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Should you play "tug" with your dog?

Updated on April 22, 2014
Fran and Booker playing tug
Fran and Booker playing tug | Source

Tug is a great game!

Dogs love to play tug. It's a natural behavior; dogs play tug with each other all the time. It satisfies a dog's need to bite/chew, it's interactive, and it's fun!

You may have heard that playing tug is a bad idea - it could cause your dog to exhibit "dominant" or "aggressive" behavior. This is old and outdated advice. More current studies have shown that playing tug actually improves dogs' behavior and listening skills.

Dogs are very binary creatures - they like things clearly spelled out for them. Yes or no. Black or white, On or off. Dogs like schedules and they like rules. You want your dog to listen to you, to play when you want to play, and to quite when you're done. So there have to be rules for playing tug, just as there are rules for any game.

Rules of the game

  1. The game starts when you (the person) decide to play.
  2. The game ends when you (the person) decides it's over.
  3. The toy belongs to you (the person). When you say "drop," the dog must drop the toy.
  4. The game isn't keep-away. If you toss the toy, the dog must bring it back to you.
  5. Any biting ends the game (even if the contact is accidental).
  6. "Serious" growling ends the game.
  7. "Because I said so" is a valid reason - for anything.

It's only natural!

Teddy and Lilly tugging on a bone. Tugging is a natural play style for dogs - with each other, or with you.
Teddy and Lilly tugging on a bone. Tugging is a natural play style for dogs - with each other, or with you.

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Teaching the rules to dogs who love tugging.

Some dogs naturally play tug. They'll tug with anything, anytime. If you're up for the game, so is your dog.

You're lucky! But you still have to teach your dog the rules.

Start playing, tugging like crazy! When your dog is into the game, really latched onto the toy, tell him to "drop" and stop pulling. If he lets go, tell him he's wonderful, and reward him by continuing the game, telling him to "get it" or "grab it" or "take it," while presenting the toy. Your dog is learning that "drop" doesn't mean the game is over - it may continue. The dog may be reluctant to drop the toy if he knows that it means the game is done.

If your dog doesn't drop the toy, keep hold of the toy without pulling in it and move to your dog's side. Hold him around the ribs and wait for him to release his grip on the toy. When he does, reward him with another round of tug. We're teaching him to "drop." Repeat several times, rewarding for each "drop," even if you have to enforce it.

Tugging isn't a long-term game, just a few minutes at a time is enough for a session. We want our dogs to love playing with us and look forward to each session. If your dog is a natural tugger, and can "drop" on command, it's time to work on bringing the toy back to you - fetching.

The easiest way to teach "fetch" is just to tie a piece of rope on the toy and, if your dog attempts to play "keep-away," just reel him in. Reward with a vigorous game of tug when he reaches you - whether you've had to reel him in, or whether he's brought the toy willingly. Coming to you should always be a good thing for your dog.

Dax eventually learned to love tugging - with me, or even all by herself.
Dax eventually learned to love tugging - with me, or even all by herself.

Teaching a reluctant dog to tug

If your dog doesn't naturally love the tugging game you can teach her to enjoy tugging with you.

As an agility competitor, tugging is not only encouraged, it's highly-desired behavior; it helps the dog focus on interacting with you, it gets the dog "up" and excited, and it reminds both of you that you're competing to have fun!

My dog Dax wanted no part of tugging when we started training for agility. She was extremely food-motivated, but really wasn't interested in playing with me. Consequently, she was okay in class, but not "revved up," or particularly enthused about any of it. Our instructor encouraged me to be creative in getting my dog to play with me. We tried old socks with treats knotted inside - the socks didn't last long, they simply couldn't hold up to French Bulldog jaws.

So I got creative. Dax loved celery. I had some limp celery in the fridge, so I brought it to class to play tug. It was weird, but it worked! Over time, starting with that old, limp celery stalk, Dax became a tugging fiend - she'd tug with any toy, any time.

The first step is to find something your dog really likes. If it's something she'll hold in her mouth, even better. Encourage her to hold on to it, start by just touching it while she's holding it. Gradually work your way up to holding it yourself, then adding a little resistance. The key is to always let your dog "win."

Some dogs are motivated by seeing the toy move around - particularly dogs who love to chase things. "Activate" the toy, gently move it back and forth and encourage your dog to "get it." And always let her win!

Pay attention to the textures your dog seems to prefer. There are all kinds of dog toys now available - plush (stuffed or not), berber, squeaky, latex, rubber, vinyl, etc. While you're teaching her to tug, go with something she's already interested in. You can always try others when she's learned to play tug reliably.

Learning to play tug

Have fun with your dog!

The reason most of us have dogs is to enrich our lives - with unconditional love and companionship.

Tugging games enhance that relationship and build the focus and attention you want from your dog. Your dog learns to listen, even when he's excited. That could save his life - imagine a scenario where your dog gets out of the house and is running toward a busy street. Even at a run, your dog will still hear you. If you've built up a history of fun, motivated, play, it's more likely he'll come back to play with you.

© 2014 HopeS

Does your dog tug?

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    • HuskyChaos profile image


      4 years ago from England

      Tug is a great way to get rid of excess energy. Three of ours love it. It's a good game shortly before bed, because soon after they crash out and sleep. One of ours brings toys to us when he wants to play :-)


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