One of the most beloved and classic dog games of all time is tug of war. Typically played with only a rope toy and determination, tug of war is a game enjoyed between dog and owner, or in some cases, between two dogs. Both you and your dog can wrestle for ground, take some stress out on each other, have fun, and all while playing respectfully and in good spirit.
Though dogs seem to get aggressive and predatory when playing, most trainers and owners do not consider tug of war to be a competitive game. In fact, when played properly, the game can bring about a lot of positive growth in your dog and strengthen the human-dog bond. Here’s how to make sure that both you and your dog are getting the most out of your game.
The Root of the Behavior
Most games that animals like to play have an origin in learning survival skills. For example, pups in the wild play-fight as a means of learning real hunting technique. Tug of war is tied in closely with a dog’s predatory instincts, most likely with consuming prey as a pack. Dogs that lived and survived in the wild had to work together to take their prey apart, a grisly chore that modern dogs no longer worry about. In fact, despite the predatory background, most dogs do not become aggressive or dangerous during play. Your dog might growl, but you won’t likely feel threatened by him during or after the game.
There is controversy surrounding the game revolving around the idea that playing tug of war incorrectly can lead to dominance issues between you and your dog. Generally speaking, people worry that letting their dog win or failing to properly display complete dominance over their dog will cause their dog to act out, become aggressive, and try to dominate their human owners. The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior has campaigned against the use of dominance theory in human-dog relationships for several reasons, including that being overly aggressive with your dog usually causes aggression to arise in them, not the other way around. Instead, experts say that humans should show positive leadership, reinforcing good behaviors, and redirecting bad ones.
In this sense, tug of war offers a wide range of behavioral and relational benefits. The most obvious benefit is the act of playing, which provides mental and physical stimulation to your dog. Since the game is a collaborative game, and since it is dependent on you being on the other end of the rope, tug of war also serves to create trust and reinforce the human-dog bond. Related to this benefit is the general observation that shy dogs who play tug of war tend to become less skittish and more comfortable around their owners after playing tug of war. All in all, for both dogs and humans, tug of war has the potential to be more than just a game. It can become a way of deepening relationship and teaching all around better behavior.
Encouraging the Behavior
The rules of gameplay are generally simple, and you don’t have to draw lines in the sand to have a good time. That being said, there are rules surrounding initiating and ceasing play that humans should always be in control and aware of. The most important of these is that when you decide that the game is over, it’s over. When you teach your dog to stop and drop the rope, you are teaching both the “drop it” command and more importantly, impulse control. This helps your dog grow to be less demanding and less rebellious when things don’t go its way. If your dog refuses to let go of the rope, simply let go yourself and walk away. This sends your dog a clear message that either they play by your rules, or they don’t get to play anymore.
To further reinforce impulse control and positive behaviors, humans should be the ones to initiate tug of war, at least for the first few months of play. If your dog brings you the rope repeatedly and starts barking to get your attention, giving in and playing only reinforces your dog’s demanding nature. Some people recommend keeping the rope put away when it is not in use as an additional measure. When you initiate tug of war, you are showing your dog that you want to play, which is incredibly exciting for your dog! Make sure that their excitement is tempered with good behavior. Don’t let your dog lunge for the toy or jump on you to get to it. By teaching your dog to wait and be calm, you are setting the playing field for a respectful and fun game.
Other Solutions and Considerations
Tug of war is an exciting, high-energy game that can cause problems if played improperly. In general, children who are not old enough to understand or control the game should not play. The results could be dangerous for both the dog and the child. On the other side of the rope, dogs who have shown aggression to their owners, or who are overly possessive of objects or resources should not play either. All dogs are liable to accidentally slip up or bite your hand, especially if you play with a short rope. This doesn’t mean that it was an act of aggression, but you should instantly stop play and say “oops!” if your dog bites your hand. This teaches your dog a valuable lesson, and it leads to the development of a trait called bite inhibition.As with all games, you should always put your safety and your dog’s safety first.
Playing with your dog is one of the most rewarding activities that the two of you could do together. Remember when playing to reward good behaviors, and you will help your dog grow to behave better, and in more ways than you could know. In the end, tug of war is all about teaching your dog how to be a good sport, and how to be a good boy.