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

Since you’re teaching this rule while you play, your dog’s release won’t be super fast at first. That’s okay. As you practice, she’ll learn to release the toy promptly. Remember that the more excited your dog is, the harder it will be for her to even notice that you want her to do something, so adjust your strictness about this rule to allow for how much practice your dog has had and how hot the particular game is. Do 50 or more fluid repetitions over the course of a dozen or so games before you expect an instant release.

Tug-of-War Rule #2

Second rule: The dog grabs her end of the toy again only on your okay. Choose a cue to give her permission to grab the toy. Whatever word comes naturally to you is fine. Keep the game low-key at first. When your dog releases the toy, ask her to sit while you hide the toy behind your back. Bring the toy out slowly, so as not to tease with fast movement. Say your permission cue and offer her the toy. You’re rewarding her sit by letting her play. If she does break the sit before your cue, immediately say “Oops” or “Too bad” – or whatever comes to your lips; just keep it consistent. Hearing the same marker whenever she makes a mistake will help her figure out what she did wrong. Drop the toy, walk away, and ignore your dog until she gives up on the game. Then you can pick up the toy and offer it to her again.

As your dog gets good at waiting for permission to grab the toy, you can up the ante – wait a little longer before you okay her to take it, move the toy a little faster, ask for a different behavior such as a down or even a brief stay. There you have it: doggy self-control, wrapped up in a bunch of fun. Nutritious, yet so tasty.

Tug-of-War Rule #3

Third rule: If the dog’s teeth touch your clothes or skin, even by accident, the game ends. Maybe you’ve seen those dog arguments that sound like all hell is breaking loose; the dogs’ jaws fly everywhere. Usually neither party to the squabble winds up with even a scratch. And those are angry dogs. They are that precise with their teeth. Your dog can certainly learn to show you the same care in play. I’m not a fan of zero-tolerance policies as a rule, but I make an exception here. Sloppy tooth manners can cost a dog her life if someone decides that the careless mouthing an owner has tolerated in play is actually a bite.


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).