Is Playing “Tug O’ War” With My Dog Okay?
We all love to play a good game of dog tug of war, but is it healthy? If you have ever raised a puppy, you know that puppies love to bite. Biting and mouthing are ways puppies have fun with their littermates, but it’s not much fun for human family members whose hands and ankles become targets for razor-sharp teeth.
Tug of war is a suitable play outlet for a puppy’s biting and mouthing instincts. The game can teach your puppy how to play appropriately with people and strengthen your bond!
Tug of war can be both a physical and mental outlet for energetic dogs. Many dogs love to play tug of war; it’s a healthy display of their predatory nature. Tug of war provides great mental and physical exercise for your dog. It is also a wonderful way to reinforce the human-canine bond.
Who hasn’t heard the age-old advice from other dog owners that playing “tug o’ war” with your dog will make him aggressive? I remember believing this over 20 years ago when I got into dog training. And, I’m ashamed that I, too, fell for this old urban legend. Because it, in and of itself, is not true.
Why is This Misinformation Perpetuated?
There are a lot of old urban legends that claim certain things make dogs “dominant”.
The problem with playing tug with your dog is that it can create excited behavior which is hard for your dog to control.
Dogs love to pull and tug on things.
The excitement that is created can cause some bad behavior and agitation.
But that doesn’t mean your teddy bear of a dog is going to be aggressive after the game. It is important that the terms of the game are controlled by you.
Does Playing Tug of War Make Your Dog Aggressive?
You might have heard that playing tug of war with your dog, especially a puppy, puts them on the path toward aggression. If you’ve heard this, you’ve heard wrong.
Playing tug of war with a dog will not necessarily cause them to become aggressive. How you play tug of war might lead to aggressive behaviors, but it’s remarkably easy to stay on the right path.
Why would you want to?
Well, playing tug of war with your dog can be extremely beneficial for both of you.
Tug of war is an excellent way to bond with your dog. It lets your dog tap into their natural instincts to chew and wrestle. Tug of war also gives your dog an outlet for energy and an opportunity for physical exercise, even when you can’t go outdoors. Finally, it teaches dogs about rules and boundaries.
Why Dogs Love Tug of War
For thousands of years, dogs evolved to help humans by performing jobs.
These jobs included hunting, and dogs hunted even before they were domesticated.
Tug-of-war may be beloved by many dogs because it mimics grabbing and shaking prey.
In today’s world, jobs have mostly been taken away from our canine friends not through the process of evolution but through the rapid change in human civilization.
They don’t need to hunt for us or for themselves anymore. Dogs are mostly expected to be pets now. However, they still have the same drives that they always did and can develop negative behaviors if those aren’t met.
Here’s the Thing with Tug of War
Tug of war, played the right way and under the right circumstances, will not encourage aggression in your dog. Instead, it will actually give you a tool to establish a healthy relationship with your dog.
There’s even some science behind it. A 2003 study published in the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science examined 50 people and their dogs playing tug of war and other roughhousing-type games.
According to the researchers, the game itself had no significant impact on aggression in the dogs. In fact, they reported that dogs that played tug of war and fetch had more confident interactions with their people.
But, aggression was found to be a potential issue depending on who started the game. If the dog started the game, they tended to be more aggressive and less responsive to their people. When people started the game and set the rules, it helped promote positive behaviors in the dog.
However, and this is important, you should NOT play tug of war with a dog that is already aggressive, a resource guarder (aggressively protects their food, toys, etc.), or is showing early signs of either. Tug of war won’t make your dog aggressive, but it might intensify unwanted behaviors or patterns that are already present.
Before you play tug of war, you need to set a few ground rules.
The Rules of Tug of War
You Control When to Play
Don’t engage your dog if they bring their favorite tug-of-war toy and drop it in your lap or at your feet.
If you pick up the toy and start playing, you’ve just let your dog know that they control this relationship.
The more this happens, the more your dog will learn that aggressive/dominant behaviors get them what they want.
