To Tug Or Not To Tug – That Is The Question…..

Its been long bandied about in dog circles that playing tug with your puppy or dog is a big fat NO NO.  Is this so or is this just a misunderstood game that people misuse?  Does it have its place?  Is there a “right” way to play tug?  Interestingly, some of the very problems that old school thinkers claim tug causes are instead helped by the game.  The key is to control the game and to keep it within the rules that YOU set forth for your dog.

There are a slew of arguments against the game of tug.  It makes your dog dominant and/or aggressive and to play rougher than he should.  In reality, none of these things are true unless you somehow let it happen (and even then, dominance?  Not likely).

Yes, some dogs can become very excited when they play tug with their human (or with another dog).  This high arousal can certainly mimic aggression and even be considered a form of aggression but the truth is that its simply over excitement.  Essentially the dog forgets itself in the heat of the moment, the excitement of the game.  Its our job to know the signs of this and to stop the game before it becomes inappropriate.  This is as simple as teaching your dog that its “all done” as soon as undesirable behaviors arise.  As soon as you realize that your dog is becoming overly aroused you need to stop the activity that is causing the problem.  The dog is going to calm down as the object of his desire is out of play.  Working on a teaching this behavior through the game of tug is also beneficial in any and all situations where your dog might become overly aroused.  Your “all done” command (or whatever words you decide to attach to the command) will work as a calming command whether or not you are in the middle of a game or taking a walk.  It will apply in any venue.

Occasionally a dog playing tug can get a little too enthusiastic when grabbing the tugging toy.  This can result in an unpleasant meeting between canine tooth and skin.  It is important to note that generally speaking this is not the result of aggression on the dog’s part – its simply that he wants that tug rope SO BADLY he doesn’t think before tooth placement (JUST GIVE ME MY TUGGGGGGG!!!!). Regardless, as dog owners, we know that this is not an acceptable form of play – teeth shouldn’t touch us ever.  Dealing with this issue is much like dealing with a mouth puppy – the action to correct is the same.  Simply end the game.  Your dog is obviously loving his playtime with you and his tug toy – so much so that he is getting a little too rough, forgetting his manners.  If his teeth land on your arm, leg, hand etc, end the game.  It won’t take long for him to understand that when he gets a little too “much” the game, and therefore the fun, ends.  Easy.  Dogs do what works – it will not take long for him to see the connection and behave accordingly.

So why play tug?  Well, for one thing, its fun for you AND your dog.  According to Pat Miller, a well known positive trainer, there are HUGE arguments FOR playing tug and few if any against it – so long as you follow simple rooms and keep the game structured and positive.  In her article “Tug: Play It by the Rules, she outlines many of these benefits:

  1. Great exercise that can be practiced inside and outside with young dogs, old dogs and dogs on restriction due to a surgery or injury (so long as you modify the game to meet their needs).
  2. Tool for teaching retrieving behaviors even in dogs that show no interest.  If they get excited at tug, Ms. Miller contends its not hard to direct that excitement towards a retrieving behavior that will get you on your way to a dog who loves to fetch
  3. Use it as a training tool to teach recalls – perhaps THE most important command that any of our dogs can know.  Can’t get him to come back to you?  Let him get interested in tugging and carry his favorite tug toy with you wherever you go – practice at short distances allowing him to have a grand old game of tug whenever he comes back to you!
  4. Stress reliever.  Dogs like to bite, shake and “kill” things.  Even though they are snoozing on your couch they are, after all, might hunting housewolves (yes, even your little pug has a hidden wolf inside).  Give them an outlet for their energy and prey drive.
  5. Ever notice that when you are in a new and unfamiliar place or when something is going on that makes your dog anxious your little piggy becomes disinterested in his favorite treats?  Offer up his tug toy, get his mind off of what’s happening around him.
  6. Teach self control by reinforcing the command that means the game is over and the command to release of give.
  7. There is always that friend or family member who loves to wrestle and let your dog gnaw his hands, arms, whatever.  Not fun when you don’t prefer that type of play and how is your dog to know with whom such behavior is okay?  Let’s face it, most of us do our best to train our dogs to know that teeth on skin=bad.  How confusing to have that one person allow it – and we all know that what is learned is all to easily “un-learned”.  Hand over a tug toy and encourage “that” person in your dog’s life to play with it instead!
  8. Playing tug can initiate a stronger relationship between you and your dog.  His attention is on you and he loves the game – you are the center of that game so therefore the center of his world.

Miller also has a few rules of the game – simple but important.  First off you keep control of the tug toy – it isn’t something your dog is allowed to have all of the time.  This increases their desire for it and makes it something “special”.  Control the game always.  Your dog isn’t allowed to grab the toy from you – he can take it when you offer it and doesn’t get it until he can control himself and do just that.  Make sure that your dog understands “give” or “out”.  You get to win this game most of the time – you are the one in control of the toy and therefore you need to end up with it.  If your dog is too aroused or the game passes a calm but active level, its time for a time out.  Stop the game and have a rest.  No teeth on anything but the tug – teeth touch skin, clothes etc, game over.  Finally, in the end, you decide to end the game – not your dog.  You own that tug toy, you dictate when play time starts and finishes and when the game is done, you get to put the toy away ready for another session at a time of your choosing!  Its all about rules and control – not dominance and aggression!

Remember that dogs don’t become “dominant”.  Pretty much they are or they aren’t and a truly dominant dog is actually

Many items make great tug toys -find one that your dog loves and use it as his “special” tug that only comes out at certain times

hard to come by.  They do and can play inappropriately and act out when they are highly aroused.  This does not dominance make.  The idea that playing tug with your dog, allowing your dog to “win”, letting him pull hard etc. will make your dog dominant is a myth.  The thought process that YOU must win, that YOU must be alpha, that YOU must “rule” your dog as the pack leader is simply ridiculous regardless as to what people with little practical knowledge but big tv contracts might want you to think.  Your dog knows you aren’t a dog, your dog can be trained just as easily as any other dog, your dog doesn’t need an alpha roll by you to know how to be a good dog.  Tug doesn’t make for dominance, aggression or bad behavior – in reality, it can foster GREAT behavior and bring about some wonderful lessons and cued behaviors that can be used in many non-tug situations.

**For further information please check out for fun games and training methods using tugging games**