To Play Tug of War or Not to Play?

A closer look at the common belief that the game makes some dogs too aggressive.


Time was that animal behaviorists said not to play tug of war with a dog because it could make him too aggressive. The thinking was that it would over-build a dog’s confidence and the next thing, he’d be biting you to get his way. But the thinking has evolved.

In fact, for meek, overly submissive dogs, tug of war can be made into a game that helps build confidence. You can even put the tugging toy — a piece of cloth or a rope toy — into the mouth of a dog who demurs. Then you say, ‘Grrr’ in a playful way and let the dog win, praising him for his victory. Sometimes it can help a dog out of behaviors such as submissive urination.

But even for dogs who are not timid, tug of war can have a place. One reason is that a single type of game is not going to change a dog’s temperament, making him go from being a peaceable animal to an aggressive one. In addition, the tugging game is actually an opportunity for you to school your pet in cooperation.

Let’s say your dog comes over to you with his usual tug toy. Rather than just grabbing onto the other end and engaging in the “struggle,” you can teach him the cue to “Give it.” When he does, you can reward the behavior with warm praise and perhaps even a treat as he’s learning the ropes. That way, he knows 1) that you are in charge of both the toy and whether the game will be played and 2) that when he complies with your cues, good things happen, including the chance to actually tug with you and satisfy his instinct to “wrestle” and perhaps teethe if he’s still a puppy. There’s even a collateral benefit. When your dog starts chewing on something he shouldn’t — a shoe, a food wrapper someone dropped on the ground — you will be able to get him to stop because he will have the response to your cue imprinted on his brain.

Thus, as long as a dog does not have a history of aggression and therefore might misunderstand the game’s reasonable limits, tug of war can be a fun way for him to employ both physical and mental energy. Of course, a dog’s teeth and facial muscles are always going to be stronger than your hands, so if things inadvertently get too rough, an injury can result. And the dog may become too wound up in the process. For that reason it’s a good idea to periodically tell your dog to release the toy while playing. (Let go of the toy if he doesn’t.) Make sure he can heed your cue to stop and sit in the middle of the game, too. That way, things won’t get out of hand, and your role as leader will always remain center stage, even as the dog thoroughly enjoys himself.


  1. Great advice. I love this. Also, I use the tug of war with rope ends as a way to help to clean her teeth. Even the soft plush toys serve that purpose as we pull back and forth. Works well.


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