JoAnna Lou
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To Tug or Not to Tug?
Discovering the benefits of playing tug-o-war
Despite appearances, tugging has lots of positive benefits.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about entertaining your canine crew with a variety of indoor activities, including a tugging game. One of our readers commented that they’d always heard playing tug-o-war can encourage biting, a common misconception about this game. 

I can see why tugging could be mistaken for encouraging aggressive behavior with all the pulling and growling, but the bad rap is unfortunate since this game has so many positive benefits when played properly. 

When I first got Nemo as a puppy, he naturally liked to tug, but it wasn't an activity that I fostered. It was through agility that I first saw the role of tugging as a training reward.  Since then, Nemo and I have discovered the many benefits of this interactive game while having lots of fun together.

Tugging is great way for dogs to expend energy without needing a lot of space, like a fenced yard. It’s also perfect when you’re traveling since you can even play inside a hotel room, as long as your pup isn’t a loud tugger. And I can contest that it can be equally tiring for people as well! 

Very popular in agility, tugging can be used a valuable reinforcer when teaching new behaviors or strengthening existing cues. Imagine how quickly your dog will come to you when he knows a fun game of tug is on the other end! Many dog sports enthusiasts like to use tugging as a reward, since food is not typically allowed in the competition ring, but anyone can enjoy the benefits of incorporating play into training.

Tugging is a great way to initiate your dog in play, strengthening the bond with your furry friend. Growling, when accompanied by soft, relaxed body language, is perfectly normal. Dogs often growl at each other during play, with no connection to dominance.

Contrary to the belief that tug-o-war can encourage dangerous behavior, tugging can actually help dogs learn self-control and give them an outlet to use their teeth appropriately. I use the following three rules when engaging my pups in the game of tug. Your dog’s personality will dictate how strict you have to be in enforcing these guidelines.

  • You control access to the toy and always initiate the game. Keep tug toys away until you want to play.
  • Start the game when your dog is sitting politely. Alternatively you can ask for another behavior or trick.
  • You decide when the game ends. Teaching your dog to drop the toy with lack of motion on your part or with a verbal cue, like the word “out” or “drop” is essential.

I like to practice pausing and re-starting several times throughout the game to teach the dogs impulse control. It’s also a great way to strengthen a “stay” cue with distracting toys.

If your pup isn’t a natural tugger, check out Susan Garrett’s tips for creating a motivating toy.

Do you tug with your dogs?

JoAnna Lou is a New York City-based researcher, writer and agility enthusiast.
CommentsPost a Comment
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Submitted by SmartDogs | January 25 2010 |

Tug is a great game, especially for shy, timid or fearful dogs. A rousing game of tug can be a great way to bring this kind of dog up. And I will usually let this dog win.

A dog with a good, balanced personality can also benefit from playing the game as long as he understand the give and take aspects of the game. With this dog, I will sometimes let him win and sometimes make him let me win.

When dealing with a strong-willed dog who challenges his owners, has resource guarding issues or lacks a soft mouth - tug games are a very bad idea.

Submitted by Anonymous | January 26 2010 |

Thank you Ms. Lou! I've had people tell me this is bad, but my dog is always good about how she tugs. Even when she growls, she'll give it up if I ask. But after reading your piece, I think I should let her win more often.

Submitted by Jenny H | January 30 2010 |

No. I don't tug with my dogs.

Because I have German Shepherds and a bad back, knees and wrists.
(When I was younger and fitter I certainly did.)

Then, I could never get my Kelpies to tug at all ("Wot! I'm a KELPIE! I don't bite!") though I have seen tugging Kelpies.

I wouldn't encourage a non-tugger to tug. There are plenty of other games you can play with them.

Now my favourite it "catch" (and give back, of course) and "Rolling" (Push!) a big ball or cylindrical object back to me after I have rolled it to the dog.

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