7 Tips for Playing Tug Games with Your Dog

7 Tips for Playing Tug Games with Your Dog

Bashir, my oldest Australian Shepherd, loves to play tug games.

When I offer a tug toy and tell him, "Bashir, get it!" he'll grab it, brace his back legs, and pull, yank, and growl something fierce. He sounds like he's fighting me but he's not; the game is under control and as soon as I say, "Bashir, drop it," he spits out the toy and happily smiles at me. It's great fun. In years past, dog trainers recommended that dog owners not play tug games with their dogs as it could teach the dog to fight or use his strength against the owner. While this can still be true, the benefits of tug games outweigh the potential for harm. Tug games let the dog use his strength and fight the toy; he can pull, yank, brace his legs, and act like a wild dog while his owner is cheering him on, "Yeah! Get it! Awesome!" This rough game allows the dog to use up excess energy, provides easy exercise, and lessens any mental stress the dog might be feeling. Plus, because this is a game most dogs love, it's great for the dog and owner relationship.

The Rules of the Game

As with most games, there are some basic rules for playing tug. By sticking to these rules, the chances of injuries to you and your dog are significantly decreased. First and foremost, your dog is to never, ever grab your hand, touch his mouth to skin, or grab clothing. If he does, you can shout, "Ouch!" if you wish, but most importantly, he is to drop the tug toy and the game is over for this play session. The timing of the end of the game is important if you want your dog to learn from it. He grabs your hand (even by accident), you shout, tell him to drop the toy, you walk away and the toy is put away. Boom, boom, boom, boom. If your dog is left looking startled, wonderful! Bring the toy back out in a couple of hours and try again. The second rule requires some training. Your dog is to sit until you give him permission to go for the tug toy. He's not to leap in the air for the toy as you take it from its spot in the cupboard and walk outside. He is not to try and grab it from your hand before the game begins. Instead, he is to sit and wait for permission for the game to start. If your dog's self control is not good, do some refresher training on your dog's sit. You need him to sit quickly and hold it until you release him. As you practice, add some distractions (toss a ball, do toe touches, or jumping jacks) until your dog will hold the sit even with distractions. Last, your dog must always drop the toy when you ask him to do so. Even if he's in the middle of a wonderful, fierce battle with the toy, pulling and growling, he must stop when you ask. You'll see how to teach this below. These rules are not optional. A large (or even medium sized) dog playing tug has a great deal of power. If he plays too rough, leaps and grabs at the toy, or won't drop the toy, he could hurt you.
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Choose the Right Tug Toy

The best toys for playing tug need to be sturdy as you don't want the toy to break in mid-game. The toy also needs to be made of something the dog can sink his teeth into, that won't hurt him, yet will also allow him to grab and pull. Heavy rope toys and braided fleece toys are great as are tubular burlap or canvas tubes (often called bumpers). Don't use hard or rigid toys that could hurt your dog's mouth or break teeth. In addition, the toy needs to be long enough so your dog doesn't grab your hand instead of the toy. A twelve inch toy could work for a small dog while a 24 inch long toy would work better for a large dog.

Introduce the Tug Toy

Initially introduce the toy by tossing it a few feet away. Encourage your dog to get it, "Puppers, get it," and bring it back to you. Praise him when he does. Vary the tosses, encourage him, and make it fun. Always put the tug toy away when you're not playing. This isn't a toy that will be in the dog toy box for him to pull out anytime; instead, keep it special.

Teach Your Dog to Drop the Toy

When your dog brings the toy back to you, offer him a treat. If he doesn't drop the toy, let him smell that wonderful treat. He can't take the treat until he drops the toy. When he does drop the toy, give him the treat immediately, and tell him, "Puppers, drop it! Awesome!" and praise him. Essentially, you're trading a treat for the toy. This is important as the tug games need to stop when you ask your dog to stop; hence, drop the toy.
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Start the Game

To begin playing tug, first make sure you have a few treats in your pocket just in case you need them for the, "Drop it." Bring out the tug toy and tell your dog, "Puppers, get it," and wave the toy in front of him. When he grabs it, praise him and begin pulling back, softly, while you continue to encourage him. If you pull too hard at first, many dogs will drop the toy, thinking you want it so you should have it. When your dog begins to pull against you, praise him, and move the toy around as you pull back. Gradually increase your pulls against his. After a few seconds, bring out a treat and offer it as you tell your dog, "Puppers, drop it." Praise him and give him the treat as soon as he drops the toy. Tell him what a wonderful dog he is, pet him, and give his brain a chance to calm down. Then repeat the game. A half a dozen repetitions are great the first time you play. Gradually you can increase the number of repetitions and the intensity of the play.

Use the Tug Game as a Reward

If your dog really loves to play tug, you can then use this game as a reward when doing other things. Agility and other performance sport competitors do this often as it's rewarding the dog for a job well done with a reward the dog enjoys. So, for example, when you're doing some obedience training with your dog, finish an exercise, pull out the tug and give your dog fifteen seconds of strong vigorous tug play. Then ask him to drop the tug, go back to work, and then reward him with the tug again.

Some Cautions

As you play, do so at your dog's level or just slightly above. As a general rule, dogs have a strong neck but if his neck is at a sharp angle facing upwards as he plays, he could wrench his neck. Don't pick up your dog as he's playing tug. It's a strong temptation, I know, and the owners of terriers or bulldogs often do this, but please don't. It's far too easy to hurt your dog or for him to hurt himself. If your dog doesn't like to give up favorite toys, or if you ever feel uncomfortable when playing tug with your dog, stop playing and talk to a dog trainer. This is a game, should be a game, and dogs who take it too seriously could be a potential problem. Call for help before any tug games again.
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