Is Tug-of-War Safe to Play With Your Dog?

Historically, in dog training, tug-of-war was discouraged.

Traditional trainers argued—and some still do—that the dogs will somehow get the upper hand and become dominant or, worse, aggressive. Is that a science-based concern? Or can you play tug with your pup?

In recent years, with the development of research-based training methods, tug-of-war is encouraged as a fun game to build your bond with your dog and burn off some of your pup’s excess energy. Depending on your dog’s personality, though, tug can overly-arouse an excitable pup. Follow these rules to turn tug into a fun, safe game for you two to play together. One caveat: If your dog aggressively guards her resources, like her food and toys, this isn’t an appropriate game for her!

First, get a toy.

Choose a tug toy that’s long enough to allow your dog to grab onto one end while you hold the other—without him accidentally coming in contact with your fingers. Ropes work well, though any long, soft toy can do the trick.

Next, teach a drop it command.

Your dog must be able to drop an item on cue. If you haven’t yet taught this behavior, don’t start a game of tug until you do. Here’s a great tutorial on teaching this important behavior.

Then, start the game!

Entice your dog with the toy, then give a cue like, “get it.” If she jumps for the toy before the cue, which is likely when you first start to play this game, ask her to drop it, then start over. As you play, periodically assess your dog’s arousal level. According to trainer Victoria Stilwell, in her post on dog games, “Play should stop on your cue and if play gets too rowdy either ask your dog to drop the toy or drop it yourself and walk away. Rowdy play, mouthing, or over-arousal stops the game.”

Keep the game going.

Match the game to your dog’s size and energy level. According to an article by trainer Pat Miller in the Whole Dog Journal, “Only tug side-to-side, not up-and-down (up-and-down can cause injury to your dog’s spine), and temper the vigor of your play to the size and age of your dog. You can play tug more intensely with a 120-pound adult Rottweiler than you can with a Rottie puppy, or a four-pound Chihuahua.”

Finally, end the game.

Despite the long-held belief that the human should always “win” the game, that isn’t based on science, and who wants to play a game they always lose? Instead, sometimes allow your dog to end with the toy. When she understands that the game is over, ask for her to drop it, reward her with a small treat, and put the rope away. Once she’s accustomed to the rules of tug, bringing out the special toy will signify playtime!

Troubleshoot

If at any point your dog’s mouth comes in contact with your hand or she jumps for the toy without asking, say “uh oh” or “oops” and put the toy behind your back. Allow her a moment to settle—perhaps ask for a sit—then restart the game. However, if she becomes too intense or is nipping too close to your hand consistently, put the toy away for another day.

Meet the Author: Maggie Marton

Maggie is a writer and author, whose first book, Clicker Dog Training: The Better Path to a Well-Behaved Pup was published by Open Air Publishing. When she's not writing (or reading books about grammar), she teaches writing courses to college students and professionals who want to nail down the basics of communication. Outside of work, she hikes, throws dinner parties, plays with her three dogs and cat, and travels as much as possible.

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