A version of this blog originally appeared on Your Pit Bull & You, a nonprofit I ran from 2013-2018.
Playing tug with your dog can be a fantastic outlet for energy. Unfortunately, the game is misunderstood by many, and so many dogs are denied the opportunity to expend their built-in predatory energy as a result.
Some of the myths surrounding tug include: -Tug makes dogs aggressive. -You shouldn’t look a dog in the eye when playing tug. -You must establish yourself as pack leader before engaging in tug with your dog. -Tug allows a dog to assert dominance over humans.
Here’s why these myths are so problematic: -Tug taps into a dogs predatory energy. It’s already there. Playing tug gives us a way to channel that energy. Predatory energy is part of a dog’s DNA, handed down over generations, as dogs descended from wolves. When played with rules, tug allows a dog to release that energy appropriately and there is zero correlation with aggression. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0168159101001927 –If you are playing with rules, why would looking the dog in the eye be a problem? -The phrase pack leader is just plain old nonsense. -See previous statement.
So, how do you play tug appropriately with your dog? The rules are simple, but they are essential. Tug can be used not only as play, but as an important part of training. In fact, tug gives you a built-in way to work on improving your dog’s behavior, attention to cues and impulse control.
Rule One of Tug: Dog takes tug toy only on cue. You can use a cue like “take it” and make the toy come to life by shaking it around. This helps build impulse control and provides some built-in training.
Rule Two of Tug: Dog drops tug toy on cue. You can use a cue like “release” or “drop.” Initially, you can show your dog a piece of food to entice him to let go and drop the toy. You will eventually fade this, as getting to start the game again becomes reinforcing enough itself.
Rule Three of Tug: Game ceases if dog’s teeth make contact with skin. It doesn’t matter if it happens accidentally or not, if teeth make skin contact, the game is over. You can use a cue like “Too Bad” or Game Over” to signal to the dog that today’s round of tug is over.
Rule Four of Tug: Take breaks to test the system. This means that you will be asking the dog to release and take the toy randomly throughout the game. Following the rules means the game continues. Not following the rules means no more tug for today. Over time, dogs who enjoy the game will learn that the rules apply every time, as long as you are consistent in applying them.
I asked Jean Donaldson for her thoughts on tug and this is what she said:
“There isn’t a ‘Pandora’s Box’ risk. In fact, it’s the other way around. The energy is there and tug is a way to burn it. The rules are easy to teach and it can be an obedience motivator for dogs who really love it.”
So, what does she mean by this exactly? -Tug taps into a dog’s predatory energy. -Tug is a great way to burn that energy. -As an obedience motivator, tug is an outstanding way to teach impulse control, as dogs who really love the game will work hard to get it right and earn more opportunities to do so.
I love playing tug with Hazel and if you’ve got a dog who likes to play, I encourage you to do so. Using the rules allows you to play safely and work some training into an activity that your dog enjoys.