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Have you ever been told that you should never play tug with your dog? And if you should ever end up in a game of tug with your dog, definitely never, under any circumstances, let your dog win. If you do, the rule claims, your dog may become “dominant.”
This erroneous interpretation of tug is rooted in aversive, or “traditional”, dog training, which defines the human as the “alpha dog” and uses pain, fear and intimidation to force a dog to submit to the human’s will.
This training once dominated the doggy world but, for the same reason we no longer use leeches to cure illnesses, we now know that it’s frequently ineffective and can lead to serious unintended consequences including fear, aggression, and depression in your dog. Educated dog trainers have abandoned aversive methods in favor of scientific methods of learning.
So what does this all mean for the game of tug? It means it’s totally safe, and super fun, to play. Tug is physically and mentally stimulating, and when you play with your dog, you are tapping into deeply rooted genetic instincts to chase, pounce, bite and shake prey.
Still, because these drives are strong and can quickly get out of hand, tug is a game best played with a few rules. Here are the tug rules you should actually follow, plus recommendations on great tug toys.
Rule 1: Teach your dog to politely take the toy
A dog who loves to play tug may think that any time you pick up the toy, it’s OK to lunge, jump on you, or otherwise rudely try to start the game before you are ready. Teach them that the game doesn’t begin until you say so.
Here’s a great way to start training proper tug etiquette:
- Hold a toy out in front of you at waist height.
- If your dog jumps or lunges for the toy, immediately make it disappear behind your back.
- Wait until your dog has all four paws on the floor then pull it out again.
- Repeat the disappearing act until your dog remains with all four paws on the floor when you pull the toy out from behind your back.
- When they do, let your dog know it’s time to tug by saying something like “Let’s play!” and begin to wiggle your toy or sweep it across the floor, rewarding your pup with some play.
Rule 2: Teach your dog to drop the toy
For a great game of tug, your dog needs to be just as willing to drop the toy as they are to take it. Teaching them to drop can also help prevent your dog from developing dangerous guarding behaviors.
Here’s how to teach “drop it”:
- Place two floppy, soft toys nearby (rags or towels work, too).
- Take toy number one and pull it across the floor, shake it around and otherwise entice your dog to grab it.
- When they do, give the toy a couple of gentle tugs, then drop it suddenly.
- Now quickly pick up toy number and move that one around.
- From your dog’s perspective, toy number one has suddenly lost its fun while toy number has appeared all juiced up and ready to play.
- Watch your dog closely. If they are enjoying the game thus far, they will drop toy number one and lunge for toy number two.
- The moment that they drop toy number one, mark it with the word “Yes!” or a clicker and reward them with several tugs on toy number two.
- Repeat, alternating the tug toys, at least five times.
- Next, add a verbal cue like “drop it!” or “give it!” Say the cue right before you pick up and begin to wiggle around toy number two.
- Mark the moment they drop toy number one with your “Yes!” or clicker, then reward them with a few tugs on toy number two.
- Repeat until your dog is consistently and quickly responding to the verbal cue.
Rule 3: Teach your dog to “leave” a toy that is accidentally dropped
Sometimes during tug, the toy accidentally falls to the ground. Most dogs will immediately pounce on it. While there’s nothing wrong with this in theory, it makes picking up the toy to begin again much harder.
To keep things moving smoothly, teach your dog a “leave it” cue for times when the toy gets away from you. Here’s how to do that:
- Put one treat in your hand and make a tight fist, then offer it to your dog to sniff. Your dog will try to get the treat from your hand but, because your fist is so tight, they will be unable to.
- Eventually, this will frustrate your pup enough that they give up and look away from your hand.
- As soon as they do, mark it with a “Yes!” or clicker and reward them with a treat from your other hand.
- Repeat this at least five times.
- Next, add the verbal cue “leave it.” Say the cue then put your fist out (with the treat held tightly inside).
- Patiently wait for your dog to look away without repeating the verbal cue. Mark and reward from the other hand when they do.
Now that your dog has a basic understanding of the cue “leave it,” try moving the treat from inside your fist to under the toe of your shoe. When your dog can leave that treat consistently, switch to a toy.
- Place a toy on the ground right behind you on the floor and ask your dog to “leave it.”
- If they move towards the toy, step in front of it.
- When they’ve successfully left the toy, mark the behavior with a “Yes!” or clicker.
- Reward them by picking it up and tugging a few times.
- Repeat until your dog can consistently and quickly leave the toy when it is on the floor.
That’s it! Now go play tug to your heart’s content.