How to Teach a Dog to Play Tug of War

Teaching a dog to play tug aka tug of war is one of life's great pleasures, but it also requires a level of trust and some self-control skills from your dog. Tug is an interactive activity that can provide great mental and physical stimulation for your dog, and can also be used as a training reward. Teaching your dog to play tug of war can strengthen your bond and provide a positive outlet for their energy.

In this article, we'll look at what is the game tug of war, discuss the steps needed to teach your dog to play tug of war safely, and provide tips for successful tug of war sessions. We'll also help you choose what the best tug toys are for your dog and give you some suggestions of our faves!

If your dog is more of a foodie then check out our food puzzles for dogs article. You can also book some time with me if you're concerned about your dog's behavior, or you want more in depth ideas about how to get your dog motivated and enthused in play.

Tug of war play with a dalmatian

What is Tug of War?

Much like the sports day game where you had a rope with two opposing teams trying to pull the other over the line, tug of war is a game where you and your dog each hold onto opposite ends of a tug toy and try to pull it from each other's grip. It simulates a friendly competition and can be a great way to engage your dog in play.

For some dogs, especially thought who might do bitework such as Belgian Shepherds and Bully Breeds then a tug toy with a handle at each end is more appropriate as the bumper styles imitates what they go on to bite later, the bite sleeve.

Definition and Benefits of Tug of War

Tug of war is a game that allows dogs to engage in their natural instincts, especially bull breeds and terrier types who are designed for this kind of vigorous play. It mimics the natural behavior of dogs tugging and pulling on objects in the wild and playing tug of war can help satisfy your dog's desire to chew, tug, and play.

Playing tug can also be a great cardiovascular workout for your dog, so keeps them fit and helps strengthen their jaw muscles, neck, and core, it also helps us stay fit too! Tug is not just fun it's also mentally stimulating, as your dog will need to strategize and use their problem-solving skills to win the game.

Is Tug of War Suitable for All Dogs?

Yes tug of war is generally suitable for most dogs, though dogs bred to have a softer mouth like gundogs sometimes aren't so keen on this game, so need a bit of help with motivation. It's important to consider your individual dog's temperament and personality. If your dog lacks what we call play manners (where they bite up the toy to chomp on your hands), is prone to aggressive behavior or resource guarding, you may need to modify or avoid playing tug of war altogether until they have learned some manners and rules, safety first! 

If you have concerns, get in touch with a professional dog trainer, and pop back to read our self control and how to teach a dog to drop articles – this blog is a work in progress!

What are Some Common Concerns about Tug of War?

Dominance, encouraging aggressive behavior, getting too dogs too amped up or becoming posessive are all concerns I have heard about playing tug. Let's dispel some myths about playing tug with your dog.

Tug of War MythTug of War Truth
Tug of war makes your dog dominantI'm sure you've heard that you always have to win when you play tug or else they will become dominant. Let me tell you, this is nonsense. Dog and Human dominance isn't even a thing, playing together actually requires a lot of cooperation from both parties. Besides, we control the access to everything in a dog's life, winning a game of tug won't suddenly make a dog take over the world! 
Tug of war makes your dog aggressiveOnly if you're doing it wrong! Playing high arousal games with a dog can amp them up, so it's important that they a) aren't left high and dry at the end of a game and b) are taught how to emotionally regulate. Some dogs do redirect when they get so over-aroused during play that they don't know what to do with themselves, so it's our job to recognize where that tipping point is and work on arousal up AND arousal down games so that we can switch our dogs off when we need to.
Tug of war encourages dogs to be possessiveWhen playing tug of war, it's important that the dog has some basic manners around toys, and that they can at least swap the toy for food or another toy (two toy drop) even if they haven't learn to drop on a verbal cue yet. 
If you think your dog is struggling with resource guarding then you'll want to go through a behavior modification protocol so that they learn to give things up willingly, and without it turning into a confrontation – uh oh!
Table outlining some myths and truths about playing tug with your dog

BTW a great and easy to digest book on Resource Guarding is Jean Donaldson's ‘Mine', if this is something you're struggling with, grab yourselves a copy.

These are some of the common concerns people have about playing tug of war with their dogs. However, when played properly and with clear rules, tug of war can actually help teach your dog self-control and bite inhibition.

Steps to Teach Your Dog to Play Tug of War

Teaching your dog to play tug of war is a gradual process that requires patience and positive reinforcement.

Here are the steps to follow:

Step 1: Introduce the Tug Toy

Start by introducing your dog to the tug toy – I love the Tug toys by Tug-E-Nuff for some dogs they like a fluffy tug, while others like a more sturdy tug toy. Choose a durable toy specifically designed for tug of war. Show them the toy and get your dog interested in it, for many dogs dragging it along the floor is something that will pique thier interest and get them chasing it. Others need it moved around more unpredictably, mimicking prey! The main thing is to make it interesting and exciting for your dog, don't keep shoving the tug toy in their face, people do this a lot and dogs don't really like it! 

