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Teaching Your Dog to Play Tug-of-War

Additional Tug Tips

  • Remember that you shouldn’t allow your dog to jump forward to grab at the toy before you’ve invited her to tug. If, at any time, she does, say “Uh-uh!” or “Nope!” or “Oops!” Then immediately pull the toy behind your back or over your shoulder so that your dog can’t reach it. If your dog already has the toy in her mouth, do what works to get her to release it again (see options above), but don’t reward her when she lets go. Next time, be ready so that when your dog jumps forward to grab the toy, you can snatch it away before she gets it. This will teach her that she never gets the toy when she grabs at it before you give her permission. Make a habit of asking your dog to sit and wait before you present the toy and invite her to “Get it!” If you’re consistent, your dog will learn that the best way to get you to play tug is to sit and wait patiently until you start the game.
  • If, at any time, your dog misses the toy and puts her mouth on your hand, instantly yelp or shriek loudly—even if it didn’t really hurt. Then immediately walk out of the room (taking the toy with you), and give your dog a brief time-out. Wait outside the room, in silence, for 20 to 30 seconds. After the time-out, return and act like nothing happened. Invite your dog to play tug again, but use a very calm voice so that you don’t overexcite her. (If she’s really hyped up when tugging, she’ll be more likely to accidentally bite you again.) If your dog bites your hand more than three or four times during one play session despite the time-outs, she may have trouble learning to play tug appropriately. If this is the case, it might be a better, safer idea to try teaching your dog to play fetch instead. However, if you’re really committed to teaching your dog to play tug with you, try these tips:
    • Use very long toys so there’s plenty of room for both your dog’s mouth and your hands.
    • Only tug with your dog for a few seconds at a time (less than 10) before asking your dog to release the toy.
    • Try giving your dog a slightly longer time-out. If she misses the toy and accidentally bites you, follow the time-out sequence above, but leave her alone for three to five minutes.
    • Play Zen Tug. Instead of using a loud, playful voice when tugging, talk to your dog in calm, soft tones. Let her provide most of the tugging action. Just hold the toy for her and let her go to town for a few seconds before asking her to drop it.
  • When you’re ready to end the game, follow the same steps you’ve been using to get your dog to release the toy. When she does, ask her to sit and offer her a treat. While she’s eating the treat, put the tug toy away. Do not give your dog free access to the tug toy. She only gets to enjoy it when you two are playing together.
  • Play growling during a good game of tug is fine. You can even growl back! However, if your dog starts playing tug with you but then seems to become aggressive, she may not be playing at all. Stop the game immediately. Just drop the toy and walk away from your dog. Although most dogs can tug with their humans, some start guarding tug toys during play. If you think that your dog might guard toys, avoid playing tug altogether. Watch for these signs that might indicate a switch from play to aggressive behavior:
    • A stiff body
    • A stiff tail, sometimes raised high in the air
    • “Hard” eye contact (prolonged staring without blinking)
    • Snarling (lifting or wrinkling the lips while growling)
    • Raised hackles (fur) on the back of the neck or along your dog’s spine

If you see any of the body language above—or if you just suddenly feel uncomfortable—remember to simply drop the toy and walk away. DO NOT try to get the tug toy away from your dog. DO NOT yell at your dog or attempt to punish her in any way. If you feel at all threatened by your dog, please see our article, Finding Professional Help, for information about locating a qualified expert, such as a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB or Associate CAAB) or a board-certified veterinary behaviorist (Dip ACVB) for help. If you feel at all threatened by your dog, please see our articles for information about locating a qualified expert, such as a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB or Associate CAAB) or a board-certified veterinary behaviorist (Dip ACVB) for help. If you can’t find a behaviorist in your area, you can seek help from a Certified Pet Dog Trainer (CPDT). However, be sure to determine whether she or he has professional or academic training and extensive experience treating aggression, as this kind of expertise isn’t required for CPDT certification.

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WebMD Veterinary Reference from ASPCA Virtual Pet Behaviorist

The ASPCA Virtual Pet Behaviorist specializes in the resolution and management of pet behavior problems only. Please do not submit questions about medical problems here. Only licensed veterinarians can diagnose medical conditions. If you think that your pet is sick, injured or experiencing any kind of physical distress, please contact his veterinarian immediately. A delay in seeking proper veterinary care may worsen your pet's condition and put his life at risk. If you are concerned about the cost of veterinary care, please read our resources on finding financial help.

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