Playing Tug with your Dog

Have you heard that playing tug can make your dog aggressive? That it's a game of power and whoever wins is the Alpha?

 Photo Credit: Darinka Kievskaya

Photo Credit: Darinka Kievskaya

I call BOGUS! Dogs play tug with each other because it's FUN and you don't see the winner taking over the world afterwards, do you? Enough with this silly Alpha-junk anyway - the true definition of an Alpha is "breeding pair" anyway, so playing tug isn't going to cause a love affair resulting in a litter of pups. (Awkward...)

Tug is a fantastic way to reward a dog for a job well done. Many dogs are tug- and play-motivated, so we can alternate the use of food with a game of tug. The trick is to teach your dog that there are rules when it comes to playing!

Step #1: Select a sacred toy.

Your dog has not seen or interacted with this toy before. It is reserved only for the game of tug. Keep it sacred! This will help down the road as your dog will hopefully not generalise tug to your pant leg, the leash, the drapes, etc.

Step #2: Choose your cues.

What do you want to say to your dog to let them know it's time to grab on? "Get it!" is a popular one. What about when you want your dog to let it go? "Drop" or "out" are popular cues. Choose your cues now!

Step #3: Build motivation.

Bring out the toy and move it around, low to the ground and make like a squirrel's tail. Shake it and freeze for a second. Move it and shake it and freeze. Don't let them get it though - be faster than them! Get excited! Squirrels aren't boring - that's why your dog wants to chase them. After about 5 seconds, put it away and be boring. After 15 seconds, lather, rinse, repeat! Do this until your dog is amped up and really wants that toy!This can be done over the course of a few days.

Step #4: Teach a drop.

Start out with lots of small pea-sized treats in your hand, behind your back. You will first train this behaviour when your dog has nothing in their mouth. Think of it as though you are creating a reflex rather than a behaviour.

  1. Say “drop it!”

  2. Scatter 3-4 tiny treats on the floor

  3. Help your dog find wayward treats

  4. Repeat this 5-10 times, randomly over the course of a day when your dog least expects it

Be sure to do it in this order so you are not saying “drop it” at the same time or after you scatter treats. You need to have a solid conditioned response in order to move forward. This can be done over the course of a few days.


The Rules of Tug

Before you start to play tug with your dog, you'll need to know the rules.

  1. The game starts when YOU initiate it, not when your dog does. Give your "get it" cue to get it going!

  2. The game ends when you say so. Give your "drop" cue to release the toy and then tuck it away.

  3. Teeth-on-skin is an immediate end to the game. Say "ouch" in a firm but not squeaky or scary voice, then if your dog is still tugging, cue your "drop", drop the food, and tuck the toy away. Next time, play for a shorter period of time to avoid over-excitement.

  4. When you cue "drop" you must drop treats. Eventually, you can use re-engagement with the tug toy as the reward instead of the treats.

Now, Let's Play!

  1. Hide the toy behind your back, say your "get it" cue just once, then the tug comes out and is activated. Let your dog get a little taste of it. Amp them up a bit and then at the last second let them get it and engage with them. Be surprised and excited that they were so clever and fast! Shake the toy, move it side to side and pull back a little. Let them pull back on it too. 

  2. After 5 seconds of this, you're going to cue them to drop it. Immediately drop 5-6 treats on the floor right beside their nose and scatter them around, pointing to all those pieces. As soon as you say it, you have to stop. The squirrel is dead. Your arm goes limp but they don't get to keep the toy. You may have to hold the treats on your dog's nose for them to drop the tug toy and take the food. Whichever works best for your dog! 

  3. When they let go to scarf up the treats, you tuck the tug toy away and go off and be boring.

Over time, you let them play for a little longer and try it in different environments.


FAQ:

Q: What if my dog gets really amped up with a game of tug and I can't settle them down? 
A: 
That's called over-arousal and we want to avoid it. Turn down the intensity in your game and also shorten the duration of play significantly. Take a break in between each tug for a training break - work on sit-stay, down-stay, some other impulse control based behaviours, and then take a real break from training AND tug. If that doesn't help, stop tug altogether and get in touch with us!

Q: What if my dog grabs my hand or clothes when going for the tug? 
A: 
Ah, this is an instant penalty. You can say - "game over!" and then the tug goes away until next time. You have to be consistent with this one or they won't learn to avoid biting your hand or clothes.

Q: How often should my dog win? 
A: 
Well...it has to be fun. For BOTH of you. I like to let them win 75% of the time. If they feel like they can never win, they'll stop playing. Wouldn't you?


Caution: When playing tug with a young puppy who is still developing, a dog with dental issues, an older dog, or a dog with spine-related issues, you are simply holding on and letting them do all the tugging. Healthy, strong dogs can take a little more. There should not be any drastic direction changes and you should not lift your dog off the ground with this exercise! If you are unsure, speak with your vet before engaging in this game.