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Playing Tug of War or Not to Tug?

Playing Tug of War can be a great training tool and great fun for you and your dog. Find out how and why.
boston terriers tug toy

Playing tug of war or not to play? That is often the question a new dog owner will ask a trainer. Some will assume the game of Tug will lead to aggressive behavior and others are fine with the game. The answer dog trainers will give you is that with training and rules, Playing Tug of War can be great exercise for all involved.

Why Playing Tug of War is great for your dog?

  • An awesome cardio workout and brainteaser for your dog.
  • A great way to teach your dog to listen to cues even when excited and distracted.
  • Exercise that can happen indoors, outdoors, in short sessions, and with little space.
  • Likely to decrease behavior problems resulting from under-stimulation and boredom.
  • A great motivator for obedience.

The most successful way to play tug for all involved should be correctly trained and always played by the rules.

Before playing tug-of-war.  Decide on a release cue such as “Out,” “Give,” or “Let go.” Before getting your dog excited about playing tug for the first time, practice some low-key exchanges with him. The sequence is:
1.   Give the cue to release
2.   Your dog releases
3.   Give a food reward
4.   Give the cue to re-take

If your dog hoards the tug toy, show zero interest. If, when your dog “wins,” i.e. you let go of the tug toy, he leaves and hoards the toy, play hard to get. Don’t chase your dog or get into a battle involving speed or agility. You won’t win and psych-outs work much better.

Recognize and reward the steps in the right direction. If your dog tries to re-engage you in the game by dropping the toy in front of you, praise and repeat again. The goal is for your dog to learn that the tug toy is infinitely more fun when brought to life by you than when dead. Patience is key here.

Every game has penalties. This also applies to Tug of War. The following are penalties and when to apply them.

  • A 30-second time out. If your dog fails to release the tug toy when the release word is given, stop play and leave the room for 30 seconds.
  • End the game. For a game misconduct like grabbing your clothes or your hand with his mouth, stop the game altogether. It is imperative that your dog learns boundaries and what to bite on and what not to. When your dog knows, loves, and is hooked on tug-of-war, ending the game abruptly is by far the most potent motivator against rule breaking.

The Tug Rules:
1. Your dog has to release the tug toy on cue. Of course, you have thoroughly trained the release cue, so any failure to comply should result in a time-out penalty.

2. One tug toy only—and the game only happens when you say so. Designate a tug toy as the one-and-only tug toy, reserved for this game and nothing else. Then decide on a take cue like “Get that rope!” This rule prevents your dog from misfiring in day-to-day life: you don’t want someone innocently picking up a tug toy and being enthusiastically jumped by your dog and you don’t want to have him grab some other thing you are holding because he thought he heard the cue. The easiest way to train this rule is to practice it while playing. If your dog goes for the toy before you have invited him, give a No Reward Mark (“Oh! Try Again!”), and do a time-out followed by an obedience break (see next rule). Then invite your dog to take the toy. This rule infraction is extremely common in tug-of-war games, so don’t sweep it under the rug. If your dog goes for another retake before being invited, i.e. makes the same mistake twice in a row, end the game.

3. The game stops often for obedience breaks. Tug of war is one of the great recyclable rewards for obedience training. Alternate back and forth between the tug game and obedience to spot-check your control over your dog during the game and to teach him obedience when he is excited and distracted. Every initiation of the tug game is a potent reward you can use to select a particularly nice obedience response. Your dog will try fanatically hard to improve his obedience to get you to restart the game. What’s more, through repeated association over time, the two activities will blur in your dog’s mind, eventually making him love obedience training.

4. Zero tolerance of sloppy jaw control.
Your dog will sometimes make contact with your hand or other part of you by mistake. Sometimes he might even latch on to you or your clothing as though you were a tug toy. Don’t let this go unnoticed. Screech “Ouch!” even if it didn’t hurt and abruptly end the game. This is game misconduct every time. Dogs can control their jaws with great precision if given a reason to do so. With this rule you not only remind your dog of the sensitivity of human skin and the great necessity to keep his jaws off people at all times.

I hope you have found this helpful and enjoy some Tug of War with your dog! Teach them obedience, exercise and many more things all with one game! If you have any questions or looking for more training ideas, check out more of blog posts on Paw blog.





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