Playing Tug

This is my view of playing Tug with a dog in a way that is safe and that promotes the dog's obedience to the cue to let go. I include a film clip of me playing with my senior Bouvier "Grover", though it does not illustrate the "let go" part. (I often let this elderly dog "win" by letting go myself. If he wanted to play again, he would present his ring toy again. Ususally two or three rounds left him happy and satisfied.)

Playing Tug

by Pam Green, © 2011

Way back 25 to 30 years ago when I was beginning my Bouvier career, all the books addressed to pet dog people warned readers to NOT play tug of war with their dogs because doing so could cause the dog to learn to like using its jaws powerfully and could make the dog aggressive. At the same time books addressing those involved in sports like Schutzhund and work like Police K9 urged their readers to play tug a lot with their puppies in order to encourage the dog to enjoy biting strongly and prepare the pup for the aggression needed for adult protection work. It occurred to me that the game of tug could easily be used to teach the dog both that it's OK and enjoyable to bite on cue and also to teach letting go on command. A protection dog needs both an "on" switch and an "off" switch.

Many current books advocate protocols for the game that are essentially similar to the ones I was using when raising Bones and playing with Chelsea. These protocols put the human into dual role as playmate and as referee : "it's my toy so I get to make the rules". For example "Culture Clash" by Jean Donaldson has a very clear protocol spelled out. It's just a bit more formal and detailed than the mode I devised partly from logic and partly from my own sense of how things were going. As to the effect of playing tug on Chelsea and Bones, their records of working titles earned can be seen at Chelsea's Resume and Bones' Resume. Both dogs were unfailingly well behaved in home and public and never showed the slightest aggression to any person unless there was a damn good reason to do so. (Chels may have once saved me from bad intentions of a trio of young men who showed up at our ranch looking for trouble. She never did anything overt, but just stood between them and me, giving them a "go ahead, make my day" look, with result that they left without making any trouble.)

Moreover there has been some actual experiments into the effect of playing Tug on a dog's willingness to obey their person. A group of Goldens were tested on their formal obedience performance, then the handler of each dog played tug with the dog, then the obedience was tested again. The result was that the dogs were more compliant after having played tug than before the play. Now this is not a test of how regular tug play would affect the relationship or the dog's behavior in the home and public over many months or years. This is an area where more inquiry and research is needed.

It's not really meaningful just to go to a vet school or behavior clinic and ask those clients there because they consider their dog to have an aggression problem whether they play tug with the dog (or whether they let the dog sleep in bed with them or whether they feed the dog carrots.) Many of them might say yes to all of these (well, maybe not the carrots, though a lot of dogs enjoy them). It's meaningless unless you also ask groups of people who consider their dog has never had any kind of aggression problem whether they do these things. Because you might well find that the percentage of yes answers is about the same for each of the three questions in both the "aggressive" and the "non-aggressive" group. Also of course some of the dogs the owners lable "aggressive" really are not being aggressive, or are being totally appropriate in their aggressive incidents, and likewise some of the dogs whose owners lable them "unaggressive" are simply owners who have ignored many threat displays and won't recognize aggression until blood is flowing or gushing and then they say "it came out of nowhere, out of the blue".

My own guess is that neither playing tug (with the person clearly in charge of the rules) nor sharing the person's bed (with person clearly entitled to tell dog to move over or get off the bed) nor being fed carrots can be shown to have any detrimental effect on the civility of a dog's behavior. But the needed research on bed sharing has not (to my knowledge) been done and research on feeding carrots is unlikely to ever be done

my own method

First of all , tug is just one game. It's interspersed with other games , and many of those games are ones that are teaching the puppy (or older dog) some of the elements of something more serious I will want the dog to do later. For example , I taught Bones at age 9 weeks, a couple days after he came to live with me, the game of "sendaway", game of moving off (away from me) in a direction I indicated with my arm. That's preparation for adult obedience work in AKC Utility and in Schutzhund. Likewise I taught him a day or so later to move to one side or the other according to my arm signal ; preparation for Utility directed jumping. He had wooden and metal dumbells among his other toys. I also started him into Tracking at 9 or 10 weeks and he took to it like a dolphin to water. And I played Tug with him.

So here is the basic sequence (note the dog already has some experience chasing and grabbing a moving rope or burlap sack or a tug object whisked around on the end of a pole and string, similar to the fishing pole toy for cats) :

  1. At the start the dog is probably sitting. I would hold up (to waist height and later higher) a tug toy (rope or burlap roll, holding it with my hands quite far apart so he could easily grab hold without touching my hands, and I'd cue him in excited voice "Grabbit !" (rhymes with "rabbit"). If I have to move the tug toy around a bit to excite the dog , I'd do that.
  2. Bones would leap up and grab the tug object and we'd tug back and forth, with me being careful to tug hard enough for him to enjoy but not too hard, being very careful of his immature body.
  3. After a bit of tugging, either (a) I would say "Out !" and insist that he let go or (b) I would let go myself , possibly with a laugh or cheerful "you win". Because Bones was a very confident puppy, I kept the ratio of "out" to my letting go rather high, maybe 3 to 5 "outs" for every time I let go. I considered him a dog in whom I wanted to build control rather than needing to build confidence . For a more tentative dog, the ratio would be different and have more times of letting the dog win than of having the dog let go.
  4. At this point there would be some kind of pause or interlude. Maybe just the dog sitting for a short time. Maybe we go do some other game or some other obedience cue and response. After that we could return to the first step and another round of game or maybe we'd leave that game and go do something entirely different..