Step 2: Use a Cue to Start and Stop

Once your dog is comfortable with the tug toy, you can introduce a verbal cue to start and stop the game. For example, you can use the cue “tug” or “take it” as a release cue, to begin the game and “drop” or “release” to have them give it to you. Use positive reinforcement, and ltos of motivating praise, to reward your dog for following the cues.

Check out the articles on how to teach a dog to drop and how to teach a release or take it cue to learn more.  I often teach these cues as a game of tug, so you can play and train at the same time!

Teaching a solid “drop it” or “let go” command will help prevent any potential issues with your dog not letting go of the toy when asked.

Step 3: Think Like a Dog

Dogs are predators, their eye-stalk-chase motor pattern is activated by movement, and you can move the toy and take the tug toy away in such a way to imitate prey! Whether that is a mouse or rat that leaps about, hides in your clothes and then scuttles around we'll leave up to you, but it's a great way to make the toy ‘come to life' and have a hugely engaged dog!

Step 4: Don't Leave Your Dog High and Dry

Playig tug of war will likely take your dog to a high state of arousal, they get super dupe excited when playing tug which is why it's so much fun! For most dogs, ending the tug game and just putting it away and switching off will be HUGELY frustrating, and it's not fair for us to do this. After playing a vigoros session of a game like tug of war, I always recommend doing some low arousal activities. Food based positive reinforcemennt trainign, scentowrk, or simply filling a foraging toy can be a great way to lower arousal and have your dog come down from that high. 

Tips for Successful Tug of War Sessions

Now that you've taught your dog the basics of playing tug of war, it's important to keep in mind some tips for successful and enjoyable sessions:

Choose the Right Tug Toy

Choosing the right tug toy is crucial. Opt for a toy that is specifically designed for tug of war and is durable enough to withstand your dog's pulling and tugging. Avoid toys with small parts that could pose a choking hazard. Choose a shape of toy that is going to be suitable for your particular breed – gundogs and retrievers typically like a larger tug that can fill your mouth, bull breed may need a rope toy thats more sturdy, terriers appreciate a furry toy that stimulates play.

Here's a couple of my favorite toys currently amazon below – choose the right one for your dog's play style.

Set Rules and Boundaries

Establish clear rules and boundaries for the game of tug, one I always have is ‘no teeth on skin'. If you have a dog who likes to put their mouth on your hands or clothes, you'll want to be clear that this will stop the game, Similarly, if you have a do who likes to bite up the toy, use super long tuggers with two ends so you can drop your end and take the other end.

You should also set limits on how rough the game can get to prevent any injuries to your dog, their keenness and enthusiasm means they can easily hurt themselves if they go too hard.

Avoid Overstimulation and Arousal

While tug of war can be exciting, it's important to avoid overstimulating your dog. Keep the sessions short and fun, and be aware of your dog's arousal levels. If your dog becomes overly excited or starts exhibiting aggressive behavior, it's time to end the game and give them a break. Switch to lower arousal activities, choose a toy that doens't make them so excited and work on some emotional regulation exercises – arousal up and arousal down.

Common Mistakes to Avoid

When teaching your dog to play tug of war, there are some common mistakes that you should avoid:

Using Force or Rough Handling

Never use force or rough handling when playing tug of war with your dog, although tug looks rough, it should be quite gentle to avoid injury! This can cause your dog to become fearful or anxious and may lead to aggressive behavior. Always use positive reinforcement and reward your dog for good behavior.

Allowing Aggressive Behavior

If your dog shows signs of aggression during the game, such as growling or snapping, immediately end the game and consult with a professional dog trainer. It's important to address any aggressive behavior and work on proper training techniques.

Not Offering Rewards for Good Behavior

It's crucial to reward your dog for good behavior during tug of war. This can be in the form of treats, praise, or extra playtime. Rewarding your dog will reinforce the desired behavior and make the game more enjoyable for both of you.

Tug of War and Puppy Training

Tug of war can also be incorporated into your puppy's training routine. Here are some considerations for playing tug of war with a puppy:

When to Start Playing Tug of War with a Puppy

It's generally safe to start playing tug of war with a puppy when they are young, but take before their adult teeth coe, as although pupy teeth wil lneed to come out, we don't need to help them along by being too rough with a tug toy. Start with short and gentle tug sessions to avoid stressing their growing jaw and teeth.

Clicker Training and Tug of War

Clicker training can be a useful tool when teaching your puppy to play tug of war – although I tend to use a word marker, as we just don't have enough hands for a clicker and a tug!  Use the clicker to mark and reward desired behaviors, such as releasing the toy or following cues. This positive reinforcement method can help your puppy understand the rules and boundaries of the game. Yes, a release to play tug can be the reward after the marker ‘yes' or the ‘clicker' training doesn't always need to be food based, it all depends what you've taught the clicker or maker word to mean to your dog.

