How To Safely Play Tug With Your Dog
By: Anthony De Marinis, Certified Dog Behavior Consultant- IAABC, CBATI, VSPDT, TTWC, VSA-DT
& Debbie Torraca, DPT, MSPT, CCRP, Board-Certified Orthopedic Clinical Specialist Emeritus
Is it ok to play tug?
As dog professionals, we are constantly asked if playing tug causes aggression. The answer to this is NO (in capital letters!). As a matter of fact, we encourage you to play tug with your dog as it has many benefits, but learning how to play tug safely is VERY important so that you do not accidentally hurt and injure your dog.
Contrary to what some professionals may still believe, playing tug does not cause aggressive behavior. In fact, playing tug is a great way to teach your dog how to control his mouth, learn impulse control and build a relationship with his owner. Many people who compete with their dog in dog sports or use their dog for work such as scent detection, K9 Units and so on, rely on playing tug with their dog as it can be a very valuable reward. For example, Journey (Anthony’s dog), is not very motivated to work for food. Instead, he is motivated to work for toys and playing tug, so most of his training rewards are toys and tug. You can click here to watch a video of Journey training and earning his tug reward.
It is important to note that some dogs get more aroused or more easily aroused then others. Playing active games like tug can intensify those behaviors. If you feel playing tug intensifies those certain behaviors then end the game. If your dog is a known resource guarder; a dog who gets possessive and protective of items, then playing tug could be problematic depending on the severity of the behavior. In those cases, playing tug may not be a good idea. (BUT again, this is dependent on each dog.) Click here to learn more about resource guarding.
WHY IS PLAYING TUG BENEFICIAL?
- Builds and strengthens an engaging relationship between dog and owner
- Provides great mental and physical enrichment
- Helpful in teaching a dog impulse control
- It can be used as a reinforcer (reward) for a job well done
- Redirects inappropriate behavior such as puppy mouthing
- Great confidence building exercise for some nervous dogs
- Outlet for pent up energy or buildup of stress related behaviors
- Can build motivation to want to work/train
HOW TO PLAY TUG SAFELY
Playing tug has many benefits, but playing it incorrectly can actually do more harm than good. There are some important key points on how to play tug safely. At the bottom of this list there is a great “how-to” video as well!
- Safe Surfaces: You want to play tug on a surface that your dog can grip onto. Wood floors and tile are to slippery, especially for dogs who are strong tuggers. Playing tug on a slippery surface can be dangerous as it can cause injury. You want to use a surface that your dog can grip onto like a carpet, rubber flooring or even the lawn when it is dry.
- Knowing “Drop it”: Your dog should know how to “drop it” when you asked. Knowing how to drop an item is a necessary behavior, especially if your dog picks up a dangerous item. Here is a really easy video by Kikopup on drop it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tVivnOwiMoA
- Your Dog Should Do The Work: When playing tug, your dog should be doing most of the work. What we mean is that you shouldn’t be swinging your dogs neck side to side, up and down or dragging your dog around the room. Your dog should grab the toy when you let him and he should start pulling on the toy himself. The dog should be the one tugging, pulling and shaking his head side to side all on his own. Some dogs might need you to encourage them as they may not be very enthusiastic to play tug. For those dogs, we can encourage the dog by moving the toy around on the floor to make it look fun. You want to make the toy become alive to the dog. You can also make funny sounds or say things like “Do you want it”, “Do you want that toy” to help encourage your dog to become interested. Pro Tip: If your dog is to nervous, fearful or not interested in playing tug that is ok! Some people force their dogs to tug, when they may not enjoy it. This can put to much stress and pressure on a dog, which could negatively impact the dog and owner relationship.
- Use A Toy That Your Dog Will Enjoy: Use toys that your dog will enjoy playing tug with. Some dogs play tug with every toy, while other dogs will only play tug with a specific toy. You might have to do a little searching to figure out what your dog likes tugging.
- Keep The Toy Low To The Ground: When dogs play tug they naturally keep their bodies low to the ground. You may see your dogs backend is up in the air and the front part of their body is lower. For dogs who really get excited and motivated to play tug you may see their front and back feet dig into the ground as they play. When playing tug, make sure to keep the toy low to the ground. Many people make the mistake of playing tug by keeping a dogs neck high, but you can actually put to much stress on a dogs spine and can extend a dogs neck this way. Again, dogs naturally play low, so keep your tug toy low to the ground when playing.
