How to avoid aggression when playing Tug of War with your dog

How to avoid aggression when playing Tug of War with your dog

Playing Tug of War is a great game for you and your dog and can be used as a positive reward in training where treats may not be appropriate, or liked, by your dog. The game is a great way for your dog to expel some pent up energy and if played by the ‘Golden Rules’ it teaches your dog how to have some self control and give you both a great bond. But does playing Tug of War make your dog aggressive?

Tug of war played correctly will not encourage aggression in your dog or puppy. However, do not play tug of war with dogs that guard objects or display aggression as this may intensify aggressive tendencies the dog already has.

50 owners and their dogs who played Tug of War took part in a study published in the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science. They concluded that the game itself had no significant impact on aggression in the dogs. In fact, they stated that dogs that played tug of war and fetch had more confident interactions with their owners.

However, depending on how started the game, aggression was found to be a potential issue. If the dog started the game, they tended to be more aggressive and less responsive to their owners. When owners started the game and set the rules, it helped promote positive behaviors in the dog.

Read on to find out how to set the ‘Golden Rules’ for playing Tug of War and how to avoid aggression and dog bites.

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5 Reasons Tug of War is an excellent enrichment activity

  • Tug of War is an excellent way to bond with your dog
  • Tug of War lets your dog tap into their natural instincts to chew and wrestle
  • Tug of War gives your dog an outlet for energy and an opportunity for physical exercise, even when you can’t go outdoors
  • Tug of War teaches dogs about rules and boundaries   
  • Tug of War provides mental, physical, human and cognitive enrichment all in one fun game

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Toys suitable for playing tug of war with your dog

Knotted rope toys are perfect for tug games; the longer the better because the length keeps the dog’s teeth away from your fingers and prevent accidental grazing or biting. Just make sure if they start to fray you remove them as bits of rope in your dog’s intestines is not the objective. We stick our rope toys in the washing machine once a week to keep them clean and if they are looking particularly frazzled, they go in the compost bin to rot down.

The ropes with plastic handles make it easier for you to hold on to.  Dogs seem to like tug toys with different options of where to grip so they can change their hold position. (Check these tug toys on Amazon.)

Silcone toys make good tug toys too, then tend to be more durable and I love this toy which is a combination of a plush toy and a silicone ring giving plenty of places to get a good grip.

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8 Golden rules for playing tug of war with your dog

1. The tug toy is only for playing tug. It is not left lying around. When the game is over, put it away someplace where the dog can not get it.

2. You decide when it is time to play tug. If your dog stands next to the place where the tug toy is kept and barks insistently (or grumbles in Dolly’s case in Frenchie language) do not get it out. Wait until they turn and walk away then get the toy out and invite them to play

3.  At least nine times out of ten, you win the game, not the dog. That means you end up with the toy and the dog doesn’t. If your dog will release the toy when you ask using a command such as ‘Drop it’ of ‘Mine’ then you can let them win very occasionally.  (If your dog won’t give it back, you both need to do more work on ‘Drop it’ before you try to play Tug.)

4. If your dog’s teeth even so much as graze your skin or your clothes, the game is over. Say “Oh dear!” turn your back on him, and put the toy away. Wait a few minutes before you play again.

5. When you are ready you give the verbal cue ‘Tug’ and then offer your dog the tug toy and play. If your dog lunges for the toy before you give him the cue, say “Oh dear!” and hide it behind your back. Give the Tug cue only when he is standing or sitting quietly in front of you, with all four paws on the floor.

6. Play growling is okay. Serious growling (accompanied by snapping or a refusal to release the toy on your ‘Drop it’  cue) ends the game. Put the toy away for at least ten minutes.

7. If you have more than one dog, and your dogs tend to get boisterous with each other when they are excited and competing for toys or attention, do this game with one dog only when the other dogs are secured in another room.

8.  Small and young children should not play this game with dogs. They aren’t strong enough to win the game, and they can’t be depended on to follow the rules consistently.

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How to play the perfect Tug of War game in 3 steps

1. Bring out the tug toy, shake it a little, and see if the dog will grab it. Pull gently on it to encourage them to resist. Always pull side to side and not backwards as you could hurt your dog. When they start to play reward them with  “Good dog, tug!” As they get more enthusiastic about tugging, keep telling them “Good dog, tug!” and get more energetic with your tugging in response.

2. After five to ten seconds of tugging, stop moving. Still holding on to your end of the tug toy, stand still, and in a calm but happy voice say “Drop it!” or ‘Mine!”.

Remember: You are not intimidating the dog into giving you the toy—you’re just giving then information and asking the dog to respond with the appropriate behaviour. Because you have already trained the dog to give what they are holding to  you when you say ‘Mine’, they will let go of the toy. When the dog releases the toy say ‘Yes!’ as a verbal reward.

3. Wait a second and then give the verbal command ‘Tug’ and continue to play the game.

Repeat 1-3 until you’ve both had enough!

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What to do if your dog doesn’t release the toy on command.

If they don’t give up the toy easily on your request, don’t argue with them, but don’t let him win either. Keep hold of the tug toy and trade them for a treat. If necessary, drop the treat on the ground (or drop several treats) until they are tempted enough to drop the toy and eat the treats.

As soon as they drop the toy say the verbal cue ‘Mine’. Now continue the tug game again, but for a shorter period, and don’t encourage them to get so excited.

Many dogs are more willing to let go of the toy if they know they are going to get it back for another round of tug. If they continue to choose not to give when you ask him to, put the tug toy away while you work on the ‘Mine’ command.

What to do if your dog goes for the toy before the command or his teeth touch your skin

Remember to use negative punishment  i.e. the dog’s behaviour makes a good thing go away. So, if your dog starts lunging for the tug toy before you give them the cue, or if their teeth touch your clothes or skin, stop playing immediately  and say  ‘Oh dear!’. Put the toy away and wait a few minutes before playing again.

And remember to put the toy away when you’re done.


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