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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.

Exercise
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! 

Training
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.

Relationship-Building
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.

Self-Control
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?

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JoAnna Lou is a New York City-based researcher, writer and agility enthusiast.

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