- Side To Side Movements: When playing tug, your dog will naturally move side to side. You will also see he may get really into the game and start shaking his head side to side. This is naturally how a dog plays. DO NOT make the mistake of playing tug by moving the toy up and down as this is not a natural movement for a dog and can cause neck injury and add stress to the spine. Remember, let your dog do most of the work and you will see he will naturally move his body and/or shake his head side to side.
- Do Not Let Go: Many people let go of the toy when their dog is pulling to hard or because they might find it funny to watch their dog fall back. However, letting go of the toy could cause you to pay a very steep vet bill as you can injure your dog by letting go while he is forcefully tugging.
- Let Your Dog Win!: For those who believe playing tug causes aggression, then this one will blow their minds!!! It is encouraged to allow your dog to win! Remember, playing tug is a relationship building game and it can be used as a reward for doing the correct behavior or task being asked of them. This means that it is totally appropriate to occasionally allow your dog to win and have the tug toy! You can also add the cue “You win” when you allow them to win and take the toy. Each dog is different, which means that some dogs might run off with the toy and play the “Party of one” game (playing by themselves), while others might bring the toy back to play with you more. Don’t be concerned that allowing your dog to occasionally win will teach him to run off with the toy. There are many ways to encourage your dog to bring the toy back such as running in the other direction and rewarding your dog with another game of tug using a second toy or teaching your dog to bring the toy back to you when you ask him to.
Important Disclaimer: Avoid playing tug with dogs who have cervical or neck issues as to not increase or cause additional issues. If you cannot avoid playing tug with a dog with cervical or neck issues, then use a toy that is shorter in length so that your dog cannot pull as hard and to minimize the amount of movement such as shaking the toy side to side. Remember to also keep the toy low to the ground when playing.
Helpful Photo’s & Video
Take a look at the photo’s below to see how to play and how NOT to play tug. You will see in the first two photo’s the toy is kept low to the ground, which is the safe way to play tug. In the fourth photo, you will see that the toy is up high, which can be dangerous and cause injury. You will also notice the dog is playing tug on wood flooring, which is NOT recommended as the dog can not grip onto that particular surface as well as rubber flooring, carpet or grass. Under the photo’s, you will find a link to a helpful video that Anthony took with his puppy, Journey, on how to play tug safely. Check it out and go have fun with your dog!
Photo Disclaimer: In some of the photo’s you will see a dog wearing a choke chain. We do not support the use of these tools. However, it is also important to understand that this client is part of the local K9 Unit and these are the tools that they have chosen to utilize. This is one of our favorite clients and we have chosen to use these photo’s as we support our local K9 Unit and the work that they do for our community!
Picture 1: How To Play Tug Safely
Picture 2: How To Play Tug Safely
Picture 3: How NOT To Play Tug
(Although the handler is tugging low, the wood floor could be slippery)
Picture 4: How NOT To Play Tug
About the Contributors:
Anthony De Marinis, CDBC, CBATI, VSPDT, TTWC, VSA-DT
Anthony De Marinis is the owner of De Marinis Dog Training & Behavior in Long Island, NY. He provides private in-home training and behavior modification solutions using positive reinforcement-based methods. He also provides video consultations remotely as he has many clients across the United States. Anthony has 6 professional certifications which include: Certified Dog Behavior Consultant from the International Association for Animal Behavior Consultants, Certified Graduate of distinction from the Victoria Stilwell Academy for Dog Training & Behavior, Certified Behavior Adjustment Trainer, Certified Victoria Stilwell Licensed Positively Dog Trainer, The Third Way Certified Trainer and is a Fear Free Certified Animal Trainer. Currently, Anthony has a young Australian Kelpie named Journey. They are learning about agility and nose work together. You can visit Anthony’s website and learn more about him and his services at: www.demarinisdogtraining.com
Debbie Torraca, DPT, MSPT, CCRP, Board-Certified Orthopedic Clinical Specialist Emeritus
Dr. Deb Torraca is the owner of Wizard of Paws Physical Rehabilitation for Animals, LLC in Colchester, CT. She has been working with rehabilitation and conditioning of small animals for over twenty years. She teaches internationally on the subject of canine physical rehabilitation, sports medicine, and canine conditioning, and has done so for over twenty years. She is sought after for the rehabilitation and conditioning of working, performance and conformation dogs. She is a certified Fear Free practitioner and enjoys working with a multitude of dogs. Debbie is also available for video consultations for those who are not local. You can learn more about her on her website at: www.wizardofpaws.net