Play tug of war with your dog. Let your dog win. Your dog will love you for it.
This article consists of two parts. The first part is a (very) brief introduction to tug-of-war and the philosophy of natural dog training. The second part is a step-by-step guide to playing tug-of-war with your dog. Feel free to skip right to the guide, if you’d like – but I promise that the introduction will be worth it – and not take up too much of your time.
Oh, and one more quick thing before we dive in – the warning. I am going to teach you how to play tug-of-war with your dog in the safest way possible, but it would be unwise of me to not point out the obvious:
WARNING – dogs have sharp teeth, and while they typically know how to use them, they occasionally miss the tug toy and bite your fingers instead. To be FULLY protected you should wear (at a minimum) some durable leather gloves, a long-sleeve shirt, pants, and close-toed shoes/boots. The facemask is probably a bit overboard, but hey, it never hurts to be cautious. When you play with your dog, pay attention to what you’re doing. Keep little children AWAY from the play zone. Don’t let ANY children play tug-of-war with your dog until they understand the rules of the game. Always have your dog on a leash (use a LONG lead for training). Ultimately, you are choosing to play tug-of-war with your dog at your own risk. So, with all that in mind, take a deep breath, stay relaxed, and pay attention (please).
At this point, I’ve worked with many dogs, and by far the most universal piece of advice that I give is telling owners that they most definitely SHOULD be playing tug of war with their dog – and you should ALWAYS let your dog win. Now I know what you’re thinking – probably something like “wait a minute. Almost every book I’ve ever read about training dogs tells me that I shouldn’t, that it produces aggressive behavior, that it’ll make them think they’re the alpha, that it’ll (insert something truly terrifying here)”. Well, I’m here to tell you that those people are doing an enormous disservice to their canine friends by limiting playtime to “fetch” and “here’s a biscuit”. Please keep reading, and allow me to explain.
You can always visit the NaturalDogBlog Learn the Basics page to get a very thorough introduction to Natural Dog Training. For now, I’ll give you a quick introduction to the point-of-view that has pulled me down this road.
MOST dog trainers will have you focus your day-to-day training and perspective about dogs around the “pack dynamic”. Generally, the idea is that, in the dog pack, the alpha dog is the boss, and so the more that you can be like the alpha dog in your family “pack”, the more control you will have over your dog(s).
Using natural dog training, we try to instead engage dogs in the prey/predator dynamic. That’s the “easy” way to explain it, anyway. The idea is that our dogs are hardwired to organize their behavior around prey objects – and the higher value the prey object, the more attracted to it your dog will be. Basically, you want to be the “moose” in your dog’s life – a very high-value prey object, with predator mixed in when it counts (see my article on how to “Be the Moose” in your dog's life).
It’s not that you want your dog to want to eat you (obviously). What you DO want is for your dog to associate being around you with the highest levels of satisfaction possible. Now, how satisfying do you think it is to your dog to be flipped over on his back and shown who’s boss? Furthermore, how satisfying do you think those little treats are after you’ve given your dog a million of them? Clearly we need ways to up the ante with our dogs, so that interacting with us leaves them feeling like they just had the best day of their lives…again…and again. And one of the best ways is – playing tug of war.
You see, dogs need to bite. In fact, biting is in their nature, and it’s one of the best ways for them to release the stress that they store up throughout every day of their cross-cultural experience with us humans. Unfortunately, many humans spend quite a bit of their time discouraging their dogs from biting anything. Like any other repressed-but-innate activity, the biting will find an outlet for itself (could be a fixation on biting, or could be peeing on your neighbors living room rug, or could be letting the mailman have it, etc.). So one benefit of tug-of-war is that you’re teaching your dog what is OK to bite. And, if you play it right, your dog will be able to bite hard enough to release quite a bit of the tension that they’re carrying around. The result: happy dog.
