Without a doubt, it's happened to dog owners plenty of times. You've been hanging out with your dog, and suddenly he drops his stuffed rope animal onto your feet. He stares into your eyes, practically pleading with you to play fetch. You grab his toy, and that's when he pounces, trying to pull the toy away before you can even throw it. This is the inevitable game of tug, done by pretty much every dog, everywhere. But what are the motivations behind this somewhat combative behavior? Is this even a safe kind of behavior to engage in with your loveable canine companion?
The Root of the Behavior
Some animal behaviorists think that this instinct is rooted in a type of collaborative play. When two dogs are playing this game, it seems to be indicative of some sort of a trust-building exercise. The evidence suggests that this play behavior can also work as an exercise to build trust between a dog and its human. This is something you want to do quite regularly as a dog owner to ensure good communication between human and animal. Most animal experts agree that play, in general, is a great mechanism for trust building. Regardless of the root of the instinct, behaviors like this tend to mimic what is seen in nature and playing tug of war is no exception. This behavior mimics specific movements dogs used in the distant past to aid with hunting. Ancient dogs often hunted smaller animals living in burrows and dugouts, so it was often necessary for them to "tug" these animals out of their homes once cornered. Once out of the dugout, they then needed to tear into these animals for feeding. This is yet another time when the tugging instinct would have come in handy in the wild. A novel new idea more recently put forth by some veterinary doctors is that this behavior partially developed as a way for animals to instinctually curb their natural urge to bite as a communicative tool. This biting instinct has been successfully trained out of the various dog breeds over many generations. So in a sense, your dog tugging on toys with you is redirecting the biting that would be naturally be shared in a pack environment. This is a great way to help your dog let off some steam without doing damage to the house, itself, or you. As fun as this play behavior can be, make sure to watch out for higher than normal levels of aggression as it could be indicative of other issues.
Encouraging the Behavior
If your dog has a lot of excess energy but it's hard to get outside, this is a great way for you and he/she to play indoors. Your dog naturally needs a decent amount of exercise, and if that exercise can be received while engaging with his owner it's much more beneficial. With smaller dogs remember that you can easily overpower them, so it's wise to make sure you don't whip them around too much. In bigger breeds, the bigger concern is to your possessions. Playing indoors can incur its own set of risks, so remember that if your dog is big and clumsy, keep tug of war confined to safe spots. If you have a dog that tends to get a little too aggressive in public settings, this can be a great way to redirect that energy. Keeping a tug toy with you as part of your "doggy daycare kit" can be a heroic move if your dog decides to go a little overboard at the dog park. It can sometimes even mean the difference between a friendly game between two new canine friends, or an aggressive and negative encounter. In recent years it has become quite popular for individuals to sue each other over "dog attacks" that amount to nothing more than a misplaced act of instinctual defense.
Other Solutions and Considerations
If you notice that while playing tug of war your dog makes contact with his teeth, you should immediately end play. Shout some sort of pained expression and disengage for up to 60 seconds. If your dog doesn't seem like he's trying to actively bite you, you can try returning to the game. If he/she continues this negative behavior more than a handful of times, you should stop playing with him/her for the remainder of the day. It's entirely possible that your dog can hit you with his teeth once in a while, but if it becomes frequent it should be wholly discouraged.
When it's all said and done, tug of war is generally a fun way to bond with your best canine friend. Keep in mind that aggression should be kept at healthy levels and you should always watch out for biting or other less than friendly behaviors. You might just realize that your dog is actually tugging at your heartstrings!