Tug-Of-War Myth:  Why Playing Tug with Your Dog Is Not a Bad Thing

Has your dog ever shown an interest in playing a game of tug with you but you have quickly nipped it in the bud because you have heard that playing games like that may encourage your dog to become aggressive?

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Games of tug often satisfy your dog’s natural urge to pull and chew on things 


Playing Tug Will Not Make Your Dog Aggressive

Thankfully this once widely held belief has been shown not to be true.  Not only will an appropriately managed game of tug not cause your dog to become aggressive but it can help to keep them happier, healthier and more well trained.

Some family members may encourage their dog to play roughly but then punish the dog when it gets out of hand.  Not only is this unfair on the dog but this sort of uncontrolled play can quickly escalate into undesired behaviours.  A proper game of tug, with boundaries in place, is the game to encourage them to play instead.

Playing Tug Does Not Encourage Your Dog to Dominate You

Another myth that continues to be perpetuated is that by playing tug with your dog, you are encouraging them to try to dominate you.  The Alpha Pack theories surrounding dog behaviour have been shown to be untrue. Your dog is just enjoying having an outlet for their energies and getting to have some fun with you.  When tug is introduced in a more structured way, you will actually be teaching your dog more manners. When you let your dog win, they love it and, as a result, they like you even more.

I think this description from renowned dog behaviourist Jean Donaldson sums it up perfectly: “If anything, the best description of tug is that it is cooperative behavior. It’s not you vs. the dog, it’s you and the dog vs. the tug-of-war toy.”

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Your dog is not trying to dominate you when they play tug and it is okay to let them ‘win’ the toy too

Playing Tug Can Encourage Confidence and Strengthen Bonds

For nervous dogs, encouraging a game of tug which is more physical and requires more strong interaction from your dog can help to build their confidence and bring them out of themselves more.  When they ‘win’ the game of tug it can also help keep them engaged and encourages boldness.

Regular structured play has also been shown to help reduce the risk of behavioural problems arising.

By playing a fun game of tug with your dog and teaching them the rules of the game you will also be strengthening the bond between you.  Not only are they engaging in something they are enjoying with you but you are also teaching them to listen to your commands and when they do, they are being rewarded with further play.

Playing Tug Can Help to Teach Impulse Control

For dogs that can be impulsive, easily over-aroused and too quick to react, playing tug, and teaching them to release when asked, can help them to learn how to control those impulses.

If your dog is very excited by the prospect of a game of tug and they lunge at the tug toy whenever it comes out you can put the toy away anytime they do this and wait for them to offer a calm sit before you initiate a game.  That way they learn to offer more calm behaviours. This can then be applied in a variety of more practical situations.

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A dog that learns to let go of the tug whilst in the midst of play will be learning great impulse control skills

Playing Tug Is Good for Mental and Physical Stimulation

If the weather is curtailing your usual long walks, perhaps it is extremely snowy,  then playing tug indoors can be a great form of additional exercise and, because it is also mentally stimulating, it will help tire your dog out even more.  Even when you can get out for plenty walks, a controlled game of tug is such a good game to play anyway for some extra enrichment, bonding, exercise and training.

Playing Tug Can Be a Great Positive and Motivational Reward for Your Dog

For dogs that adore tug it can actually become a useful reward for reinforcing behaviour that you want to achieve.  A lot of police dogs and agility sports dogs, that are very tug driven, will be rewarded with a short tug session after successfully performing a desired task instead of being given a food reward.  If your dog is not highly food motivated, a game of tug can actually become a more reinforcing reward than a treat would be.

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For dogs that love a game of tug, it can become an extremely useful positive reinforcer during training sessions

Tug Can Be Great for Redirecting a Chewy or Nipping Puppy

There are lots of ways that you can work on controlling puppy nipping and one of those it to redirect them to chew on something more appropriate.  If they enjoy a game of tug, this can be a great way to redirect their desire to mouth. Not only will they learn that they should chew on the tug toy and not on trouser legs but it will also help to tire them out and they will then have less energy for trying to chew on your trouser leg in the first place.  Win-Win!

Tug Can Be a Welcome Distraction

Whilst this will not work if your dog is in an extreme state of anxiety or if you have a dog that is too uncomfortable in a particular environment or situation, a game of tug can prove to be a really useful distraction if they adore the game.  It can help them control their anxiety and often make them feel more relaxed. For example, if you have a dog that is nervous around other dogs, by having them play with their tugger it can distract them and it can also teach them that when other dogs are around good things happen.

A lot of dog sports people will play tug with their dogs in between competition rounds to keep them focussed and often even relaxed.

