The Art of Tug of War!
Updated: Jul 1, 2021
Training is often much easier for people who have strong connections with their dog. Dogs that think their owners are fun and exciting, or the best thing in the whole world, are more likely to listen and come when called than dogs who think their owners are occasional treat dispensers. Or worse, punishers.
Play with toys is the easiest form of play and mostly consists of fetch and tug.
Today’s post will be about everything you need to know about tug of war :) It is a long post, but as tug is a pretty common game hopefully you will pick up something new~
Tug is a great game to play with most dogs because:
Your dog needs to be close to you to play tug. Unlike fetch which sends your dog away from you and often builds excitement for the ball and not so much the person, tug requires your dog to interact and bond with you.
Tug involves teaching a very strong “DROP IT” cue and using it frequently while your dog is in excited play mode. Dogs that can listen to their owner when they are super excited are often better behaved. We can use playing tug of war to teach speedy responses to commands in distracting situations.
It allows your dog to fulfil their instincts to chew and wrestle and is a form of exercise.
You need less space to play tug and it can be played indoors. Perfect for when you are home in isolation! As you progress you can use smaller and smaller tug toys and move less and less while your dog does most of the work.
However, tug of war is not suitable for all dogs.
Tug of war is not suitable for dogs with teeth, neck, spine or movement related health problems.
While there is no evidence that playing tug of war makes dogs aggressive, it may intensify behaviours or patterns that are already there.
You should also not play tug with a dog that is a resource guarder (possessive of their food, toys, bed etc), aggressive or showing early signs of the above. Early signs of possessiveness of an item are stiff posture and staring intently or growling if approached. Other signs to be weary of are licking lips, raised lips and showing teeth, raised hackles, crouching over the item or running away to hide with the item. Do not play tug of war with a dog that displays any of these signs!
Even if your dog doesn’t display any of the above signs it is still important to play tug safely and with control!
Some rules to play by:
1) Invite your dog to play with you.
Try to have specific tug toys and avoid playing with other items your dog brings you to keep your ones exciting and special to your pup. You can do this by either putting the tug toys away or by having a “PLAY TIME” cue that you say when you pick up their tug toy to initiate play.
2) If your dog’s teeth come in contact with you at any time, the game ends immediately.
This includes if they grab your clothes or hands, even accidentally. We want our dogs to learn to be very careful with their teeth placement and keep everyone safe. Say OUCH loudly and put the toy away, even if just for a minute. If the dog has the toy, just walk away from them to end the game.
3) Tug must have a “DROP THE TOY” command. While you could theoretically wrestle toys out of your dog’s mouth, that can quickly become dangerous once the dog figures out what you are doing and doesn’t want you to do that next time.
Here is a link to how to teach “DROP IT”.
Optional for more control: It is also useful to have a “TAKE IT” or “GET IT” command that your dog must wait for before they can grab the toy in your hands.
4) Playtime should have an end cue; this prevents your dog from constantly demanding more play.
Say this only after you have got the toy back and are putting it away, otherwise the dog may not want to give you their toy back next time. Examples are “FINISH” “ALL DONE” “TIME’S UP”. Once you say this – do not be convinced with their puppy dog eyes!
5) Never let two dogs play tug together unless you know their personalities really well and there is no resource guarding or aggression between them. Some dogs are poor readers of body language and can become possessive when over aroused by toys and play. Make sure both dogs are having fun by looking out for loose body language, play bows and goofy faces. If there are any signs of aggression (as described above) get them to drop the toy immediately.
Teaching your dog Tug of War
If you’ve never played tug with your dog or your dog is not particularly interested in toys start here. If your dog already plays tug, skip ahead to Play Mechanics.
To begin, choose a very long, fluffy and squeaky toy that resembles a squirrel. This fluffy llama is my dog's favourite tug of war toy!
Most dogs will show interest in a toy if you wave it around erratically or drag it across the floor. However, some dogs who haven’t played before or are older may just ignore you.
