Rules for Playing Tug

WDJ training expert Pat Miller shares the 4 rules her dogs play tug by.


Some unenlightened trainers caution against playing tug with your dog, with dire warnings about dominance and aggression. Modern, educated trainers recognize that as long as you play tug in a manner that doesn’t reinforce unwanted behaviors, the game can be extremely beneficial. Tug is good exercise, can reinforce desirable behaviors, and has nothing to do with dominance. Here are a few important rules for safe and beneficial tug-play:

1. Your dog needs to wait for an invitation to play tug. Tell her to wait; then hold up the tug toy. If she jumps for it, say, “Oops!” and hide the toy behind your back. Repeat until you can hold up the toy and she doesn’t try to grab it.

rules of tug

2. Now give her permission to grab the toy with your “Tug!” cue. Let her fiercely shake it back and forth and growl in play, while you hang onto your end and encourage her to tug.

rules of tug

3. Occasionally ask her to “Trade” and offer her a treat in exchange for the toy. When she gives it up, return to Step 1 and ask her to “Wait” until you invite her to play again.

4. If at any time her teeth touch your skin or clothing, she gets an “Oops!” and the toy goes away for a few minutes. You can then initiate play again. If necessary to keep yourself safe, you can stand inside an exercise pen with her on the outside when you tug, until she learns the rules.

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:

Have fun!

playing tug with a dog

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Pat Miller, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, grew up in a family that was blessed with lots of animal companions: dogs, cats, horses, rabbits, goats, and more, and has maintained that model ever since. She spent the first 20 years of her professional life working at the Marin Humane Society in Marin County, California, for most of that time as a humane officer and director of operations. She continually studied the art and science of dog training and behavior during that time, and in 1996, left MHS to start her own training and behavior business, Peaceable Paws. Pat has earned a number of titles from various training organizations, including Certified Behavior Consultant Canine-Knowledge Assessed (CBCC-KA) and Certified Professional Dog Trainer - Knowledge Assessed (CPDT-KA). She also founded Peaceable Paws Academies for teaching and credentialing dog training and behavior professionals, who can earn "Pat Miller Certified Trainer" certifications. She and her husband Paul and an ever-changing number of dogs, horses, and other animal companions live on their 80-acre farm in Fairplay, Maryland.