To Tug or Not To Tug: That Is The Question

I often have students ask me if "Tug" is a good game or a bad game. When I ask them to explain what they think, more often than not, they don't know because they read one thing that says its the worst game of all time, and other readings suggest it's totally fine. Some say never let your dog win... and others say never let your dog win. Wow. That sounds like a very frustrating game if ever I played one.

Here's what my personal feeling is on the game of tug: It depends.

Cop out answer, I know. But dogs aren't machines, and like any sentient being (especially with teeth and personalities) you want to make sure you are playing the right game with your dog.

Why I love tug: 
 -There are many dogs out there that want to use their mouths as a form of play. Tug allows them that outlet, and if done correctly, no one gets hurt.
 -Teething puppies are often frustrated and sore. Tug, if done correctly, helps them get the frustration out in a positive way.
 - Training: When training, I have my students figure out what their dogs love most in the world. Some it's food, some it's a ball, others it's a game of tug. Knowing these things can help you with your training and make you more successful (especially at difficult things such as recall). Also, some dogs who are shy might need something extra special. I know of a few dogs who, when out in the city, feel much better if their owners will play a little tug with them instead of luring with food.
- Rainy Days: When it's raining outside and everyone is cooped up, your dog still needs to get energy out. Tug is an efficient way to get your dog tired, and it's a game that they can play with you, so you're working on your bond.

When not to play tug: 
 -Resource Guarding Dog : If your dog gets possessive over toys with humans, you don't need an expert to tell you that tug of war may not be the most appropriate game to play with that animal. Get some professional assistance and work on confidence training.
 -Small Children and Dogs: Dogs and kids typically have one thing in common. They tend to excite easily, and have a hard time stopping once the excitement ball starts rolling. Things can escalate from fun, to not fun very quickly. Fetch may be a more appropriate game for children to play.
-Dogs That Aren't Having Fun: Some dogs love tug, some are disinterested, some are way TOO interested in tug. If your dog is disinterested in the game, don't force a game of tug. You can teach your dog "drop it" in other ways. Conversely, a dog that is way too into the game, appears stressed by the game or anxious in any way (if they think the game is real and they are having a hard time), then perhaps a game of fetch would be more appropriate. 

I only advise people play tug with their dog as long as the game has a few rules in place. This way, no one gets hurt, the dog is working on impulse control, and you both are working on useful, real-life skills in a fun way.

 -Dog must learn "drop it" and "take it". Drop means that the dog is to release the toy when asked. Take it means that the dog takes the toy into his mouth and you can engaged the game of tug from there.
 Here is a great video on how to teach Drop It . She's even training the dog outside, which is a way more stimulating environment for most dogs!

- If the dog puts teeth on you, even by accident, the game stops. Think about two dogs playing together. Their mouths are going a mile a minute, they are wrestling, they are pawing, they are running and chasing - but at the end of successful play, everyone has their eyes and ears in tact. Dogs know where their mouths are in space, and need to be aware as to where their mouth is when playing with people. If they can't control their mouths and are frequently putting teeth on human skin, the game is too stimulating, so take it down a notch, or stop the game before they get too over stimulated. Incidentally, this is a good way to teach impulse control, which is a useful skill for stop jumping behaviors, mouthing behaviors, and other behaviors we humans tend to dislike.

- Don't tell your dog "drop", and pull your arm back to get the toy out of the dogs mouth. If you notice in the video, the trainer does not recoil her arm. If she did, the dog would pull back on the toy and she would have taught the dog "drop" means "continue to pull and ignore my requests for you to let this toy go". Once you say "drop", you have to relax your arm and wait until the dog releases the toy. If they don't release, the game isn't fun because you have stopped pulling.

- Don't play tug with your mouth. Seriously dude, that's just gross.

A Word on "Winning" 

Um, that's not what I meant.

-Imagine you sat at a slot machine. You are there for 6 hours straight and you haven't won a single nickel. That's not a very fun game for you, is it? You'd be incredibly frustrated. Now imagine your dog - playing tug, a game it wants to play. Tug, shake, resist, tug, shake - FUN! It's got to be incredibly frustrating to your dog to never get the prize. So they try harder, if they haven't given up entirely by now. By escalating, the game becomes an exercise of stress, anxiety and frustration instead of a game of fun, bonding, and training.

Let your dog earn the toy every now and again. You can do this by using "fetch". After your dog gets good at "drop it", you can then start tossing the toy for your dog as his reward instead of trading with treats. You can play "take it", tug tug tug tug tug, "drop it" --------GOOD BOY! and then toss the toy for a retrieve. Sometimes, it's just "take it", tug, "drop it", wait a few seconds, ask for a sit, then back to "take it". Once you are at this stage, you are working impulse control, honing your skills as a handler, and still having fun with your dog - which is all they really want anyway.