To Tug or Not to Tug?

At some point long ago, the notion became popular that playing tug of war with your dog can make him become aggressive. This still surfaces in my training appointments if I ask the dog’s owner how they like to play with their dog. They may list some games they enjoy with the dog, but then add, “Of course we don’t play tug with him, because we don’t want him to get aggressive.” Or they admit that they do play tug with the dog, but they say it in hushed tones, sheepishly, as though they have been caught at something forbidden. My favorite is when I come right out and recommend tug of war, and they are so relieved to hear it’s ok: “Oh thank goodness, we’ve been dying to play tug with our dog but my friend said that was a bad idea.”Tug

So today I offer my perspective on tug of war in case you might like to consider playing it with your pooch:

Tug intrinsically has a competitive component to it (which I suspect is what makes people fear what it may teach the dog—after all, it’s not called “tug of peace”). But perhaps it is no more competitive than a game of fetch, in which a valued object has to be shared back and forth between the dog and the person. When you think about it, tug of war is a game that requires true cooperation. Without you, your dog cannot play it, and visa versa (you’d look silly trying!). Tug of war can teach your dog to share with you (because you’ll teach him “drop it” so you can gain instant control over the toy), how to get fired up and then calm down (because you’ll reward his dropping it with a chance to restart the game, on cue), and that without you there is no tug, but with you, there is a lot of fun to be had (because you’ll play with a special tug toy that you’ll present, when you feel like it, as a reward for coming when called, just for fun, or on a rainy day instead of a walk).

Here are a few pointers to keep in mind:

  • Generally speaking, tug is not as good a game for kids to play with their dogs as fetch is (simply because of the many, quick decisions that have to be made; plus, it is too physical a game for most kids to be able to control well).
  • If your dog is in the habit of releasing the toy and quickly re-gripping it, such that he grabs it closer and closer to your hand as you play, I recommend you get some professional advice before continuing. He may be a little too competitive and need some customized rules for the game. (The same goes for dogs who get grabby with their fetch toys.) 
  • All those teeth, and the play growling that can accompany tug, make some people uneasy. If you don’t enjoy that, or you’re not sure whether your dog is just kidding around, then either find some other games to play or get some in-person pointers on how to make tug fun for both of you.
  • If your dog already shows aggressive displays around objects he doesn’t want you to take from him (this is called resource guarding), tug is unlikely to be a good game for him. But fetch could be dicey, too, since it also involves reaching for something your dog wants. So get professional assistance with that issue before settling on a game that’s right for you.

What if you’d like to play tug with your dog but he’s just not interested in toys? Start by teaching him that toys are exciting by introducing fetch. Use lightweight, braided fleece toys like the Tuff E Nuff Tug that are the right size for his mouth, and drag them a few feet from him as though you were enticing a cat to play. Above all, let him “win” and grab the toy out of your hand so that you can build his confidence in the game. Keep sessions very short (3 minutes, tops) and end with him wanting to play more. Give it a try! You may find you and your dog have a whole new way to enjoy each other.

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