Contrary to what you might have heard, the game tug-of-war, when played correctly, can be a really great interaction for you and your dog. Tug builds important self control skills, it teaches your dog how to transition from being energized to calm, it gives them an appropriate outlet for some of their natural behaviors and, of course, it can be really fun!
Johnnie Cash absolutely loves to play tug. Before we ever started playing with her though, we set up some rules for the game:
1. Johnnie must be sitting nicely before we start anything. She’s gotten REALLY good at this. When we’re playing and she’s all excited and bouncing around, she’ll still put on the brakes about two feet in front of me and sit right down, knowing the only way she’ll have a chance of getting what I have is by sitting politely. This is a rule for no matter what we’re doing – playing fetching, doing training, giving treats, etc.
2. The game only starts when I (the human) say it does. For Johnnie, we use an “Okay!” or “Get it!” command to let her know she is released. Sitting nicely and then flinging herself at the toy whenever it’s within reach is not acceptable. We are at the point now where I can even dangle it in front of her and she maintains eye contact with me waiting for her release cue.
3. The game stops when I (the human) say it does. In my opinion, one of the most important aspects of a safe game of tug is making sure your dog knows when the game is over and, more importantly, is okay with you ending up with the toy. We have taught Johnnie a pretty solid “Drop it” cue, and this has been immensely helpful when playing with any toys (or stolen non-toys, for that matter!). We taught Johnnie “drop it” without treats, using the toy itself as the reward. If you want to know how to do this with your own dog, I recommend you head over to the experts at Canine Lifestyle Academy who have written a similar blog post on tug that explains how to teach “Drop it.”
4. The game is over absolutely any time teeth touch skin. No matter if it’s an accident or playful or whatever, teeth touching skin means GAME OVER. Drop the toy and walk away (or, better yet, take the toy with you). Mouthiness usually happens as a result of over excitement, so try to make sure your dog doesn’t get to that point in the first place. Also, like I mentioned, it is often an accident during the game, but your dog should know that’s still not acceptable.
So as you can see, dogs learn extremely valuable skills during tug. Not only does it give Johnnie multiple opportunities to practice these skills, but it also helps her fulfill her need to tug and shake toys. These are natural behaviors for her and if I don’t give her an appropriate outlet for them, she will likely find a not-so-appropriate one herself :-)