The Internet is a wonderful thing; information on thousands of topics is available to anyone and that is undoubtedly changing the way our world works. Sadly the validity of that information is not always what we are expecting, and although the Internet is full of information, it is also full of misinformation.
One chunk of misinformation that floats around the web is the “danger” of playing tug with your dog. Before we dive into the bulk of this topic, I will clear a few things up immediately. No, your dog is not being aggressive when they are playing tug with you, they will not become aggressive because of playing tug either.
No, you do not need to “win” every game of tug. No, it will not make your dog think you are not the “alpha”. Yes, you can play tug with your dog! Most of concerns about tug stem from the same misguided principle, the “alpha dog” mentality.
The “Wolf Pack” Fallacy
Your dog is not a wolf. I repeat, your dog is not a wolf! The mentality that you should treat your family as a “wolf pack” and show your dog that you are the alpha is honestly laughable, simply because dogs do not live the same social lives as wolves.
The first mistake in this thought process is assuming your dog thinks that you are also a dog (or wolf, or general canine equal). Dogs are quite intelligent, and the vast majority of dogs are raised with their mother and siblings, because of this they fully understand that they are dogs. Simply because your dog lives and interacts with you does not mean “he thinks he’s people!” in fact, most human-like behaviors that dogs do are a direct result of our reactions.
Thinking and behaving as if our dog needs to be “dominated” can be damaging to your relationship with your pup because he does not expect you to behave as another dog would do, in fact most puppies learn very quickly the proper way to interact with people vs. dogs because of the reactions they receive.
Give your dog the proper feedback and you will not have any difficulty with your them behaving inappropriately or thinking they can play with you the same way they would play with another dog.
The other error in treating dogs as if you are the “alpha” of the pack is that dogs do not hold the same social structure that wolves do. Unlike wolves, dogs are scavenging predators, and thus aren’t cooperating with other animals to catch prey.
If dogs were interacting to bring down large prey they would need a strict social structure to work together properly, but this is very far from the truth with domestic dogs. Our dog’s ancestors mainly fed on small game, scavenged the remains of other animal’s kills, and rooted through our garbage.
These survival techniques definitely do not require a cohesive pack, in fact anything other than pairs would make a dog potentially less likely to survive simply because the meals are not large enough.
Even though there are more dominant and less dominant individuals, this “hierarchy” is not set in stone and domestic canine interactions can vary greatly based on the individual dog’s mood, age, previous interactions, and more.
Because our dogs do not have the same social structure as wolves, and even if they did have those structures they are smart enough to understand that we are not the same species, playing tug with your dog is undoubtedly harmless. In fact, tug can be very beneficial for your pup, especially if we set rules to the game and teach your dog how to play in a way that we favor.
The Rules of the Game
When teaching your dog “tug” we should establish the following set of rules:
- Drop the toy when given the command “drop”.
- Do not bite hands.
- Do not jump for the toy, but wait until it is thrown or given.
- Do known behaviors (sit, down, shake/paw, roll over, etc.).
It is important to understand that your dog has to be patiently taught the rules of the game, with your help! Do not get frustrated when your dog will not let go of the rope, or bites your hands while you are playing with him, but teach him what “works” to continue playing.
Your pup wants to play with you, and if we teach him what behaviors result in longer play he will do them. The next step to this process is to teach those rules properly!
Possibly the most important thing to teach when playing tug with your dog is “drop”, this is because we can’t give the toy back as reinforcement if we can’t get it from the dog in the first place. When your dog wants to continue playing, dropping the toy is extremely difficult for them, as it requires a lot of self-control.
Self-control is a trait that we desire heavily in our dogs, as it the ability to regulate themselves; to not jump when they want to jump, not bark when they want to bark, and not snatch at a toy when they want it.
Teaching drop is extremely simple, and can be learned in just a few repetitions. Start by getting your dog to grab hold of the rope. Once they have a good grip, ask them to “drop” and place a treat at the end of their nose after a second. When they let go of the rope, let them have the treat.
After a few repetitions of this, you should wait two to three seconds before placing the treat at the end of their nose. By waiting a little longer, you give your dog the opportunity to think about what you have asked them.
This is how they learn a command on a verbal cue (when you say it) rather than by a hand signal (the motion of putting a treat on their nose). Once they are dropping the toy consistently when you ask them to, you can phase out the treats and getting the toy back becomes their reinforcer.
Another form of self-control is bite inhibition, meaning a dog controls where/what/how hard they are chomping. The implications of this should be obvious but just in case, if our dog can control themselves enough to know that when they play with us we dislike if they bite our hands, they are capable of translating that to other situations.
For example; your toddler picks up the dog’s toy, instead of mauling their hand the dog knows he is supposed to wait patiently until the toy is thrown for him.
The first step to teaching bite inhibition is setting your dog up for success. Choose a long tug rope! Don’t play tug with your 80 lb. pit bull using a 6-inch tug rope, you are asking for an accident. Instead use a rope that is two or three feet long, the longer the rope the better.
By using a longer rope we prevent your dog from constantly biting your hands, we also know more certainly that if your dog manages to bite your hand during play it is not a mistake and they are playing inappropriately.
If your dog does bite your hand, the rope goes behind your back and out of view for 10 seconds, if it happens again the rope goes away for 30 seconds, if it happens again the game ends. The concept is simple, if you bite my hands I don’t want to play any more, and if you don’t bite my hands play gets to continue.
To play tug, your dog has to wait patiently until you either throw the toy, or give it back to them. The best way to teach this is to build up the length of time they have to wait before getting the toy back.
Start by having them wait just a few seconds before throwing the toy, and build up the time in a 1-2 second increments. We aren’t aiming for our dog to wait 5 minutes, but he should be focused enough to wait 15-20 before we finally throw the toy if we so desire (don’t do this every time, your game will last forever and be quite boring).
Another very important key to this is to ensure that your dog does not get the toy when he lunges for it! Do not let him get a hold of the toy, if he does he has been reinforced for that lunging behavior and is more likely to do it again next time.
A few instances where you accidentally let him grab it is OK, but try to be diligent with your training and avoid this mistake as much as possible.
One good way to push your pup’s patience while they are waiting for the toy is to ask them for behaviors that they know, the more varied the better. If you always ask your dog to sit before throwing their ball they will begin to mindlessly sit automatically, and will be getting no mental stimulation from the game whatsoever.
As we discussed in Combatting Dog Boredom With Mental Stimulation, we want our dogs to be as mentally stimulated as possible, and tug/fetch is a great way to do that. Ask your dog to “sit” or “shake” before giving the toy to him, he is exercising patience as well as thinking about what behavior you want from him.
Our final result should be something that looks a little like this:
- Rover tugs the tug rope > we ask for drop > Rover drops rope
- We ask for “sit” > Rover sits > we ask for “down” > Rover lies down
- We throw tug rope across the room > Rover runs and grabs toy > Plays tug
- We ask for drop > He drops > We ask for “spin” > He Spins > Plays tug
We want to add as much variety to this routine as possible to keep things new and interesting for our dogs. In most situations, a dog that plays tug frequently will bring you a toy to play with rather than chomping on your sleeves or socks when he wants to play.
Giving our dogs appropriate outlets to initiate play is important in keeping them mentally stimulated and keeping them from beginning or continuing undesired behaviors when they are seeking attention.
A happy dog is a dog who knows what is expected from him, and gets consistent feedback from his family members.