There is quite a bit of controversy over whether or not playing tug games with your dog is a good idea. For the average dog, teaching her to play tug by the rules is a great way to let her have fun, in addition to giving you exquisite control of her mouth. For many dogs, tug is so reinforcing that it can be used to reward other behaviors. In addition, tug games can help build confidence in shy dogs if you let your dog “win” (end up with the toy) often.
Who Should Play Tug Games
Most dogs are good candidates for playing tug games, provided, of course, that the games are started, played, and ended appropriately. Dogs that have ever threatened or bitten people should not play tug games unless they are under the instruction and supervision of a qualified professional trainer as part of a training or behavior-modification program. For safety, dogs should not play tug games with small children or other people who are easily overpowered.
Playing Tug Games Properly
A person should always instigate tug games, not a dog. When you invite your dog to play a game of tug, it’s a good idea to use a specific toy designed for that purpose. The best tug toys are made of cotton rope or rubber, and have handles built into them. Do not let your dog talk you into playing tug with old socks or towels, although if you’re willing to sacrifice his plush toys to play tug, that’s perfectly acceptable. As long as it’s you (or another person) who invites your dog to pull, not your dog who presents a toy and then starts pulling when you put your hand on it, you’re doing fine. If your dog does try to get you to play tug by pulling when you put your hand on a toy, simply release the toy as soon as you feel any tension on it.
Many dogs growl when they play tug games. Don’t panic! As long as your dog doesn’t growl at you or threaten you in other situations, he’s probably not threatening you during play. In fact, growling is a normal part of playing for many dogs.
To start a game, bring out one of your tug toys. Like fetch toys, tug toys are yours; bring them out when you want to play, and put them away when you’re done. Tease your dog with the toy until he grabs it and starts pulling. Hold on and pull back, shaking the toy slightly up and down or side to side. Insert your tug command (whatever you want to call it — try “pull it” or “tug”), several times, along with praise for a tug well done.
When your dog is really into the pull, slip a treat right under his nose, and give your “drop it” command. When your dog opens his mouth for the treat, put the toy under your arm or behind your back for a moment, then present it again to continue the game. Before long, you won’t need a treat to get your dog to drop it, and you can use the continuation of the game as his reward for giving you the toy when you ask for it.
Like every other command, your dog should instantly release the toy on the first command. If he doesn’t, let go of the toy and walk away. During the game, if your dog moves up the toy and his mouth touches your hand, stop the game immediately with a loud “ouch” and walk away. When you’re ready to quit the game, ask for the toy, and reward your dog with something: a treat, another toy, or whatever your dog likes. If your dog likes to retrieve, you can play with a combination of fetches and tug sessions for variety.