Tug games are among the most classic games people play with puppies and dogs, yet there are so many misconceptions about how to play, and worries over whether this type of game is even okay to play.
Tug games are valuable for the physical and mental well-being of dogs, and for their relationships with us. This article will show you how to get the most out of this game.
Are tug games okay to play with dogs?
People used to think that playing tug games with their dogs would cause their dogs to become aggressive or “dominant.” The old rule was that if you did play, you had to make sure to “never let the dog win,” because the dog would “think he is the boss.” Studies have since shown that there is no reason that playing tug games, or letting a dog win when you play, promotes aggression.
Studies have shown that the biggest difference between dogs who win games of tug, over those who never do, are that the dogs who never win don’t enjoy the game as much.1
What is so special about tug games?
Dogs are born wanting to mouth and chase everything. The most common complaint about puppies is that they want to chase and mouth us! Tug games start out as a simple and intuitive way to re-direct natural puppy behaviors. If redirected, these behaviors fade away as puppies mature into adults. Tug games allow dogs to use their mouths, channel their predatory instincts, counter boredom, and relieve stress and anxiety in a safe and positive way. And, your dog can do all of this with you. The positive effects that tug games have on canine mental health and on our relationships with our dogs are countless.
Dogs are expected to spend most of their lives controlling their natural instincts. Tug games allow you and your dog to celebrate who they are, in all of their wild, playful, toothy glory!
For many high-energy types of dogs such as terriers who can’t always be trusted off-leash, tug games are a great alternative to more repetitive forms of limited-space exercise such as fetch. Tug games are truly enrichment games because they are varied, interactive, and their training and situational applications are endless. I play tug with Miles to enjoy time together, to motivate him in agility training, to focus him in exciting places (when treats won’t do!), and to reduce his stress in tough environments (would you ever think of playing tug in the exam room as you wait at the vet? Miles and I do!). Once you unlock the value of this game, you open up a world of possibilities.
Why are human tug game skills important?
I frequently hear the same complaints about tug games from people who have adult terriers: that their dogs become “aggressive” when playing tug, and/or they won’t give the toy back. Others say their dogs don’t like tug anymore. These problems arise from a lack know-how and training. Training oversights show very easily in working breed types. For high-energy dogs especially, unused or improperly managed energy easily turns into stress. The very game that should relieve stress can create it, if not approached properly.
The human side of tug is simple, but the foundations are important.
Dogs and puppies are quite forgiving, and will usually keep trying to have fun even when they feel uncomfortable. When it comes to tug games, it is often people, not dogs, who have a tendency to be a bit “dominant” when playing! The old method of tug was that we’d enjoy our puppy’s natural instincts and roughhouse too much with them, and as they got bigger, tug would become a mix of confusion and stress for both parties. When tug games are played without good human skills from the beginning, dogs can start to seem “aggressive” when playing and/or they can become stressed about giving up the toy. Ultimately, many people and dogs lose interest in the game altogether. This doesn’t have to happen. Human tug skills are the key to preserving this valuable game for life.
How (and Why!) You Should Play Tug With Your Dog: THE VIDEO
Video Recap: what to avoid when playing tug
Tug games are naturally VERY exciting to most dogs, especially young dogs! When playing, you don’t want to get your dog amped up, with their adrenaline and natural instincts pumping, and then make them feel freaked out, frustrated, and/or threatened. Putting a dog in any or all of these states can lead to common problems. Avoid pitfalls by:
- Use a tug with a long handle, so the toy can drag across the ground, rather than being bunched up high by your waist. This can put too much pressure on your dog. Think about when you are talking to someone, and they put their face far too close to yours!
- Not all growls are the same. Most dogs growl when they are enjoying tug, but sometimes, we overlook stress. Avoid pulling your dog towards your face, or slapping his or her sides when playing tug. Sometimes dogs growl in reaction when we do this because they find it stressful, not because they are having fun.
Video Recap: what to aim for when playing tug
- Use a toy designed for tug games (more in the next section). Ideally you want a furry toy with a long handle so that you can drag it across the ground in an exciting way, mimicking prey.
- Make silly exciting noises!
- When your dog catches the moving tug, relax tension for a second to prevent a harsh shock to his or her jaw, neck, and/or shoulders. I strongly recommend tug toys with bungee cords in the handle for shock absorption for everyone’s safety.
- Teach a solid release and reward the dog heartily for good releases over time (see video).
- Help your dog learn to target the bite area of the tug by making the game dull when they go for the handle, then make it exciting again when they go for the bite area!
- When you are done playing, tugs should be stored safely out of reach. Tugs are not “toy box” items. Putting them away keeps your dog from tearing them to bits, and helps preserve the prized interactive nature of this enrichment game.
Gone are the days when we worried about playing this wildly fun game with our dogs. If offered with respect and know-how, tug games are safe and valuable ways to allow our dogs to relish their natural instincts.
The type of tug toy matters
I highly recommend toys designed for tug games. Professional tug toys aren’t really that known to the average pet owner. These toys often have a long handle, so the tug can be pulled across the ground. Don’t worry, you can easily bunch up the handle when needed! The handle will be equipped with a bungee, for shock absorption, and the bite area should be large. Keep in mind that if your dog is little, they will enjoy a big bite area too. No little dog has ever complained, “that squirrel is the same size as me!” The bite area will be furry with a sturdy core, and won’t have any external plastic, rubber, or rope exposed that can catch on teeth. Safety, dog appeal, and game function are key.
The tugs shown are FloRaMicaTo toys from Europe. They are available from Clean Run in the USA and Cool Tugs in Canada. These are my favorite tug toys, but there are many others. If you need suggestions for other brands, let me know.