For many years, dog trainers told people not to play tug of war games with their dogs. The theory was that these games were teaching the dog to use his strength against his owner and for some dogs (and owners) this is still true.
When used wisely, however, tug games are not inherently bad. Grabbing something, and then shaking it hard while growling, is natural to most dogs. Two dogs in a household will often play tug games with one dog on each end of a toy.
Tug games can also be rewards. Many performance sport exhibitors use tug games as a reward for their dogs’ work. Those dogs who compete in agility, flyball, and other energetic sports enjoy a game of tug before and after their competition or training session. The fun of the game of tug is just as much a reward for these dogs as a treat is for other dogs.
Teach the Give Command First
Your dog needs to know how to give up a toy before you start tug games. After all, if your dog won’t give up the toy when you ask him to do so, then the tug game can turn into a problem; especially if he tries to play tug with your belongings.
Choose one of your dog’s favorite toys to teach the give command. Have a handful of high value treats (cheese, chicken, freeze-dried liver) in your pocket. Let your dog drag a leash while you toss one of his toys.
When he brings you the toy to throw again, step on his leash so he doesn’t run away. Then offer him a treat with one hand and place your other hand under his mouth and toy. When he drops the toy to take the treat catch the toy and then tell him, “Give! Good give!” and give him the treat. Then toss the toy for him again.
Your dog gets three rewards for giving up the toy: your praise, the treat, and throwing the toy for him to chase.
Teaching the Timid Tugger
When your dog will give up the toy easily you can begin encouraging him to tug. Tugging is natural to most dogs and they don’t need to be taught, but some dogs are hesitant to do this with their owners.
Start gently with a toy your dog already likes. Holding the toy by one end (so your dog doesn’t grab your hand by mistake) shake it so your dog is attracted to the motion. When he grabs it, release it and praise him.
When he has more confidence about grabbing the toy, then don’t release it right away. Just hold it and let your dog pull against it. Praise him, “Sweetie, get it! Yeah! Look at you!” After a few seconds, drop the toy and let your dog prance away with it. When he’s tugging with more confidence then alternate between dropping the toy so he can win the game and asking your dog to give it to you.
The Bold Tugger
With some dogs, it’s important that they give you the toy rather than you dropping it to let them run off with it. Dogs who are mentally and physically bold, as well as dogs who are strong enough to overpower their owners, need to understand the give exercise and be willing to drop the toy when asked.
Some dogs will get so excited that they forget what they’re doing. They are tugging, growling, shaking and don’t care who or what is holding the other end of the toy. These dogs need to drop the toy when asked so you can help them calm down.
Tug games should be fun for you and your dog without causing any harm. If at any time the game becomes too much, then stop the game and put the tug toy away.