Incorporating Tug of War into Obedience Training

Tug of war can also be used as a reward during obedience training sessions. After your puppy successfully follows a cue or completes a behavior, you can reward them with a short game of tug. This can motivate your puppy and make the training sessions more enjoyable. Using tug for heelwork exercises is quite popular in competitive obedience and ringsports as it encourages enthusiasm and is great for motivation!

Tug of War Safety and Other Considerations

While tug of war can be a fun and beneficial game to play with your dog, it's important to ensure safety and address any concerns. Here are some additional considerations:

The Importance of a Proper Grip

When playing tug of war, always hold the toy firmly and avoid allowing your dog to take control of the game. Establishing a proper grip will help prevent accidents and injuries like you letting go and your dog falling backwards.

Setting Clear Boundaries for Game of Tug

Make sure your dog understands the rules and boundaries of the game. Encourage them to only grab the toy when invited and to release it on command. This will help prevent any possessiveness or aggression issues.

Addressing Concerns about Aggressive Behavior

If your dog shows signs of aggression during tug of war, such as growling, snapping, or biting, it's important to address the behavior and seek professional help if needed. Aggression should never be encouraged or tolerated during play.

By following these steps and tips, you can successfully teach your dog to play tug of war. Remember to always prioritize safety and positive reinforcement in your training sessions. 

Orange kong tug toy - a kong dog toy on a rope

How do I teach my dog to play tug of war?

To teach your dog to play tug of war, you can start by bringing the tug toy our and encouraging your dog to grab onto it by dragging it along the floor. Use a motivating tone and let your dog feel comfortable and excited about the game. Remember to be gentle and patient during the process.

What are some basic tips for teaching a dog to play tug of war?

Some basic tips for teaching a dog to play tug of war include using a soft sheepskin or faux fur tug toy, giving your dog enough space to play, and providing positive reinforcement such as treats or praise when they engage in the game. It's important to ensure that the game remains fun and safe for both you and your dog.

Is tug of war an appropriate game to play with my dog?

Tug of war can be a great way to engage and bond with your dog, as long as it is done in a controlled and positive manner. It's important to establish rules and boundaries to prevent any potential issues, and ensure that your dog understands when to release the toy and when to engage in the game.

When should I stop playing tug of war with my dog?

You should stop playing tug of war with your dog if they become too rough or aggressive during the game. If your dog starts to exhibit unwanted behaviors, it's important to end the game calmly and redirect their focus to a different activity. Additionally, if your dog loses interest or becomes bored, it's a good idea to take a break from the game. We want it to be fun right? 

How can I train my dog to drop the tug toy on command?

To train your dog to drop the tug toy on cue, we need to teach them that giving up things willingly brings about fabulous rewards! Use positive reinforcement techniques such as offering a food reward or another toy in exchange for releasing the tug toy. Consistency and patience are key, and it's important to practice this cue in various situations to reinforce the behavior.

What should I do if my dog gets too aggressive during tug of war?

If your dog becomes too aggressive or over aroused during tug of war, it's essential to stop the game immediately and redirect their focus. You can use training techniques to teach your dog appropriate behavior and establish boundaries for playing tug of war, this includes boundaries for you not winding them up so much they tip into aggression as well! Seeking guidance from a professional dog trainer may also be beneficial in addressing any aggression or resource guarding issues.

Can playing tug of war with another dog be a good idea?

This one is tricky. For some dogs playing tug of war with another dog can be a fun and stimulating activity, as long as the dogs involved are comfortable with each other and the game is supervised. For other dogs, wanting to ‘win' can cause a dog fight, so it's important to ensure that the dogs have a positive interaction and that the game remains fair and controlled. Providing separate tug toys for each dog can also help prevent any potential conflicts.

Twp dogs playing tug with an orange furry tug toy

Why is it important to put the tug toy away after playing with my dog?

Putting the tug toy away after playing with your dog helps establish and reinforces the idea that the game has come to an end. It also prevents your dog from becoming overly possessive of the toy and helps maintain the toy's novelty, making it more exciting for future play sessions. Dogs should have access to lots of different toys and live in an enriched environment, but some tug toys, particulary ones that are fluffy are liable to get ripped and shredded, and these toys are not cheap! I call these ‘two player' toys, and save them for when I'm playing with my dog vs giving her access to these all the time.

What are some common mistakes to avoid when teaching a dog to play tug of war?

Common mistakes to avoid when teaching a dog to play tug of war include pushing the tug toy in their face to try and get them interested, using an inappropriate tug toy, allowing your dog to become overly rough or aggressive, and not establishing clear rules for the game. It's important to be mindful of your dog's body language and behavior throughout the game, and to intervene if necessary to ensure a safe and enjoyable experience for both you and your dog.

How can I prevent my dog from becoming possessive or ‘bad' when playing tug of war?

To prevent your dog from becoming possessive or exhibiting negative behaviors during tug of war, it's important to establish clear rules and boundaries for the game. Encourage your dog to release the toy on command and provide positive reinforcement for good behavior. Consistent training and positive interactions will help your dog learn how to engage in tug of war in a respectful and controlled manner.

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