Is tug-of-war bad for dogs? How often have you heard that that it will make your dog aggressive or show “dominant” behaviors? That’s a common misconception among pet dog owners, some dog trainers, and some breeders. In fact, there is no eveidence to show that this myth is true. Research shows the opposite!
Dogs of all sizes can play tug. My 10lb Miniature Schnauzer Sadie loves her daily game of tug and is quite ferocious! My late 20lb Mini Schnauzer Max, pictured right, had to learn how to tug. As you can see, he really got into it and began to love it, which taught him many valuable skills.
Max was a rescue, we took training classes together, and we built a good relationship through that. He also loved the game that all dogs love… KEEP AWAY!
As we started agility training, it became obvious that we needed to utilize tugging; however, he didn’t seem interested or know how!
The process of learning how to tug helped us:
1. Build a stronger connection
2. Work on impulse control
3. Build confidence
4. Gain an indoor exercise game – mentally & physically tiring
Playing tug-of-war is a dog and owner interactive game not just for sports dogs! That alone is going to help you build a stronger connection.
Most dogs play keep away, and then the owner chases and nags the dog to return the toy. We want to change that dynamic and teach the dog that PLAYING WITH YOU and the toy IS WAY MORE FUN! This will help the dog choose to bring the toy to you to play together!
When teaching to play tug, start in a small enclosed area so the dog can’t run away with the toy and play keep away!
You set the rules for tug-of-war and that requires impulse control!
You are in control of the game! You get to decide when it starts and when it ends.
The dog shouldn’t jump for it when you hold it up or in front of them unless you say it’s ok. If they do, put it bunched up under your armpit so they can’t get at it and try again. They will learn that just grabbing it without thinking or paying attention to you does not get them the toy!
The tug toy should only be out and available when you initiate a game of tug! Otherwise, it is hidden safely away!
Dogs hide pain very well! We don’t know if our dog has neck issues, and we don’t want to start any. So it is important to use natural body movements.
Pulling the toy up and down causes the neck vertebrae to move unnaturally. So instead, use a side-to-side motion and let them do the work – PULL!!!
Make sure you help them keep their feet on the ground.
My dogs like it when I gently slap or rub their sides to get them tugging. Figure out how your dog likes you to interact with them while playing!
If your dog is having trouble tugging, consider if the problem could be a lack of traction under their feet. A small area rug will usually do the trick.
Tug for 10-15 seconds and let the dog win! Then act like a fool and get so excited that the dog stays near you for you to grab the toy (let your dog keep it in their mouth if they wish) and tug again!
As the dog naturally releases the toy, say Drop or Give, whichever you prefer, and then cheer, get excited, and start the game again! Over time your dog will learn that Drop/Give means to release the toy, and you will be able to ask for it. If your dog needs a little help letting go naturally, hold the tug very still with your hand wrapped around the tug near the dog’s mouth so there is not much left for them to bite on. Then change your body posture and be very still and wait. As you see them start to open their mouth to let go, say Drop/Give, remove the toy, and get excited and start the game again.
You can try to reward the toy’s release with a treat, but most dogs are very food motivated and might not continue to play.
However, if you have a dog that has a hard time letting go, go ahead and try a trade for a treat and teach the drop/give away from the game of tug. It all depends on your dog’s personality.
Start tossing the toy a short distance away, so you can quickly and easily grab it IF they don’t bring it back to you! Over time they will learn that PLAYING WITH YOU is way more fun than playing without you.
The goal here is to encourage and teach your dog that playing with you is AWESOME!
The choice of tug is very important. You want something to set your dog up to successfully keep its mouth far from your hands! Long tugs with which to make a U-shape, longer tugs with suitable handles, and tugs with special points of interest away from the handle are all good ideas!
Your dog might be a “talker” when they play. They might be a silent player. Both are ok! In either case, watch for your dog getting “too” excited/aroused or aggressive during play.
Look for their energy changing, inability to play the game by the rules, lipstick showing, getting snatchy or sharky with biting of the tug.
The best practice to prevent dogs from getting into a state of hyperarousal is to alternate a single tug session with the performance of tricks or cues! Tug – sit – tug – bow – tug – spin – tug – down sit- tug etc. (interval training). End the game with a thinking exercise like a treat scatter where your dog has to sniff, sniff, sniff!
Once you have made tug-of-war super fun for your dog at home, you can take it on the road!
If you are in a new area and your dog is feeling insecure and too stressed to eat, see if a game of tug will help distract and relax them.
You can gain your dog’s focus in new environments through tugging. So instead of going to new places and asking for obedience, have fun and play tug! You can do interval training as well.
You can use a skinny soft tug to redirect all that puppy biting!
This will help teach your dog what a good thing to bite and chew is and what is not.
I suggest you always have a tug on you and a few scattered around the puppy areas for your puppy to drive towards when they feel the urge to nibble on something!
It is something with which you have to be consistent and patient.
Fleece is great as it doesn’t shred like a lot of other fabrics!
Something skinny and soft is ideal for puppy teeth!
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