Playing tug-of-war with your dog will also boost their confidence – in a GOOD way (as in, NOT in a “yeah I kicked that alpha dog’s ass” sorta way). One common issue that people have with their dogs is that the dog listens just fine when all is calm (and all is bright), but that as soon as the energy of a situation gets turned up a few notches (another dog crosses your path, someone knocks at the door, your neighbor’s 5-year-old comes running at your dog screaming and waving a strip of bacon) the dog stops listening to anything except the adrenaline coursing through their veins.
The brief “reason why” that happens is as follows: the prey instinct is a dog’s chief avenue for dealing with stress. In other words, when a dog gets all charged up, the natural response is to go find some varmint to kill – or, more generally, a prey object on which the dog can safely focus his attention. Now the dog’s owner, who probably is spending lots of time being the “alpha” or the “leader”, is actually investing a lot more energy in being a predator (to their dog) than a prey object. So…dog feels energy…dog looks at owner…owner barks out some command – maybe even takes a few steps toward the dog…dog feels “oh hell, now there’s this big predator coming for me” (the owner!)…dog runs for the nearest rabbit-hole.
While you will begin tug-of-war in a very relaxed manner, as your dog progresses you will be able to have some pretty high-energy games of tug. The game produces gradually larger amounts of tension, but those moments always end with the huge relief (and release) of winning. You will start out with a wiggly-waggly (read: prey-like) tug object, but as soon as the tugging begins your dog will feel like they’re in a life-or-death struggle with you over the tug toy. But each time, as they win, they will feel more and more confident, safe, and relaxed. And it WILL make an imprint on them, that they experienced this cycle of prey-tension-more tension-release-relaxation right there with YOU. And whereas before when they felt that tension inside they went chasing rabbits, over time they will build the association that the high-energy FEELING means that they’re about to play tug of war with you. Which has become, over time, really fun and compelling.
OK – I think that you have enough background, for now. Feel free to ask follow-up questions, and I’ll do my best to answer them in a future post. On to the fun part!
Rules of the game:
1. Please re-read the warning at the beginning of this article.
2. You are about to play tug-of-war with your dog. That is why you are here. Be prepared to focus ALL of your attention on the game, and if there are any distractions around (other dogs, children, hibachis) remove them. Focus. Thank you.
3. At all times you are to stay as relaxed as possible. Keep breathing. Have fun.
4. Praise your dog often. Offer your dog encouragement (“get that thing…go on, get it!” etc.).
5. Your dog always WINS the game. For those of you who are new to tug-of-war, that means that THE DOG ends up holding the tug toy – not you! They always, always, always, always (always ad infinitum) win. No exceptions.
6. Growling should be kept at a minimum. Practically speaking, if your dog growls, that means that you are escalating the game too quickly for your dog’s comfort. When you hear growling, you should think “oh, my dog is scared of losing the game” and you should immediately let the dog win.
7. That being said, a small amount of growling is ok. But what you don’t want is a CRAZY game. The goal is to pull hard enough and long enough to challenge your dog, and encourage a stronger bite on the tug toy. You will gradually build up the amount of “tug” that your dog is able to handle over time. So take it slow, and open yourself up to your dog’s cues about how he is feeling in the given moment.
8. Don’t play for too long. You don’t want your dog to get bored with the game. The whole thing is much more effective if you can leave your dog wanting for more tug – they will be even more psyched the next time you play.
9. Always let the dog win. Really. If you need to prove something, go play tug-of-war with a group of elementary school kids and pull them to the ground over and over again. That’s true satisfaction, let me tell you.
OK…and now…the moment you’ve all been waiting for…
How to Play Tug of War with Your Dog – and have the happiest dog on the block (humor me, and read this list at least once):
1. You’re going to need two tug objects that are essentially the same – two identical pieces of rope, for instance. I actually buy rubber hose at the local hardware store and cut it into 2-ft lengths, so as I wear through each piece of hose I can grab a fresh one. Do NOT let your dog eat the rubber hose! Addendum: For your dog's health, I recommend that you steer clear of non-rubber (i.e. vinyl-based) hoses, which contain substances that are carcinogenic. Even rubber hoses have the potential to be hazardous, which is why you should always supervise your dog's playtime with them and prevent excessive chewing or swallowing of hose pieces. As your hoses degrade cut yourself a new length of hose!!!
