September 28, 2016 by The Dog Rules
Tug-of-war is a game that all pups like to play. It engages their natural prey drive. Puppies will learn it without you having to “teach” it to them and they will play it together.
I think nearly everyone has, at some point, played tug-of-war with a dog. It’s quite obvious that dogs love it. Even my very senior dog enjoyed a gentle game of tug over her favorite stuffy sheep. She would growl, huff, wrinkle her lips and frequently change her grip on her sheep and all the while her eyes were soft and her tail high and waving.
When we were training in Agility, I often used a small tug toy, that I could easily stuff in my pocket, to reward her for doing a piece of equipment she didn’t particularly like. Dog absolutely adored a quick tug game. It was a far better reward to her than even the most yummy food treats! In competitions I had a braided fleecy slip leash that I used to bring her to and from the competition rings. (Dogs run Agility courses without collars to prevent them getting caught and hung up on equipment in the event of an accident.) When we were done a run I would grab up her fleecy and tell her to “get it”. Sometimes it was hard to tell which she found more fun: galloping at warp speed through the course, or getting to tug, tug, TUG at the end of it!
So how did tug-of-war get such a bad rep from some dog trainers?
The problem with tug-of-war likely arose as the result of unfortunate choices made by new puppy owners when they acquired their new family member. While focused on the basics, like house training and teaching puppy his name, they failed to think through the consequences of the other things that they were unintentionally teaching their puppy. After all, he’s a cute little puppy so why worry? We’ll train him when he’s old enough. Right now we just want to have fun with him. (BTW the myth of the age of the pup being “old enough” for training is the topic of another post.)
This sounds reasonable to a lot of people whether or not their puppy is a tiny breed or going to grow into a huge dog. The question of whether he is of a breed that is frequently given to high prey drive is almost never asked. Many people don’t know what job their dog was bred to do. They pick the breed because they like the appearance of the breed or the prestige they associate with owing it. They fell in love with that fabulous dog in the movie and want a dog just like that for themselves.
Even when puppy is going to grow to the size of Godzilla, most people conveniently “forget” that fact ‘Zilla is a baby monster. He’s at that cute stage and you can easily manhandle him out if anything he gets into. His behavior becomes significantly less cute when he is around a year old (nearly at full growth) and his muzzle covers your forearm from wrist to elbow. OW! It is at this point that some people realize their error and dump ‘Zilla at the local Shelter because he has suddenly become “too much” to deal with. They haven’t a clue how to train him and they realize it ain’t gonna be an easy overnight fix. When they dump ‘Zilla they will couch it with plausible excuses like: “we’re moving and can’t take him” or a family member has “allergies”. Poor ‘Zilla! He hasn’t done anything wrong. Now ‘Zilla has to unlearn a bunch of undesirable behaviors to make him a canine good citizen.
Once ‘Zilla has landed in the shelter it becomes the mission of shelter staff and volunteers to try to redirect ‘Zilla’s undesirable behaviors into behaviors that will help him find his forever home.
Please understand that ‘Zilla is not a “bad dog”. He is behaving exactly as his previous owners encouraged/trained him to behave. “Zilla grips hard because his former family didn’t teach him that mouthing/biting his people was unacceptable. They thought it was funny when he was too small to cause them much discomfort. ‘Zilla jumps up on people because his former family didn’t consider the likelihood of ancient Aunt Matilda getting knocked flat by him. Don’t misunderstand me. They would have been horrified had he actually knocked Aunt Matilda down and injured her. They just didn’t think about the possibility of that happening; therefore, never taught him manners to ensure that it wouldn’t happen.
This is why some trainers warn against playing Tug. This is why shelters instruct their staff and volunteers to not engage a dog in a game of Tug. There exists a very real chance that Tug will excite the dog to such a level that he has little or no self-control. Combine that with a lack of bite inhibition and someone is going to get hurt. Bites are serious issues in a shelter. Tug-of-war, in this situation, can set a dog up to fail – big time.
So should you play tug-of-war with your own dog?
A resounding YES! Provided both you and your dog can abide by the
Rules of Tug-of-War:
You control when the game is initiated, not your dog. You offer the tug toy to your pup and say the magic word. Get it! or Take it! or anything else that you only use for this game. The word is not important. The control is. You could say Duck Soup and that would work.
You have control. Play only if you can get your dog to release the tug toy and sit at any time. Do this every 30 – 40 seconds. Work in a little training; ask for a Sit, Down, back up a few steps and do Come, and then use the return to playing Tug as the reward.
The rules apply to everyone who plays tug-of-war with your dog. Everyone.
Teach your dog the safe way to play:
Set him up for success. Choose an appropriate toy for the game. Make sure it offers a good place to bite that will not hurt his mouth and that it is of the right size to allow both of you a good grip without him getting your fingers. I prefer those braided cotton cord or fleece toys that are easy for both dog and human to grasp. (Don’t leave him unsupervised with one because your pup may decide it is a chew toy. He can end up pulling strings off it and ingest them – not good!) Dogs are quite capable of being very precise where they put their teeth. Just think of all the gestures and air snaps they go through when play-wrestling with their canine friends. However, in the excitement of the game a small tug toy may get you unintentionally nipped.
To teach your dog to let go of the tug toy, stop tugging and freeze for a moment. Say “Give” or “Drop” and, with your other hand, wave a food treat right in front of his nose. When he releases the toy to sniff the treat, ask him to sit, give him the treat and praise him. Then wiggle the tug toy and tell him to “Get it”.
Soon you can ask your dog to release the toy without having a treat in your hand. Continue to reward the dog for releasing the toy by offering the toy back again and telling him to “get it”.
The benefit of this exercise is that your dog will learn that the world isn’t going to come to an end because someone took his toy. He learns that he will probably get his toy back – or something of equal or greater value. It won’t take your dog long to figure this out. Another benefit of this give and take process is that he is much less likely to develop possessiveness about his toys. Tug can be a great relationship builder and training aid. Playing tug-of-war will not make your dog aggressive.
What to do when the rules get broken:
If your dog ever puts his teeth on you: Immediately yelp and freeze. Take the toy and walk away. Give him a 20 – 30 second time out. Then go back ask him to sit and practice giving and taking the toy back before resuming play.
If he tries to grab the toy before you have told him to “get it”, give him a 20 -30 second time out. Then go back, ask for a sit and offer the toy again.
If your dog makes the same mistake three times in a row, the game ends.
Tug-of-war is not a game where you have to “win” all the time. You will not lose your dog’s respect if he “wins”. Think about it; would you want to play a game where you never got to win? You would quickly lose interest. Don’t worry about this being a dominance thing. Your dog gets that Tug is a game. When dogs play together a more dominant dog will let a subordinate dog “win” to keep the game going. Let let your pup “win” to keep the game interesting and fun.
Be aware that pulling the toy too high can strain or hurt his neck. Keep the game more to his level. When you take the toy from him, don’t quickly put it behind your back or dangle it out of his reach. The quick motion will encourage him to lunge after his toy and jump up to get it. This is counter-productive to him trusting you to give the toy back to him.
Some people say you should never play tug-of-war with a dog that has arthritis. Obviously such a dog could not comfortably manage a vigorous game. I see no reason why you couldn’t do a very short and gentle version of tug. Old dogs like some playtime too. Just be mindful of their limitations and comfort.
Do you play tug-of-war with your dog? Use it as a reward instead of a food treat? Let me know in the comments below!