Play tug of war with your dog. Let your dog win. Your dog will love you for it.

Tug of war with Nola

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.  🙂