If the beginner dog doesn't let go at the "out" cue, I'd be very still , not tugging at all (and thus not inciting the dog to tug further) , and reach out with one hand and very matter of factly open the pup's mouth so he is now letting go of the toy, and then I'd praise him richly and warmly just as if he'd done it himself without help. Now a lot of trainers will use a lure of a food treat to get the dog to let go. That's fine with me. Fine if it works. This is a lot like the way a lot of people teach a dog to "trade" an object in his mouth for a treat. That's a good cue, "trade" , for any dog to learn. "Trade" , like "out", means let go of whatever is in your mouth. Some people use some other word for this, for example "drop" or "drop it". Dropping something from the mouth is something every dog should know to do on cue. This cue can be a lifesaver if the dog picks up something dangerous. Or it could save an object valued by the person from damage. For me the big benefit of teaching Tug to any dog was to include letting go when excited and wanting to hold on.

The other thing most people want to teach is that the dog avoids hitting the person's hand with the dog's teeth. So the usual advice is to give a scream of pain (pretended) at even slight contact, then turn away and leave the dog and ignore him "cold shoulder" for a while. He didn't play by your rules, so the game is over, "Oh-Vure" in a tone of disgust. Generally don't start teaching Tug until the pup has already learned fairly good Bite Inhibition (see How to Teach a New Dog Old Tricks by Dr Ian Dunbar for a good discussion of this ; also in many other good puppy books).

Grover's game

Grover came to me as an older dog. No way to know how old. (note : he came into the Pound as a street stray, so no information.) My vet thought about 10, judging on some physical indications. A vet opthamologist thought 10 or more, based on physical state of the retina of the eye. Behaviorally he could easily have been much younger, full adult but still prime, maybe 5 to 8. It's now some years later and behaviorally he's much the same. So I still don't know. (note : he lived another 7 years.) Grover is a very confident dog and has a lot of determination. He's also very responsive to me and very willing to obey me. He's a delight to me and never any real problem. If he were a young dog, I could have worked him in Schutzhund or probably in Herding if I were younger too and still avid for competitions. But we are both at a more relaxed stage of life now.

He loves to play tug once in a while. Usually he will bring a rope or his padded ring toy to me, stand in front of me with his eyes shining and his tail wriggling and happyness all over. Often he will give the "tug of war play growl" while holding the toy. OK, he's asking me "can we play, please, please." Sometimes I ask him to sit first, but not always. Then I take hold of the toy with one or both hands and we play tug. Then I let go. He may ask me for another round. Usually we play a few rounds and then it's clear that he is satisfied and he takes the toy and lies down with it, looking very content. So why don't I require "out" as part of the game ? Well, because I am not preparing him for protection work or sports, and also because he's very good about dropping other things he might have found on a walk or around the house. I don't feel that I need to include "out" in our game. He's an old dog who is well behaved and responsive and respectful to me. So he has senior dog priviledges. I undoubtedly could teach "out" by making it a requirement before I start another round. He's a quick learner.

Below is a QuickTime clip of me and Grover playing Tug (with MIDI music added). In this case I had him sit while I presented the toy ; he leaps for it soon as I give the cue (which you can't hear because the camera doesn't do sound).. At the end, he is asking for another round. Note : I am tugging side to side here ; other times the tug is mostly backwards and pretty much in line with the dog's spine, which is probably safer for the dog's neck (certainly for any dog with any kind of neck medical issue). I tend to go by what the dog seems to be wanting. Notice Grover's wagging tail as I let go. MIDI music is that used on TV to introduce Olympic coverage, summer or winter games.

Our cinematographer is Kate Crane, one of my Bouv rescue friends. This is the same day we did the clips of how to put a pill into a dog's mouth ; it turned out that she and I had slightly different but equally good methods.

You need the QuickTime plug-in to view this movie within this page. If it does not load, go to the external link given at the end of this page in Related Topics. If you don't have QuickTime or QuickTime for Windows installed, you probably won't be able to play the movie.

You need QuickTime to see this movie.

And here is a photo of two dogs playing Tug that someone sent to me. A grey brindled dog (shaven Bouvier ?) and a brown brindled dog (Boxer ? Malinois ?) tugging on a frisbee. No sound attached, but I will bet that they are both "play growling" and it's clear that they are having fun

two dogs playing Tug

see also video of Fox Playing Tug including sound (she is play-growling, other dogs are barking.). I start the game by approaching in a crouch and wriggling my fingers, a very clear set of cues that if she lets me take hold of the rope she is holding (instead of dancing away with it) then we can play Tug. Notice that Fox is very strong. She tugs more vigourously than Grover did in his video, taken when he was an old dog. Fox's video was taken when she was a mature but still young adult. Now several years later she's still very strong and I am maybe less strong than when this video was taken in Feb, 2015. (note : in 2020, at age 10 she is still very very strong.)

(Added 2020)

If you ever get to watch and Agility trial or watch the Purina Incredible Dog Challenge on TV, you can see that for many of the dogs, their reward at the end of a run is to play Tug on a rope or similar item. Clearly being allowed to Tug (and usually "win" the Tug) has NOT made these dogs dangerous in any way. It probably lets the dog release the excitement of the performance and it is part of the bond with the handler.


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site author Pam Green copyright 2003
created 11/21/2011 revised 11/21/2011, 8/16/2017, 9/20/2020
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