What the Science Tells Us

There have even been some scientific studies conducted that further confirm that playing tug can be a positive thing.  A study that was published in the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science in 2003 suggested that tug can boost confidence levels, develop the bond between dog and owner and that it does not have any negative impact in terms of dominance. Providing the game is instigated by the owner in a controlled fashion it was not seen to have any impact in terms of increased aggression either.  This backed up a previous study published in the journal in 1998 which also confirmed that tug games do not promote aggression.

Make Sure You Have the Right Technique and Toy to Avoid the Risk of Giving Your Dog an Injury

When you play tug it is important that, given it can be quite a roughhousing type game, that you are careful not to cause injury.  It is always recommended that you shake the tug from side to side when it is in the dog’s mouth and do not pull it up and down as this is more likely to cause spinal injuries.

Also, if you are playing tug with a puppy, it is important to be more gentle.  They still have baby teeth and softer, growing jaw bones so too rough a game could be damaging.

It is also important to pick an appropriate toy too, anything that is too hard can damage your dog’s mouth or teeth.

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Picking a toy that is too hard or too heavy can be damaging to your dog’s teeth when playing tug.  Make sure you pick the right size and material type

Teach Your Dog How to Play Tug Appropriately

Below are a few simple tips for a successful game of tug with your dog.

1. It Should Always Be You That Initiates the Game

To ensure that you don’t get accidentally nipped and also to help your dog understand the importance of impulse control, always make sure that the game of tug only begins when you tell your dog it can.  Ask your dog for a sit and then you can start to dangle the toy encouragingly in front of your dog and use a command to indicate the game can start, whatever you like “Take it” or even “Okay” but if they try to start before your ask then make sure that you stop interaction, remove the toy and then try again.

2.  You Need to Teach Your Dog to Let Go on Command

It is really important that your dog let’s go of the tug toy when you ask.  If they can’t do this they can get over-aroused and again they are not being taught how to control their impulses.  A good technique to teach your dog to drop the toy is to stop engaging in the game, drop your hand to your side ask for a “drop” and wait for them to let go.  If they do then they get a treat reward or a further game of tug. If they don’t you can try putting the treat in front of their nose to encourage them to let go and when they do release make sure you let them know they have done the right thing.  I just say “yes” to my dog to let her know when she has done something good and this is usually followed with a yummy treat. There will likely need to be a number of repetitions and you may need to use super delicious treats to encourage your dog to give up the tug at first.

Once your dog is reliably dropping the toy on command for a treat, if they are super tug motivated, then you can phase out the treat, if you want to, and use another game of tug as a reward when they release the toy.

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Your dog needs to be taught to ‘drop’ the tug on command rather than not be willing to let go and then run away with it when they manage to get it from you

3. Short Sessions are Best

10 to 30 seconds of tug at a time are fine.  Longer than this can sometimes get your dog over-aroused, better to stick to short and sweet and ask for some other basic commands in between and then use another short tug session as a reward.

4. Teach Your Dog to Be Careful About Nipping

Sometimes if a dog gets really excited about a game of tug they may forget their manners and get a bit too rough, this can result in accidental nipping or ripping of clothes.  It is important to teach your dog that they have to be careful. If they do make contact with their teeth then you need to show them that this is not appropriate. The moment it happens, immediately stop tugging and make a yelping sound.  Stop playing the game for at least 30 seconds or so before allowing any tug to recommence. If you do this consistently anytime your dog gets a bit too rambunctious they should quickly learn that they need to be more careful.

If they keep nipping or grabbing at the toy then it is better to just end the tug session completely, put the toy away and then start afresh another time.

To help your dog have success with the no skin contact rule, make sure that you use a tug toy that is appropriately sized.  If it is not big enough or long enough then it will make it difficult to engage in the game without accidentally catching you sometimes.  You are not setting your dog up for success if you don’t select an appropriate toy.

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Make sure the tug toy is not too small, otherwise there is an increased chance of the dog nipping you accidentally

5. Make the Tug Toy ‘Special’

Don’t have a toy that you use for playing tug out all the time for your dog to just pick up anytime.  It is one that should only be brought out for a game of tug that you are initiating. This way it is likely to be much more exciting for your dog and carry more significance

When Not to Play Tug-of-War

There are times when playing tug may not be appropriate though and some of those examples are listed below

a) If Your Dog Is Resource Guarding

If you have a dog that is showing signs of guarding their toys or being possessive with them then we would recommend working on helping them to understand that if they give up their toy it means more good things will come, before you start playing tug.  Teaching your dog that if they leave it or let you pick it up then they will get super yummy treats or an even higher value toy is the way to go. Check out our article on resource guarding for more detailed advice.

If your dog is guarding their toy and you try to tug it with them this is one scenario that could potentially lead to aggression,  The game of tug is not teaching them to be aggressive though, they were already feeling anxious about you taking the toy so, to them, the tug will seem like you are trying to steal it from them and, given it is in a rough housing manner, this can then cause over-arousal and this is a bad combination for a dog that is already feeling anxious about you taking their prized possession.  Whilst tug is not going to make a dog aggressive, if they are already exhibiting problem behaviours, the tug game could potentially intensify these.

