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Teaching Your Dog to Play Tug-of-War

ASPCA logoPlaying tug with your dog can provide a wonderful outlet for her natural canine urges to grab and pull on things with her mouth. You can also use this game to exercise your dog and teach her important lessons, such as how to listen to you when she’s excited.

First Things First: Get a Good Tug Toy

Many dogs will play tug with any type of toy, but most people prefer something soft and comfortable to hold. Try a tug toy made of fleece or soft rope that’s one to three feet long. Toys made of bungee material make great tugs, too. They’re easy on the hands and put less stress on you and your dog. Some people like using tug toys with handles, but beware: dogs also like those handles and might try to grab them!

Basic Tug Rules

Once you find a tug toy that suits you and your dog, it’s important to make a few rules:

  1. Your dog can’t grab the tug toy before you give her permission to do so. She must sit or lie down and then wait for you to invite her to play. You can invite your dog to grab the toy by using a special word or phrase, like “Take it!” or “Get it!” to initiate a game of tug.
  2. Your dog must let go of the toy whenever you ask her to do so. Teach your dog that when you say “Drop it” or “Give,” she should release the toy. We’ll explain how below.
  3. Yourdog can’t put her mouth on human skin or clothing while playing tug—even if she does so accidentally. “Missing” and grabbing anything except the tug toy should immediately result in the end of the game.

How to Play

Now you’re ready to start teaching your dog how to play tug.

Step One: Get Your Dog to Grab the Tug

  1. Grasp the toy with one hand at each end. Ask your dog to sit.
  2. When she does, say “Get it!” and wave the toy in front of her face or drag it along the ground in front of her. Try to get your dog to grab the middle part of the toy so that she avoids your hands. When she grasps the toy, verbally encourage her to play. While you and your dog are hanging on to the toy, move it back and forth, and up and down. Allow the tug session to continue for 10 to 20 seconds.

Step Two: Teach Your Dog to Drop the Tug on Cue

You should NOT shout or intimidate your dog in order to get her to release the tug toy. Just speak in a conversational, calm voice. Different training approaches work for different dogs, so consider the following methods and see which you like best:

  • Before you start a game of tug with your dog, hide a few treats in your back pocket. During play, when you want your dog to release the toy, say “Give” or “Drop it,” and instantly stop tugging. Let your arm go limp, but keep holding the toy with one hand. Then, with your other hand, take out one of the hidden treats and put it right in front of your dog’s nose so that she can’t help but smell it. Most dogs will instantly release the toy to eat the treat. When your dog lets go of the toy, say “Yes!” and give her the treat. Ask her to sit. When she does, say “Get it!” and invite her to play tug again. If you repeat this sequence many times, your dog will eventually learn to release the tug toy as soon as she hears you say “Give” or “Drop it,” and you won’t have to use the treat in front of her nose. Continue to reward your dog with treats when she releases the toy until she consistently drops it as soon as you ask her to do so. When you think your dog has learned the release behavior very well, you can start rewarding her by inviting her to play tug again instead of offering a treat. Note: This method might not work well for you if your dog seems reluctant to play again after receiving her treat. Some dogs are so motivated by food that they’re uninterested in play after they realize you have treats.
  • Say “Give” or “Drop it,” and instantly stop tugging on the toy. Let your arm go limp, but keep holding the toy. Then say “Sit.” If your dog releases the toy and sits, immediately say “Get it!” and entice her to play tug again. If you repeat this sequence, your dog will learn to let go of the toy and sit as soon as she hears you say “Give” or “Drop it.” When your dog consistently drops the toy on cue, you can start to vary how long she must stay in the sit before you invite her to tug again.
  • Say “Give” or “Drop it,” and instantly stop tugging the toy. Put it between your slightly bent knees. Use your knees to clench the toy and hold it stock still. The purpose of this action is to take the toy out of play, which will discourage your dog from continuing to tug on it. When your dog lets go of the toy, immediately say “Get it!” and entice her to play tug again. If you repeat this sequence, your dog will learn to release the tug toy as soon as she hears you say “Give” or “Drop it,” and you won’t have to put it between your knees anymore. When your dog consistently drops the toy on cue, you can start to vary how long she must wait before you invite her to play tug again. You can also ask your dog to sit before giving her permission to retake the toy.
  • Say “Give” or “Drop it,” and instantly stop tugging the toy. Let your arm go limp, but keep holding the toy with one hand. With the other hand, reach over your dog’s head to cover her eyes. Some dogs will release the toy as soon as you do this. If your dog releases the toy, immediately say “Get it!” and entice her to play tug again. If you repeat this sequence, your dog will learn to let go of the toy as soon as she hears you say “Give” or “Drop it,” and you won’t have to cover her eyes anymore. When your dog consistently drops the toy on cue, you can start to vary how long she must wait before you invite her to play tug again. You can also ask your dog to sit before giving her permission to retake the toy.
  • Say “Give” or “Drop it,” and instantly stop tugging the toy. Let your arm go limp, but keep holding the toy with one hand. With the other hand, reach toward your dog and grasp her collar. Gently pull her forward, toward you, and hold her stationary. This makes any tugging she does ineffective. Continue to hold your dog’s collar and wait. Don’t say anything. Most dogs will drop the toy after a few seconds. The instant your dog lets go of the tug toy, say “Yes!” and release her collar. Then say “Get it!” and invite her to play tug again. If you repeat this sequence, your dog will learn to let go of the toy as soon as she hears you say “Give” or “Drop it,” and you won’t have to take hold of her collar anymore. When your dog consistently drops the toy on cue, you can start to vary how long she must wait before you invite her to play tug again. You can also ask your dog to sit before giving her permission to retake the toy.
  • After your dog has enjoyed the tug game for a few minutes, choose a moment when she has a secure hold of the toy and is actively tugging. Then, facing your dog, take one end of the tug toy in each hand. Lift your dog’s muzzle up toward you and say “Give” or “Drop it." If she does not immediately stop tugging on the toy, stop all movement and hold the toy still as you repeat "Give." Then push the toy gently toward your dog. You might even have to walk toward her, pushing the toy into her mouth as she tries to keep the game going by backing away from you. Do your best to keep a static but secure hold on the toy until your dog's jaws loosen their grip. Once you feel your dog’s hold on the toy slacken, ease it from her mouth. The instant that the toy is no longer in your dog’s mouth, say "Get it!" and resume the game.

WebMD Veterinary Reference from ASPCA Virtual Pet Behaviorist

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