Not long ago dog trainers told us playing tug of war with our dogs would cause them to act aggressively toward us. If you don’t understand how dogs play, it could seem like a fair assessment.
However, a dog is a dog. It’s not a human adult. Grabbing something and shaking it hard while growling is natural to most dogs. In fact, two dogs that know each other well might often play tug games with one dog on each end of a toy.
Playing tug of war with your dog can provide a wonderful outlet for her natural canine urges to grab and pull on things with her mouth. You can also use this game to teach her important lessons such as how to listen to you when she’s excited. It’s also great exercise. Here are a few pointers that will help you engage your dog in a safe and structured manner when playing.
The Ground Rules
It’s important to establish clear rules since self control is something dogs (and people) have to learn how to do. In the excitement of play your dog may exhibit some difficulty with self control at first. For example, the sight of the toy might cause your dog to lunge at your hand. In the process she may catch your hand and fingers. It will hurt, and you’ll want to avoid that if at all possible.
Give your dog a clear message that playtime is over when this happens. Do this by teaching a cue that indicates the start of play and another cue that teaches her when playtime is over. “Let’s play” and “No more” or “Grab it” and “Nope” are some examples.
Once playtime is over remove the tug toy from the area and away from the reach of your dog. This establishes you as the one who holds and controls all the fun stuff. It also prevents her from pestering you to continue playing. Some dogs enjoy it that much!
Train Your Dog to “Let Go”
It’s also a good idea to teach your dog to “Let go” of the toy. It takes some work and practice but it will make the game much safer for you both. Doing so will also help establish that you,and not the dog, are in charge. So how exactly do you teach your dog to “let go?”
Start by offering your dog one of his favorite toys, saying “take it.” If the sight of the toy excites your dog, you might want to let him have a minute or so to play before you start training. Don’t wait until he gets bored with the toy. While the toy is in your dog’s mouth, hold a treat up to his nose. As soon as your dog releases the toy, give him the treat.
Repeat this several times until you feel your dog is responding well. Now, add the verbal cue, such as “drop it” or “let go.” Choose only one cue however, and stay consistent. Otherwise you risk confusing your dog. Say your chosen cue firmly and clearly while still holding the treat near his nose.
After a while, try holding the treat farther away. Increase the distance if he still responds to the verbal cue. Then, try the command without the treat, praising your dog if he complies.
Tug of War Isn’t For Everyone
Tug of war isn’t a good idea for every dog. Some are too fearful to play. Others get too aroused and overstimulated and unable to play safely. A dog who has trouble winding down doesn’t need practice getting worked up.
Another bad candidate is the dog who has already demonstrated some level of aggression towards humans. Some dogs have had bad experiences that make them leary and disagreeable toward people. If you have a dog that is not very people friendly, you want to obviously avoid playing tug of war with this dog.
You know your dog best so please use judgment to determine what is safe and what is not. A good rule of thumb here, if you feel in any way apprehensive about playing this game with your dog, don’t. There are many other games you can enjoy together without stressing yourself or your dog out.