2. Place one of the tug objects behind your back, under your arm – essentially out of sight.
3. Tantalize your dog with the other tug object. Encourage your dog to bite it. This alone might be all some high anxiety dogs can do (and that’s fine!).
4. Steps to tantalize:
a. Wag toy
b. Put toy near the dog and then pull it away quickly-ish.
c. Wag toy and slowly bound away from your dog, trying to get the dog to chase you.
d. Tie a string to the tug toy and drag the toy on the ground (try to get dog to chase you/toy).
e. Throw toy for dog to chase (less desirable, because then you have to solve the problem of getting the dog to bring the toy back to you – we’ll save that for another day).
5. Dog bites toy.
6. Pull on the toy…smooth pulls – nothing too jerky. Remember, you want the dog to hang on! If your dog lets go, that means that you pulled too much. Pull less, and then let go. Let your dog adjust, SLOWLY, to the game, to the notion that biting this thing is OK, and that slight resistance to the pull, as scary as it might be, will ultimately still result with them proudly having the toy in their mouth. Even if your dog won’t let you pull at all, that’s ok – trust me, they’ll come around over time. Just let go as soon as the dog bites the tug toy, and give your dog LOTS of vocal praise.
7. Slowly introduce more and more tugging as your dog gets more and more confident (remember…not too much growling).
8. After tugging for an appropriate amount of time (and with an appropriate amount of energy) – let go! And praise your dog for playing so well!
9. As a nuance of “letting go” – you might want to time it so that you let go when your dog gives a good yank on the tug toy. That way they really feel like they won – not like you just gave up on them!
10. When you’re ready for the next round, take out the 2nd tug object (remember – you had it under your arm or behind your back) and tantalize your dog with that. Your dog will drop the 1st toy and come after the "new" toy. This way you are in control of the game, and yet there are no struggles over a single tug toy. You trade back and forth between the two toys over the course of the game.
11. Dogs with a really good tug might actually keep coming toward you for more tugging AFTER they’ve won. That’s a really good sign! At this point, you can even introduce a little bit of pushing into the game – meaning that you push them, in the chest, as if you were trying to keep them away from you. That pushing will make them try even harder to get to you. So enjoy push-of-war for a few moments, then grab the tug toy and start pulling again.
12. Finally, when you’re ready to end the game, take out a treat, and use that to entice your dog away from the tug toys. Since your dog is on lead, you should be able to grab the lead and just walk away. Put the tug toys away for the next time that you play.
I wish you lots of fun and tug with your dog. Again, if you have any questions, please ask – and definitely let me know how it goes!
Oh, and in case you forgot…always let your dog win. Yes, I was serious about that. 🙂
Neil, I really enjoyed this article, excellent writing and organization.
Can you comment on eye contact during the game please?
Do you have a rule about a very eager dog who may impolitely grab the object before it has been officially offered?
Great questions, Angelique. For now, I'll answer them here - but at some point I might update the post itself with the answers (and more, if anyone else has any questions).
Eye Contact - Making eye contact with your dog is a very "predator-like" behavior. So at any point if you're making direct eye contact with your dog during the game, you need to at least be aware that you are ADDING energy to the system. You definitely DON'T want to get your face right down there, since the "threat" of the eye contact and the proximity of your face could make your face a more appealing bite object than the tug toy.
Also, if your dog is reluctant to even take the tug toy, it could be because you're still being too predator-like - and you'd want to do more prey-like things like "looking away" and even turning your body so that you are not directly facing your dog. At all times, because the game can be pretty intense from an emotional standpoint, you want to be aware of how prey-vs-predator you're being, and err on the side of prey. All of this is not to say that eye contact doesn't have its place in the communication repertoire - so I'll definitely talk more about it in a future post.
