Wasn’t it Shakespeare who wrote, “To tug or not to tug, that is the question…?” Yes I know… a bad joke… but why is it so commonly believed that you shouldn’t play tug with your dog or, if you do play tug, that you should NEVER let the dog ‘win’?
This belief seems to be one of many that continue to exist even though the behaviour theory it stems from (relating to social hierarchy) was invalidated years ago.
So should you play tug with your dog or not?
The answer is: It depends.
I say “it depends” because… let’s face facts… despite the labels and generalizations that people apply, every dog is a unique combination of its own ‘nature and nurture,’ so there isn’t a convenient one-size-fits-all summation that applies here.
For many dogs, playing tug with their humans can be good exercise and a really great way to relationship-build through play, but not all dogs may do well with this type of vigorous activity. Some dogs can get too aroused with tug play which can then lead to the display of impulsive behaviours and the inability for the dog to ‘switch off.’ Accordingly, it’s important to set some boundaries and to differentiate between appropriate tug play and inappropriate tug play. If your dog cannot play tug in an appropriate manner, then you should find other activities that you and your dog can participate in successfully.
Impulse control is something that needs to be learned (and practiced), so rather than having a marathon session of tug play, try breaking it up into smaller ‘chunks’. By that, I mean intersperse playing tug with some another type of activity (or activities) your dog will enjoy. For example, play tug for a little while but then stop to do something new that your dog actually has to use her brain to think about… like playing ‘find it’ or working on a few obedience cues you can positively reinforce. After having that little interlude, you can go back to another brief round of tug play (rinse and repeat, rinse and repeat). This type of ‘Switch On/Switch Off’ playtime activity can help your dog to develop (or enhance) her self-control skills.
If your dog does get too aroused to tug in an appropriate manner, that might just be an indication that you should start working on some ‘mouth’ related impulse control activities. A good place to start would be training ‘leave it’ and/or ‘drop it’ cues and then, who knows, perhaps you may even be able to graduate your dog back to the point of playing tug in a more appropriate manner.
Now what about the notion of NEVER allowing your dog to win when playing tug?
Seriously, what’s the fun of playing if you never get to win, right? As long as tug play is proceeding in an appropriate manner, I think it’s fair to let the dog ‘win’ the game 50% of the time… which, for the dog, is unpredictable enough to keep the game interesting and motivating.
Andrew Thomas is a professional dog trainer and behaviour consultant based in Langley, British Columbia in Canada.
Having decided to formalize a lifetime worth of experience with dogs by gaining private certification and starting his business in 2010, Andrew’s desire from the outset has been to do his part in helping to break the cycle of family dogs being given-up on, abandoned and even euthanized unnecessarily, due to behaviour issues.
With a mission to help dog owners establish happy and rewarding relationships with their dogs, Andrew’s philosophy and methodology are founded in modern behavioural science using force-free methods, and building human-canine relationships based on trust.
Andrew strives to be a reasoned and informed voice in promoting and supporting animal welfare issues for canines and equines, and he is as a strong proponent of adoption and rescue.