Playing Tug-of-War with Your Dog

Find out why tug-of-war is a win-win.

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA
4-minute read
Episode #10

If you’re tempted to play tug with your dog but have been holding back because you’ve heard that tug-of-war makes dogs aggressive, good news! It ain’t necessarily so. In fact, it really ain’t so at all.

Buy Now

As an Amazon Associate and a Bookshop.org Affiliate, QDT earns from qualifying purchases.

Why Play Tug-of-War with Your Dog?

Playing tug-of-war is some of the most fun we can have with our dogs. Played by the rules, tug will strengthen your dog’s self-control and teach her to respond to you even when she’s amped. The consequence for breaking a rule is that the game ends, so dogs who love tug generally learn the rules PDQ.

Two quick cautions before the fun: if your dog acts possessive over food, toys, or space, consult a behavior specialist before you play tug. In fact, consult a behavior specialist anyway. Also, if your dog mouths hard when excited, keep tug-of-war games brief and low-key. Interrupt play often.

Tug-of-War Rule #1

First rule: The dog releases the tug toy on cue. Now, dogs aren’t born knowing what you mean by “Drop!” or “Give!” or “Dammit, Spot!” Here’s a way to teach the cue in the context of tug.

When you want your dog to release, stop tugging, but keep your grip on the toy. At the same time, gently take hold of your dog’s collar. Now wait patiently. Your dog can’t get much action going by herself, so sooner or later, she’ll get bored; she’ll open her mouth and release the toy. Immediately let go of her collar and encourage her to grab the toy again. With repetition, your dog will learn that releasing the toy almost always restarts the game. (Almost always, because you’ve got to go to work sometime.) She’ll also begin to release the toy as soon as you touch her collar – the touch is the cue.

You can leave it at that, or you can add a word cue if you want. Choose a release word and say it every time, just before you touch her collar. Eventually, your dog will learn that the word consistently predicts the collar touch -- the release cue she already knows. At that point, she’ll drop the toy when she hears the word.


About the Author

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA

Jolanta holds professional certifications in both training and behavior counseling and belongs to the Association of Professional Dog Trainers and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She also volunteered with Pet Help Partners, a program of the Humane Society of the United States that works to prevent pet relinquishment. Her approach is generally behaviorist (Pavlovian, Skinnerian and post-Skinnerian learning theory) with a big helping of ethology (animal behavior as observed in non-experimental settings).