As for the "eager dog" question...maybe think of it this way. As soon as the tug objects have come out from hiding, they are being officially offered. You could use a verbal discouragement (if they actually respond to that) - however, you might consider keeping them out of sight until you're really ready to play next time. There are excellent ways to use the tug object as part of a training regimen (which could include more restrictions on when they can actually bite), but remember, first and foremost, that the object of tug-of-war is to engage your dog in a good-time activity that teaches them how to resolve their stress in close proximity to you...not to cause more stress. Another solution is to let them HAVE the toy that they eagerly grabbed (maybe the dog will even run around with it) - perhaps you even give it a toss, so that they get started by chasing after toy #1. But you show no real investment in toy #1.
At that point you still have toy #2 under your arm, and you can take THAT toy out when you're good and ready to start.
You might have noticed that all of the "rules" apply to us humans, not to the dogs! So, in that light, I suppose the "rule" is "Only take the tug toys out when you're ready to play."
My personal opinion is that dogs don't really understand the concept of propriety - perhaps the dog would think that it's impolite for the owner to take out that durn tug toy before they really wanted to play! It'd be like calling your hungry kids to the dinner table, putting a tasty dessert in front of them, and expecting them to wait another 15 minutes while you finish cooking dinner. Even if they didn't try to sneak a bite, the situation would be awfully tense. On the other hand, you might try putting down a sample of dessert and encouraging them to eat it - as a taste of what's to come if they can eat all their lima beans.
Thanks for visiting!
Okay, this is all coming together for me. This is really the same as Kevin's technique of using the ball, but like you said, we're so used to having to "Win" the game to keep control that it requires a head shift to really understand what we're trying to achieve: The dog learning how to appropriately get rid of their stress in an instinctive and satisfying way in close proximity to us. This has nothing to do with training them out of instinctively using their mouths to accommodate our need to structure the activity, and everything to do with being with them in the moment, reading and responding to them to create a deeply satisfying engagement for everyone. Did I get it?
Absoultely! To top it off, you ARE actually teaching your dog when it's appropriate to bite...and it's always easier to teach a dog to DO something than it is to teach them NOT to do something. It's the best kind of learning for your dog, where they get used to a feeling...and suddenly they want, much less, to use their mouth in inappropriate ways. It just doesn't feel as good any more as good ol' tug of war.
And what you said about "being with them in the moment, reading and responding to them to create a deeply satisfying engagement for everyone" - that's what having a successful relationship with your dog is all about, in my book.
Neil, This is an article I enjoy reading regarding instinct:
That IS a great article. I remember reading it back when I was doing my due diligence and tracking down other references to Kevin's work on the web.
The only thing I'm not so sure about is the reference to the "desire to please" - which I don't think is a fundamental canine instinct. It implies a more psychological approach to dog behavior (my dog knows what I want intellectually, thinks about it, and responds), as opposed to what seems much more likely to me, which is that the dog does what FEELS right (after so much instruction/training). There's hardly time to think when you're managing a herd of sheep, and it's at the level of feeling that the quick pre-thought responses (right or "wrong") are generated. I love Manfred's attitude, though. Sounds like someone who doesn't have anything to prove.
Thanks for the heads-up. And an important disclaimer: I've never trained a dog to work with sheep. There aren't many sheep here in Portland. When I finally move to the farm, though...look out!
I'm just starting to learn about Kevin and your methods and am very interested. I've ordered Kevin's book and am anxiously awaiting its arrival!
In the meantime, this might seem like a stupid question but here goes anyway: I have 3 dogs. Should I keep separate tug toys for each dog?
In the context of playing tug-of-war with your dogs separately, I don't think that it's important to have separate tug toys for each dog. In fact, probably best NOT to, so as not to foster any possessiveness around toy ownership. If you're faithful to putting the toys away when you're done playing, then the dogs won't be able to create any issues for themselves.
