!

At the same time, the dog must also learn the command to grab the tug toy. This is the easiest part. Common words for this are "take," "go," or "get it." Most dogs learn to take quickly if you stimulate their prey drive by dragging the tug toy on the floor, waving it by the dog's face or wriggling it around. If you watch dogs play tug, you'll notice how one dog will invite another dog by dragging the toy around.

If your dog gets the tug before you give him the "take" cue, put the toy away by hiding it behind your back, ask for a sit and tell him to "take." You want to make it clear that it's his calm, patient behavior that gets the game started; that's the main point of training self-control.

Another rule is that the dog must be careful not to let his teeth touch your clothes or skin. When this happens, the dog should be given feedback that this is not desired by simply dropping the toy and leaving; thus ending the game for a few minutes.

If the tug toy is used to reward the dog, it's best to put it away after using it, so the dog doesn't habituate to seeing the tug toy. Its absence makes it more salient when you present it as a reward.

What If My Dog Growls?

What if a dog growls during a game of tug? Many times dogs are vocal when they play tug; however, this growl is often a play growl and it's different from a defensive growl.

Dog owners should watch the accompanying body language. Are the dog's eyes soft? Is the growl high-pitched and throaty? Is the body wiggly? If so, most likely the dog is just play growling.

Signs of trouble are stiff postures, hard stares, deep growls coming from the chest area, and snarling. If you are unsure, don't punish the growl; rather, stop playing tug and consult with a dog behavior professional (a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist CAAB, a board-certified veterinary behaviorist, Dip ACVB, or a CPDT trainer well-versed in behavior problems) for an assessment as your dog may be resource guarding rather than playing.

Note: Always play tug of war side-to-side versus up and down to prevent injury to your dog’s spine, explains trainer Pat Miller.

It's okay to play tug-of-war with your dog.

It's okay to play tug-of-war with your dog.

For Further Reading

  • Understanding Dog Foraging Behavior
    What's dog foraging behavior? and what causes dogs to want to forage all day? Learn more about natural dog foraging behaviors and how to help your dog feel more mentally stimulated.
  • German Shepherd Puppy Bite Inhibition Games
    Does your German Shepherd puppy bite a lot? Looking for fun ways to train him to refine his biting skills and learn some inhibition? These games will help, but can virtually work for any type of pup

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

© 2013 Adrienne Farricelli


Mark dos Anjos DVM from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil on December 18, 2013:

Great information. Voted up and shared.

Lori Colbo from United States on December 18, 2013:

I've always wondered about their jaws and teeth in this kind of activity.