Keep the toy stored somewhere your dog can’t get at it. This way, you can bring out the toy when you’re ready to play, further establishing that tug of war is a reward, and your dog has to behave to get that reward.
But if you bring out the toy and your dog grabs for it before you initiate the game, put it away and wait for them to calm down before bringing it back out.
If your dog’s mouth touches any part of you — hand, arm, leg, even your clothing — the game is temporarily over. When this happens (it will be an accident at first, but can become dangerous if you don’t stop the unwanted behavior early and often), use a marker word like “drop it” or calmly tell them “no” and stop the game immediately. Let them calm down before resuming the game. If their mouth touches you more than two or three times in a row, the game is over for the day.
Drop It Means Drop It!
Before you begin playing tug of war with your dog, establish a command to end the game, such as drop it.
This will help you stop the game when necessary.
You should be able to rely on the fact that your dog will drop the toy if things get out of hand.
Make sure your dog has mastered your release command before you begin playing tug of war.
Teach your dog how to “drop it” as soon as possible. During your first few tug-war-games, tell them to “drop it” and wait for your dog to let go of the toy.
If they refuse (most dogs will be super reluctant to stop the game), keep your hand on the toy but let your arm go limp.
Pretend that the game is over and wait for them to release the toy.
Only resume the game once they let go and wait for you to say it’s OK to play again. If they’re being particularly stubborn, you can always walk away, or take the toy away completely for the day.
While playing tug of war, your dog might get excited and begin growling. This is normal, as the game itself is predatory behavior. However, it is important to keep your dog from becoming overly excited or aggressive, and take breaks to keep the game from getting out of control.
A bit of growling with the tail still wagging is probably OK, but anything too intense warrants a break. In fact, if you are feeling uneasy or in doubt at any point, take a break.
If your dog’s teeth come into contact with you at any point, play should stop immediately. Let out a yelp, say your release command, and then take the toy and walk away for at least 30 seconds.
It’s OK to let your dog win while playing tug of war. In fact, it’s a great idea. Winning builds its confidence and rewards the animal. However, if the dog misbehaves during the game, you should be the one who ends up with the toy.
Two dogs can play tug of war with one another as long as they get along on a normal basis. The game should be supervised, and the same rules apply. Take breaks if they don’t follow rules, as this will help keep it from getting out of control.
To take a break, stop tugging and use the release command. Take 30 seconds or so to go through basic commands like sit and down. Once your dog seems more relaxed, the game may resume.
To ensure that your dog will always drop the tug toy without hesitation, practice the command frequently during the game.
This is akin to proofing other tricks and behaviors you teach your dog, to make sure the training sticks.
If your dog bites two or three times, even if it’s accidental, the game of tug of war should be ended for the day.
This is to remind your dog to be extra careful with its teeth. It is likely that teeth might graze you from time to time due to the nature of the game, but once your dog understands the rules, it will be much more careful.
Playing tug of war with your dog can be quite a rewarding experience. Games are mentally and physically stimulating for your dog, and pretty good exercise for you, too.
I LOVE Playing Tug with My Dogs
I actually love playing tug with my dogs! It increases their prey drive and excitement level, and in the beginning sometimes they miss and a tooth hits my hand, but I use this game to control my dogs’ obedience. It also makes my dogs’ obedience happy and animated and who doesn’t want that?
Do I Always Win?
I mean, I suppose I win because I am in charge of the game and everything that my dog gets, but I often let him have the toy.
I also make him do things just to start the game. I make him sit and control himself. Or I make him lie down. I might even ask him to heel and give me eye contact. I even make him drop it or spit it out while we play and I am tugging. The obedience puts you in control and teaches him to control some of his basic impulses and instincts. And, impulse control is critical to good behavior.
The problem, and the reason people feel this game ignites aggression, is that the dog is stimulated to the point of overstimulation and control is never added.
Or, the person tries to win every time…
It is very difficult to drop your toy and end a game if you are overstimulated and excited and you never win the toy.
I mean, would you play a game that you literally could never win?
Either dogs lose interest or they get possessive and neither will help you with the training of your puppy!