It's not so much the toy that's enticing the dog - it should be the game itself (though it might initially be the toy - as you'll have to choose a toy about which your dog is enthusiastic for starters). Eventually, you could designate any tuggable thing as the play object, and your dog(s) would go for that. I often use "tug" as a way to capture a dog's attention when they're fixated on something else (another dog, for instance)...most dogs love the game (and the certainty of how it feels to play/win) more than the uncertainty of "that other dog". At least eventually.
Also, the reason that I use two identical tug toys is to avoid any favoritism on the part of the dog while you're playing the game.
Hope that helps! Let me know if Kevin's book raises any questions for you, as such questions would make for great posts here on naturaldogblog.com
On another note - I checked out the pictures of you and Turid Rugaas on your site. Pretty cool. Was it a women's only event? 🙂
I think Turid's work is VERY valuable - especially in how it allows us to look at dog-world through a totally different lens. Would definitely love to see her in action one of these days.
Hi Neil, thanks for the response! I was asking about having separate tug toys for each dog because I thought it might lessen its "uniqueness" and, therefore perhaps, its value. I keep the tug toys away and they only come out when my husband or I play the game with each dog so there's no concern over resource guarding. Thankfully they don't do that with anything anyway!
Turid was brought to Texas by Michele Crouse of Super-K9 and it was a great couple of days. No, it wasn't meant to be all women but that's pretty much how most of the seminars I've attended have been! There are some men in the training world here in Texas but they're vastly outnumbered by the ladies!
I love Turid. Her books and videos inspired me long ago and it's always a privilege to hear her speak.
I was wondering, do you belong to any of the dog trainer groups? IACP, APDT, IAABC, etc etc?
At the moment I am not a member of any of those organizations, though another reader has recently encouraged me to join the IACP...which I'll probably do at some point.
Looking forward to hearing your feedback on Kevin Behan's book. I've found that some of his thinking has progressed since the book was written, but the core principles hold true. In any case, consider me to be a resource if any questions come up.
Thanks for coming by!
Do you have suggestions for getting a dog interested in playing tug with a toy. My pup is not interested in toys in the least, at least with me.. she will play with my other dog, but if I even touch a toy in her mouth, she drops it, she will not take one from me either, nor chase one... absolutely no interest. I would love for her to be more toy drive, as she is very food driven (great at the pushing game!) but NO luck with toys. (she will steal a toy from my other dog, come to me and drop it. Then take off again, after a hearty "good girl" and a rub, because I want to encourage toys... but that does not seem to be helping much.
Step 4 (Tantalize) is all about trying to get your dog interested in the toy. Here are a few additional things that you might try:
Frequently, with a dog who drops the toy as soon as I touch it, I have to be REAAALLLYYY gradual. Start by just touching the toy, letting go, and then encouraging your dog to chase you. When you reach for the toy, stand sideways to your dog (i.e. NOT head-on), don't look at your dog, crouch down, and just slowly reach your hand out to get the toy. If your dog is too far away, don't move towards your dog to get the toy, move a few steps away and encourage your dog to follow you, so that she gets close enough for you to get your fingers on the toy. Once you have the toy, give it the EVER-SO-SLIGHTEST tug, then LET GO (so your dog "wins"). It won't seem like much of a game of tug to you, but your dog will get the message.
I've seen dogs go from no interest in a toy to hanging on as if their life depended on it - it just takes patience on your part and very very gradual upping of the ante as you increase your dog's comfort level with the game. Just make sure that you stay as "prey-like" as possible while you're doing that. Lots of other articles on this site about that, but let me know if you need other suggestions.
Thanks for stopping by!
Thanks for publishing this very practical info on Natural Dog Training. Kevin directed me to this site after I read his excellent book and sent some feedback.
I want to use this method with my new male Tibetan Spaniel pup who is 12 weeks old on Monday 31 December 2007. I am not doing much in the way of training just yet other than the basics and establishing some routines. We do play together a lot and that has brought about that we do play tug.