If you have a dog that doesn’t have resource guarding issues playing a controlled game of tug, where they are taught that if they let the toy go they will be rewarded, can actually be a great way to help prevent any guarding issues cropping up in the future.

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If your dog guards toys then you need to work on stopping this before you consider introducing a game of tug

b) When a Dog Is Extremely Nervous or Uncomfortable with This Type of Play

If you have a dog that is exhibiting signs of being fearful or uncomfortable then trying to instigate a game of tug will likely only serve to heighten their anxiety given it is a bit more of a rough house activity.  So, if you have a new nervous rescue dog or a dog that is uncomfortable in a new environment, for example, then it is better to choose less rambunctious activities and to work on getting them feeling more relaxed before you try a game like tug.  It is important to look at your dog’s body language to see if they are looking unsure, sometimes it can be very subtle.

You can use tug as a confidence builder though, if introduced in the right way.  You can encourage your dog to engage with the toy by putting some peanut butter of squirty cheese on it.  Once they start engaging with it more, you can pick it up and encourage them to take it from you, then you can hold onto it and encourage them to pull back and so on.

As mentioned earlier though, if you have a dog that adores tug, then it can actually sometimes be a useful distraction to help your dog relax in an environment that might normally make them uncomfortable.

c) If Your Dog Is Getting Too Over-Aroused, Although Growling Is Usually Okay

Whilst you want your dog to get excited and enjoy a game of tug, if they are becoming extremely excitable and they are not listening to commands or are getting too rough then it is time to stop the game.  Some people worry, even panic, that if their dog growls when playing tug then it is time to stop as this is a sign they are getting aggressive. Growling is often used in play by dogs and usually, providing they are not showing any other signs of aggression (stiff body posture, hard stare, stiff and erect tail. possibly hackles up), it is perfectly acceptable and they are just showing they are having fun.

d) Not a Great Game for Children to Play with the Dog

It can be fantastic to let your children play games with the dog.  They can be great for confidence building, developing a bond and for teaching your dog that children can mean good things.  A less rambunctious game than tug is probably best for dogs and smaller children to play.  Games like fetch or hide and seek are probably more appropriate. A dog’s strength can easily result in a child being pulled over during tug, or an accidental nip, and this can cause children to become nervous.  If you do want to let them play this game, you need to know that your dog can be gentle, has mastered impulse control, knows when to release reliably and that they are not too rough when the game gets going. Your children need to understand the rules and stick with them too and we would always recommend supervising too.

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It is too easy for a child to get accidentally nipped or pulled over when playing tug.  So, unless you are sure your dog is very gentle and the child will stick with the rules, then it may be better to let them play another game instead

Some Suggested Tug Toy Options

There are lots of different tug options out there.  Some can be bought and there are also some great tutorials out there for making your own tug toys. Every dog is different in terms of what they might enjoy the best and also in terms of how rough they might be with their toys, so it could be a bit of trial and error to find the best fit.

You want one that is long enough to reduce the risk of the dog accidentally grabbing hold of your hand, it should be durable enough to withstand their chewing and pulling but it should also be made from a material that is not going to damage their teeth or mouth when the game is in play.  You also want it to be comfortable enough for you to hold and to be able to keep a good grip on.

Below are some popular tug toy options that are commonly used.

Fleece or Rope Tug Toy

If you want something really comfortable to hold, will have a minimal risk for damaging your dog’s mouth or teeth, and that is lightweight and can often be stuffed into a pocket in between training sessions, then a fleece tugger may be the way to go.  They are obviously not chew proof and are not as durable as some other tugger options but they are still very popular. For a dog that loves to rag things, this can be a popular choice too as it is floppy.

This one from Squishy Face Studio is sturdy and has a handle that you can grip hold of too.

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Plush Tug Toy

There are lots of plush style tug toys out there.  They are not usually as durable as other types of tuggers but, if you do want a more durable but soft option and don’t mind spending a bit more then the Tuffy range have a number of tug toys and they are designed to last longer.  They even have a three-way tugger which can be a handy choice if you have a multi-dog household and they all like to join in with a game.

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Canvas Tug Toy

Canvas style tug toys are often the more traditional type of toy that would be used in police dog work. They are usually tougher than a plush or fleece tug option but still soft enough to ensure that they will not hurt the mouth or damage the teeth.

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Rubber Tug Toy

Good quality rubber tug toys are also often popular. A good one will be flexible enough that it won’t damage teeth but it also still needs to be durable.  A ring-shaped tugger is also often popular, although you do need to make sure it is wide enough that both you and your dog can hold onto it comfortably without you getting accidentally nipped.

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