However, as we explored earlier, this isn’t an issue as long as you’re setting the terms, following the rules, and letting your dog win every once in a while.
How to Pick a Toy for Tug of War
For tug of war, you can’t do much better than a good, old-fashioned rope toy. Ropes are soft enough that your dog can get a good hold without cracking their teeth, but durable enough to withstand several games of tug of war.
Do not leave ropes with your dog unattended, and stop using a rope toy if your dog begins to pull of threads during your tug-of-war games.
Plenty of dogs have undergone surgery to remove strands of rope from their stomach or intestines.
Linear foreign body digestive obstructions – from strings that make up rope toys – can saw through a dog’s intestines with severe, painful, and expensive consequences.
Ropes can also harbor dirt and bacteria, and since they’re are hard to clean, it’s usually easier to just replace them when they get too dirty. (Tip, for some dogs, you can have an awesome game of tug of war using nothing more than an old sock with a couple of knots tied at the ends.)
Other items such as rubber “handle” toys are also soft enough to protect your dog’s teeth but durable enough to withstand some good tugs. However, these toys can be hard for some dogs to hold firmly in their teeth.
And make sure your dog isn’t able to rip off pieces of the toy and swallow them, as it can easily cause a digestive obstruction. For non-rope toys, I highly recommend the Westpaw Bumi.
For smaller or less-intense tug-of-war dogs, a stuffed toy, like the soft Tuffy tug toy, can be great for a game, as long as your dog doesn’t tear apart the toy and try to eat the stuffing inside. However, the Tuffy brand of toys stand up to a lot of chewing and pulling.
Make sure that any toy you give your dog is soft enough that it will “give” a bit if you press it with your thumbnail, but durable enough that your dog won’t rip off and swallow pieces of it.
Tug of War: Step-by-Step
— You should initiate and end the tug of war game. Sloppy attempts by your dog to get the toy that also make contact with your skin should end the game immediately. You should walk away with the toy.
— Give the verbal cue “take it” and present the tug toy. Move the tug toy back and forth slightly to foster interest or chase.
— When your dog has the toy in his mouth, engage him in a gentle game of tug. Reward his interest in the tug verbally.
— Freeze (stop tugging and any toy movement). Give the verbal cue “drop it” and prompt the command with a treat placed directly under your dog’s nose. Reward with the treat for dropping the toy. Pick up the toy.
— Add the cue “sit” or “down” and reward the behavior with “take it” and the presentation of the tug toy. Including the “sit” or “down” behavior helps to control your puppy’s arousal.
— Repeat the above steps. Eventually, delay your presentation of the treat after giving the “drop it” cue.
— When the game is over, the tug toy should be placed away from your dog.
While teaching your dog to play tug of war will not make him aggressive, do not play tug of war with dogs that guard objects and/or display aggression. We do not recommend that children play tug of war with dogs because the excitement level may be more difficult to control.
Your pup is likely to enjoy playing tug of war with you, as it’s a productive way to help get energy out and also gives it a nice challenge. If you simply follow our rules and recommendations about tug of war, then you’re certain to have a happy, positive experience playing one of the simplest games out there. Happy tugging!
I have been a professional dog trainer and pet sitter for over 20 years. I am a Certified Professional Dog Trainer, through the international Certification Counsel of Professional Dog Trainers. I have trained and worked with police, Schutzhund and personal protection dogs. I trained Assistance Dogs in a men’s prison and ran my own nonprofit organization to take adult dogs from shelters and to train them to assist children and adults with disabilities, at no charge to my clients. My nonprofit organization and I were nominated for several awards of merit and even made the front page of the Denver Post. I was a veterinary technician for many years, where I learned about all aspects of health and preventative medicine. I have trained and worked with exotic animals and cheetahs. I introduced a temperament testing program in my local shelter and sat on the board of directors. I volunteered with my dog “Mr. Snitch” and helped local children learn to read. I have attained obedience titles and several blue ribbons. I am constantly in search of ways to continue my education and excellence when it comes to animals, their behavior and their health.