By Sherri Romig CPDT-KA

There is a lot of misinformation out there about playing the game of Tug with your dog. Dire warnings and arbitrary rules abound:

– If you play tug with your dog he will become aggressive.

– You must retain possession of the toy at the end of the game, or the dog will think he won.

– If you let the dog win at tug, he will think you are weak and become dominant.

Fortunately, these statements are simply untrue. There is no evidence backing any of these ideas, and plenty of evidence to the contrary. Tug is about having fun and getting exercise. It is also a great opportunity to teach your dog important skills like cooperation and impulse control…and you can even let him win.

There have been at least two studies done (Goodloe and Borchelt, 1998; Rooney and Bradshaw, 2003) on playing tug with dogs that have shown that there is no link between the game and an increase in aggressive behavior or dominance. In fact, both studies showed that dogs who engage in this type of play with their owners score higher on amenability (playful, approach quickly when called, lick owners frequently), and are less likely to have separation issues. They also demonstrated that there is no difference in dominance behavior in dogs after winning or losing at the game, or whether the dog or owner retains the toy at the end of the game.

Tug is a cooperative game, not a competitive game. When dogs play tug, they are having a great time playing with a friend, not vying for possession of a resource. When you tug with your dog and he wins, does he run off with the toy, congratulating himself on his superior strength? Of course not! He thinks “That was great! Let’s play again!” and immediately tries to entice you to grab the toy for another round.

Playing tug with your dog is an excellent way to keep him exercised, occupied, and even teach him important impulse control skills.

When playing tug, there are a few rules to keep in mind:

1. Teeth do not touch human flesh. Ever. The dog must know that this is not okay and learn to control his bite. If teeth touch flesh during the game, immediately drop the toy like it is on fire and walk away. The dog will quickly learn that touching flesh with teeth ends this wonderful game and take extra care about how he uses his jaws.

2. Put the game on cue. We don’t want the pup to think that every time you try to take something from his mouth it is an invitation to tug, so make sure it is clear to him when the game is on. You can do this by using a designated tug toy, or by giving a verbal cue like “Tug!” to initiate the game. If the dog tries to tug when you haven’t given the cue, simply let go as soon as he starts to pull, and pull back only after you give the cue.

It is also an excellent idea to teach your dog a strong “give” or “drop it” cue, and use this game as an opportunity to practice it (check out our article on teaching your dog to “give”). Ask your dog to “give” while playing tug. If he does, play again! If he fails to comply when you ask him to give up the toy, simply end the game by dropping the toy and walking away.

You can take advantage of the Tug Game as an opportunity to practice impulse control by asking for calm, polite behavior before you will play. If you have the toy, wait for your dog to sit calmly before you present it to him and give the cue to tug. If your dog has the toy, require him to sit calmly before you will take your end and give the cue to tug. Practicing this consistently throughout the game will help to teach your pup to go from revved up and excited to calm quickly, a valuable skill to have!

So, go nuts and have some fun playing tug and bonding with your dog! Not only is it a great time and great exercise, but it fosters a spirit of cooperation and is a great opportunity to teach your pup some important life skills. Your dog will thank you for it!

“It is highly unlikely dogs become more aggressive by playing games with their owners. Quite the contrary, in fact; game playing builds confidence and promotes friendliness. As soon as the dog learns the two of them can have fun together, he begins to focus his attention on the owner, rather than always looking to other dogs for enjoyment and amusement.

When played according to the rules, these games:

1. increase the level of control owners have over their dogs, specifically at times when the dogs are excited and worked-up and

2. motivate, build confidence and make the dog less aggressive, specifically improving and maintaining his bite inhibition.” – Dr. Ian Dunbar

“Dog owners have been admonished for decades to never play tug-of-war with their dogs because it risks increasing aggression or dominance in the dog. Played with rules, tug-of-war is a tremendous predatory energy burner and good exercise for both dog and owner. Like structured roughhousing, it serves as a good barometer of the kind of control you have over the dog, most importantly over his jaws.” – Jean Donaldson

“If anything, the best description of tug is that it is cooperative behavior. It’s not you vs. the dog, it’s you and the dog vs. the tug-of-war toy.” – Jean Donaldson