Features December 2016 Issue

Rules for Playing Tug

A couple of decades ago, when positive reinforcement-based training was in its infancy, we were quite sensitive to criticism from the dog training community about this new “permissive” style of dog training. When we began encouraging people to play tug with their dogs, conscious of the fear that it would cause aggression, we created a detailed set of rules for playing tug, including the caveat that the human had to always “win” the game by gaining possession of the tug toy.

As the passage of time supported our contention that tug does not cause aggression, we have softened those rules considerably. Here are the simplified tug rules that I now play by:

1. Dog needs to sit politely and wait for the invitation to tug. If he leaps and grabs for the toy before being invited to do so (I use the cue “Tug!”) – I whisk the toy away and hide it behind my back. (In the language of behavior modification, this is called “negative punishment” – the dog’s behavior makes the good thing go away.)
2. When he remains sitting politely until invited to tug, we play. (This is “positive reinforcement” – the dog’s behavior makes a good thing happen.)
3. If dog’s teeth leave the toy and touch human skin or clothing, the games stops with an “Oops!” (no-reward marker) and the toy goes away (negative punishment). Just for a moment – and then we can play again. (If he persistently mouths skin or clothing and/or mouthing escalates with tug play, that’s another behavioral issue; I would stop playing tug until the mouthing is under better control.)

That’s it! I don’t care who “wins.” We can alternate! I don’t care who initiates play; he can bring me the toy and ask me to play, or I can pick up the toy and start the game. There’s just one last really important rule:

4. Have fun!

playing tug with a dog

Comments (7)

Good tips, but as mentioned, even before starting a "tug," the command "Drop it" should be solid. If the dog is fixated on the object, then "Leave it" should be solid also. These two commands will reduce chances of an unpleasant reaction. Last, a good solid "fetch" can reduce an inappropriate "tug" reaction also.

Posted by: Dane Lover 2 | January 8, 2017 2:22 PM    Report this comment

I've heard a number of times to make sure you don't shake the dog's head up and down (can cause spine injury) but side to side is okay. My dog is more is active in participating in tug when I get down on her level.

Posted by: Stephenie D | January 3, 2017 5:43 PM    Report this comment

I think good cues to interacting with a dog can be gained from watching how dogs behave with each other. Our Jack Russells, as aggressive and argumentative as any of that breed, play tug with each other all the time, yet rarely get into fights because of it. Sometimes one wins, sometimes the other, and eventually one gets tired of the play and finds something else to do. I don't see any major dominance issues. That having been said, the suggestions offered in the article and comments seem quite sensible.

Posted by: Alvin Hill | January 2, 2017 10:23 AM    Report this comment

I learned that you should never pull the toy up and down, that could hurt the dog's neck.

Posted by: msu1975 | January 2, 2017 8:20 AM    Report this comment

I agree with dog needs to "drop" the tug toy on command.

Posted by: Tina Lynn | January 1, 2017 6:53 PM    Report this comment

I would add one more. The dog needs to be trained to drop the toy on cue before learning the tug game. And if he doesn't drop it on cue, the toy goes away when you get it back... and you do more training on drop!

Posted by: hg | January 1, 2017 12:28 PM    Report this comment

Rule number 1
Be sure that your back/knees/wrists/hands are in good nick!

Rule 2
If your dog is totally uninterested in playing tug, don't worry. Try some game your dog loves instead.

Posted by: Jenny H | December 3, 2016 4:24 PM    Report this comment

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