He already understands from football that when he takes possession of the toy and hoards it in his crate, the game is over and ceases to be fun so he is, of his own accord, starting to bring the thrown item to me for a repeat performance. This is also how tug works, I throw the rope toy, he gets it, brings it back and we tug and he wins. When he wants it to be thrown again he drops it near me and I throw it and we start all over again. When he wants to stop he takes the toy to his crate or pillow to chew. Sometimes though, he gets so involved with the game that he looses interest in the rope toy and starts a growling, head shaking attack on my knees. I am always sitting cross legged on the ground otherwise he would have trouble reaching my knees. Also because I am wearing jeans and he is quite tiny weighing in at just over 2 kg, no skin is damaged Is tug too much for him at such a young age? He does love it and often initiates the game. Or is this exactly why you suggest the protective clothing.
I just realised that when he overcomes a challenge outside the house, like greeting a strange dog, or walking a new route, he attacks one of his larger toys (or his pillow) in a similar way when we get home. Almost like he is so full of his accomplishment that he wants to confirm how big and strong he is when he gets inside. Is the same thing going on when we play tug and I let him win?
Thanks for coming by. A few thoughts:
Your goal is to become THE outlet for your dog's prey drive, and part of the role of tug-of-war is to get your dog comfortable with bringing that energy directly to you (instead of to the pillow). 🙂
For more information on the redirecting, you might also want to check out: redirecting your dog on a walk.
I'm working with a 3 year old dog with lots of previous alpha obedience training [without collar corrections]. My dog had a LOT of prey drive and bite as a puppy and worked really hard to tame it. [I know, WRONG!!] But I also have the dogs arough flighy livestock that trigger prey. Now I want to train through prey for doggie sports. She sees tugging as something you don't do with the leader. She's coming along but I have not been able to build the tug as a reward from her point of review. We've only had a couple of sessions where it was a stress release. Otherwise, she playing along with me playing, or so it seems. Suggestions?
When previous work has inhibited a dog's desire to give that prey energy to their owner, I think the best way to address that is actually through the pushing exercise. Using pushing you'll be able to plug yourself into that primal circuit with your dog, and she will become (over time) more and more comfortable with giving YOU that energy. Just be very gradual in your approach, and keep coming back to the tug - taking it slow, and celebrating the small successes.
I have a 4 month old small poodle/norfolk terrier mix. Wonderful dog and I feel like i'm doing ok so far with training. we do play tug all the time but i was NOT letting him win as i was following other training methods. i have started playing tug more now after reading your site and letting him win - every time. he begins to growl almost immediately into the game, he really is enjoying it as his tail is wagging and is held high and proud after he wins the toy from me. i always stop when he growls and let him take the toy. just wondering what you think. thanx.
I think your instinct to let go when the growling begins is a good one. You'll probably find that over time (and with doing OTHER exercises, particularly the pushing exercise), your dog's tolerance for the game will increase.
That being said, maybe your dog's just a growler! Give it time before you come to that conclusion. Ultimately it can be a judgment call on your part - slowly building the intensity of the game, and paying attention for any signs that it's stressing your dog out (which would be bad) versus continuing to be a fun, stress-relieving activity.
Thanks for coming by!
We recently acquired a wire fox terrier from a Wire rescue over the weekend.
Today we wanted to introduce him to our daughters wire fox and golden retriever so our daughter brought him over to her house.
Unfortunately, the new wire did not want anything to do with them. Lots of growling. Was it too soon in general to introduce them?
Just read your site and see how we could of done this so differently. Since they have already met, can we still attempt your steps and start over in about a week or so?
Congrats on the new addition to your family.
There can be lots of "settling" that needs to happen with a new dog. It can take awhile for your family dynamic to shift, and for everyone to RELAX into the new situation. Was it too soon? Maybe...but at this point, that's not worth worrying about.
If you're willing to wait a week, the best thing you could do is work on pushing and tug with your new dog until then, and then, yes, try it again, step-by-step. Let me know how it goes!
Exceptional article and feedback from and to the audience. Thank you very much for a variant view on the "Pack Leader" approach. Having not owned a dog in over 20 years and finding myself with a new rescue dog this is a very informative and positive technique to enjoy both our experiences. Keep up the great work.