If you’ve heard that playing tug-of-war can lead to aggression in dogs, you’re not alone. Unlike more innocuous games such as “fetch,” tug-of-war inspires debate within the canine community. We chatted with Dr. Mary Burch, director of the AKC Family Dog Program and a certified animal behaviorist, to get her professional opinion on the game of tug.
AKC: Many people believe that playing tug-of-war with a dog can lead to aggressive tendencies. Is there any truth to this?
Burch: There was a time when tug games were thought to cause aggression and dominance in dogs. The current thinking is that if tug-of-war and similar games are managed properly, dogs don’t become aggressive. If, for example, the dog did snap at the owner’s hand while playing, this is not as much a result of tug-of-war as it is an owner who did not effectively set boundaries and teach the dog the rules of the game.
AKC: Are there benefits to playing tug-of-war with dogs?
Burch: Tug-of-war is an enjoyable game for the dog, and playing it strengthens the bond between the owner and dog. Tug games can build confidence and help the dog use up excess energy. Games such as tug-of-war provide mental and physical stimulation, and they can be used to teach a dog self-control.
K9 police dogs and canine athletes are often rewarded with a game of tug. K9 handlers sometimes reward a dog with tug-of-war after the dog completes a certain number of searches, and in sports such as flyball, dogs will enjoy a brief tug game as a reward.
AKC: Is tug-of-war a good idea for dogs that may already be aggressive or have resource guarding tendencies?
Burch: While tug-of-war is fun, and there can be many benefits related to tug games, as with anything else, there are some situations in which tug-of-war may not be the best activity for a dog. Dogs that have a history of aggression (toward animals or humans) can often take tug games too seriously. In those cases, there are better options for games. Dogs that are high-arousal dogs that can’t settle down and tend to become over stimulated are also not the best candidates for tug games.
AKC: How can dog owners play tug-of-war in a healthy, safe way?
Burch: There are several steps to initiating tug-of-war with your dog in a safe way. To begin, the tug game should be initiated by you, and throughout the game, keep in mind that you are in control. This means if the dog appears to be over stimulated, obsessed, or is overly aggressive about grabbing the toy, you should take charge and end the game. In tug-of-war, the dog should always be well trained and under control enough that he will follow your command to release the toy. Keep in mind that some dogs, when happily playing tug-of-war, will begin to play-growl. As long as the dog’s tail is wagging, and it is clear that he is playing, the game can continue. If you sense that the dog is so intense that he won’t release the toy, it’s time for a break.
AKC: Are there any types of toys you specifically recommend for games of tug? Any toys you would discourage dog owners from using?
Burch: Keep in mind that when playing tug-of-war you want to protect the dog’s mouth and teeth. This means you should not use anything hard or with sharp edges (such as a big stick) when playing tug. Toys for tug games should be soft, such as a piece of towel tied in a knot, a piece of rope, or commercially made tug toys that are pliable and soft.
AKC: Is there anything else dog owners should be aware of?
Burch: One of the most important things to know about tug-of-war is to always let the dog win. Also, if you are playing tug with a puppy, keep in mind that his jaws are not fully matured, and he still has baby teeth. You should only do very gentle pulling if any at any; leave this up to the puppy and keep the game short.