Revised on 12/29/22
By: Anthony De Marinis, Certified Dog Behavior Consultant- IAABC, ADT, LFDM, FFCP & Debbie Torraca, DPT, MSPT, CCRP, Board-Certified Orthopedic Clinical Specialist Emeritus
Is it okay 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 because it has many benefits, but learning how to play tug safely is VERY important so that you do not accidentally injure your dog.
Again, 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 a dog how to control his mouth and learn self control, and it will help him build a stronger relationship with his owner. Many people who compete in dog sports or use their dog for work such as scent detection, K9 Units and other venues 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, either fetching or playing tug, so most of his training rewards involve toys. Watch this video of Journey earning a tug reward for coming when called.
It is important to note that some dogs get more intensely or more easily aroused than others. Playing active games like tug can intensify that arousal and the behaviors that come with it. If you feel playing tug intensifies unwanted behaviors for your dog, then end the game. If your dog is a known resource guarder, a dog who gets possessive and protective of items, then in some situations 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 the individual dog.) Learn more about resource guarding.
WHY IS PLAYING TUG BENEFICIAL?
- It builds and strengthens an engaging relationship between dog and owner
- It provides great mental and physical enrichment
- It is helpful in teaching a dog self control
- It can be used as a reinforcer (reward) for a job well done
- It can be strategically used to redirect behavior such as puppy mouthing
- It is a great confidence-building exercise for some nervous dogs
- It can be an outlet for pent-up energy or stress, which can lead to unwanted behaviors
- It can build a dog’s motivation to work/learn
HOW TO PLAY TUG SAFELY
Although playing tug has many benefits, playing it incorrectly can actually do more harm than good. Here are some important points about how to play tug safely. At the bottom of this list there are a few helpful “how-to” videos as well!
- Safe Surfaces: Play tug on a surface that your dog can grip onto. Wood floors and tile are too slippery, especially for dogs who are strong tuggers. Playing tug on a slippery surface can be dangerous and cause injury. 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”: Most dogs do not need to know “drop it” when initially learning how to play tug. This is especially true for puppies. You can either use two of the same or similar toys so that you can trade one for another. Or the second approach can be playing until the dog lets go of the toy, at which point you can start having your dog chase the toy before allowing him to grab it again. When initially introducing the concept of “drop it”, we usually suggest doing this away from your actual “real” tug sessions. Knowing how to drop an item is critical, especially if your dog picks up a dangerous item or if your dog becomes aroused from tugging. Watch this easy-to-follow video on how to teach a dog to “drop it.”
- Your Dog Should Do most of the Work: When playing tug, your dog should be doing most of the work. This means you shouldn’t be overly swinging your dog’s neck side to side or up and down, or dragging your dog around the room (unless your dog moves with you). 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 doing most of the tugging, pulling and shaking his head side to side. Some dogs might need you to encourage them, as they may be unsure or not very enthusiastic about tug. For those dogs, encourage them by moving the toy around on the floor to make it look fun. 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 too nervous, fearful or not interested in playing tug that is okay! Some people force their dogs to tug when the dog may not enjoy it. This can put too much pressure on a dog, which could negatively impact the dog-owner relationship. Take a look at this video of Anthony tugging with Penny. Penny is a bit nervous outside on walks. Tug was used as a way to help her build confidence and have some fun on her walks. Notice how Anthony gently pulls and runs with her to encourage her to play.
- Use a Toy That Your Dog Will Enjoy: Some dogs will tug with every toy, while other dogs will only play with a specific toy. You might have to do a little searching to figure out what your dog likes tugging. To learn more about tug and using play as a reward, check out this blog, which includes helpful videos.
- Keep the Toy Low to the Ground: When dogs play tug they naturally keep their bodies low to the ground. You may see your dog’s back end up in the air and the front part of their body lower. For dogs who really get excited and motivated to play tug, they may dig their front and back feet into the ground as they play. When playing tug, make sure to keep the toy towards the ground or aligned with the spine. Many people make the mistake of playing tug by keeping a dog’s neck high, but this can actually put too much stress on a dog’s spine and overextend his neck. Again, dogs naturally play low, so keep your tug toy low to the ground when playing. You will notice this throughout the videos in this blog.
- Side-to-Side Movements: When playing tug, your dog will naturally move his body 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. It can cause a neck injury and add stress to the spine. Remember, let your dog do most of the work and you will see how he naturally moves his body and/or shakes his head side to side. You will notice these movements in the videos in this blog.
- Do Not Let Go: Many people let go of the toy when their dog is pulling too hard or because they might find it funny to watch their dog fall back. However, letting go of the toy could result in a very steep vet bill, because you can injure your dog by letting go while he is forcefully tugging. Try letting go of the toy when your dog is not intensely pulling back.
- Let Your Dog Win! For those who believe playing tug causes aggression, this one will blow their minds! It is a good idea to allow your dog to win! Remember, playing tug is a relationship-building activity, and it can be used to reward a dog for doing the correct behavior or completing the task being asked of them. While just the act of tugging can be fun, winning the game is even more rewarding for some dogs. You can also add the cue “You win” when you allow your dog to win 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 spine or neck issues as this might worsen the problem 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 Photos & Video
Take a look at the photos below to see how to play and how NOT to play tug. You will see in the first two photos 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 photos, you will find a link to a few helpful videos. Check them out and go have fun with your dog!
Photo Disclaimer: In some of the photos you will see a dog wearing a choke chain. It is 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 photos 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
Helpful Tug Video’s
Using Tug As A Reward With Penny
Using Tug As A Reward With Journey
Learn how to use play with toys and food as a reward event! Click here to review the entire blog with instructional video’s! ALL FOR FREE!!!
About the Contributors:
Anthony De Marinis, CDBC, ADT, LFDM, FFCP
Anthony De Marinis specializes in working with dogs with severe behavior issues, specifically with aggressive behavior. He provides comprehensive in-home and virtual behavior consultations, as well as dog training services across Long Island, NY. (Online Virtual Consultations for aggression and behavior modification are also available for clients who are local and out of state.) Anthony has several professional certifications which include: Certified Dog Behavior Consultant from the International Association for Animal Behavior Consultants, Accredited Dog Trainer by the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants, Licensed Family Dog Mediator (LFDM), Fear Free Certified Training Professional (FFCP), Certified Graduate of distinction from the Victoria Stilwell Academy for Dog Training & Behavior, and The Third Way Certified Trainer. Anthony currently has an interest in training and behavior modification in Working & Sport bred dogs. He is also learning about and currently competing in agility and sheep herding. Anthony has two Australian Kelpies, Journey and Quest, both of which are training in agility and sheep herding. 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