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Tug: A Great Game with a Bad Reputation

"Never tug with your dog. It will make him aggressive!" Dog owners have been fed such fairy tales for entirely too long. Today, I hope...

Casey Lomonaco  |  Nov 16th 2010

“Never tug with your dog. It will make him aggressive!” Dog owners have been fed such fairy tales for entirely too long. Today, I hope we can dispel some of the myths about tug and replace them with understanding of how to make this game both safe and a powerful training tool.

Tug is a fantastic game, as long as it is played with rules. Some people say that you should never let the dog “win” the tug toy. I disagree, I let my dogs win frequently. Who wants to play a game they can never win?

At least with beginner dogs, my favorite tug toys are at least three feet long with a knot placed in the middle. One end of the tug toy is mine, one end is the dog’s. Here are my favorite rules for tug:

  1. The tug is sacred – tug toys are not to be left out where your dog has constant access to them. Some tug toys may be chewed apart of ingested. Many dogs become demanding with their tug toys, finding them and shoving them in the owner’s lap, face, or pawing at the owner demanding, “tug with me, now!” Keep your tug toy in an area where your dog cannot get it. Only bring it out when you want to play with your dog.
  2. Your side, my side – as I mentioned,I like to start a dog with a long tug divided in half by a knot. If the dog’s teeth leave his side, travel over the knot and onto my side, the game ends immediately.
  3. All biting ends the game – if the dog bites, the game is over. Period. I don’t care if it was an “accident” or if he “didn’t bite very hard.” When your dog is a full-blown tug maniac, he will be biting hard. He needs to learn early that human limbs are NOT acceptable tug toys, under any circumstance.
  4. Teach a reliable “out” – dogs should be able to eject the tug toy from their mouths on cue, literally spitting it out. Failure to “out” on cue ends the game.
  5. Do not let your dog play you! Don’t play “keep away,” chasing after the dog if he has the toy. Teach your dog to bring the toy to you. Trust me, it’s better than engaging in a foot race you’ll never win each time you want to play!
  6. Tug is a game for “grownups – tug is not a great game for children to play with dogs. Children can play fetch games with dogs or participate in training, but tug should be reserved exclusively for adults (and responsible older teenagers). All individuals tugging with the dog must follow all the rules!
  7. Make them earn it! For many dogs, tug is a very powerful reinforcer (which makes weaning off food reinforcement much easier!). Make access to the tug contingent upon good behavior. If your dog begins barking, jumping, or snapping at the toy before you present it to him, wait for a desirable behavior (like “four on the floor” or “sit”) before giving your dog the tug. Never initiate a game of tug with a dog that is being rude, pushy, or demanding. Playing tug is a privilege earned through good behavior!

Those wishing to tug with their dogs should also keep in mind that:

  • Dogs frequently growl and bark when playing tug or in other forms of play. Barking and growling does not always indicate aggression – a knowledge of canine body language will help you understand your dog’s play signals, stress signals, and warning signals.
  • Bitiness during tug does not always indicate aggression, it often signifies a lack of impulse control and bite inhibition. If this is the case with your dog, you should: a) work separately on exercises to install bite control, b) interrupt tug games frequently before the dog goes over an arousal threshold (this may be a few short seconds at first!), c) practice other impulse control exercises until they are reliable (stationary positions with duration, releasing toy on cue, ignoring moving tug until cued to “get it,” etc. If your dog has very poor impulse control, you may want to hold off on tug games until you have made progress with general impulse control exercises.
  • If your dog resource guards the tug toy, discontinue tug exercises temporarily and locate a qualified behavior professional to help you teach your dog that the tug toy is more fun when shared!

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