For these dogs it can help if you are very excited about the toy. Act like it’s the best thing in the whole world, play with it yourself and then put it away. Do this multiple times a day until your dog shows some interest in seeing what you’re up to.
If your dog is very interested in food but not toys you can try putting a couple of treats into the toy and then encouraging them to check it out. Long thigh high socks with knots in them can be used as tug toys initially but are not very durable. You can also tie a rope around a smaller toy that they like to make it longer and safer for tug play.
Keep the toy movement interesting, like a squirrel would behave! Move it quickly along the floor, then wait for your dog to catch up, then zoom it around some more, hide it behind your back temporarily and try a slower zig zaggy motion to get your pup interested. If it has a squeaker, squeak it!
It might take a few days of initiating play and acting ridiculous with a toy but the majority of dogs will start to play if you do the above. They may not be great at it the first time, they may get bored after 5 seconds and that’s okay too. They are still learning something new and they may learn to love it!
Start here if you’ve already got a dog that has some interest in toys and want to take your tug game to the next level.
1. Let your dog win at least 30% of tug games, any less and some dogs will give up and won’t want to play with you! I have not found any studies that suggest letting your dog win increases “dominance” or aggressive behaviour. On the contrary, pretending to be weaker than your dog may reduce your dog’s possessiveness and increase their desire to play with you. It’s no fun to play a game that you always lose!
If your dog is sensitive, shy, anxious or timid, let them win even more of the tug games to build their confidence. Play with the dog in front of you! If you have a gentle, sensitive dog they may not want to play very rough and tumble, and that is perfectly okay! If your dog is the opposite and loves that kind of play – go for it but do try to minimise the risk of injury by reading the next few tips!
Some dogs will grumble and growl during play and while this is mostly just in play, if there is stiff body language or you are at all worried - just stop play.
2. When moving the tug toy, avoid rough jerking motions - try to keep the motions smooth and circular and low to the ground. Move the toy gently side to side but not up and down (this can cause neck and back injuries).You can jiggle the toy around lightly but try not to jerk your dog around to minimise the risk of injury.
3. Keep your back straight and bend at the knees if required. Reduce your risk of injury by avoiding hunching over when playing, especially with bigger dogs.
4. Dogs find it hard to grip onto toys that hang vertically and may go for your hand instead as that is the most horizontal part. You can prevent this by presenting the toy to the dog horizontally by holding it with two hands. An example in human terms is: imagine a plastic cup on the table – most people can easily pick up the cup with their mouth if it is upright, but if it is on its side it becomes much harder to pick up. It’s the same with dogs, learning to grab a vertical toy with their mouth is a learned skill.
5. Move backwards slightly when playing to build drive for coming towards you with the toy. Ideally we want to be able to let your dog win the tug game, move away and they bring the toy to you to continue playing because they love it so much! This is a great consent test to see if your dog is enjoying the game, drop the toy and see if they try to restart play.
6. Adding more impulse control and training during play. Add a “GET IT” cue. I don’t allow my dog to jump up and steal toys from my hand unless I say the words "GET IT." To teach this, if they try to steal it, I lift it up well above their reach and only bring it down after I say “GET IT”. With bigger dogs, you may need to put the toy away in a cupboard if they try to grab it from you the first few times.
As you and your dog improve your play skills you can add small amounts of training into your sessions to increase your dog’s responsiveness to commands. Ask for a sit or a behaviour they definitely know before they are allowed to “GET IT”!
As your dog progresses you can switch to more durable and shorter toys. Just be sure to throw away any toys that show signs of fraying or damage: rope threads and toy pieces can cause a lot of damage if ingested! Here is a great post by DogLab on best tug toys for dogs – as my small fluffy pup has not managed to destroy her fluffly llama or rope toys, I have not tested them all out!
I hope that these tips takes your tug of war games to the next level. Play safely and give your dog some love from me! ☺ If you are stuck or have any questions - please comment below!