There used to be a number of different rules about whether you should
play tug with your dog. Some said you should never play at all. Others said you can play but you should always win in order to reinforce your
position as the alpha dog. Others said that with a shy or sensitive dog
you should win half the time to make sure he doesn't get any wrong ideas about who's
alpha. But one thing everyone agreed on was that you should never,
under any circumstances play tug-of-war with an aggressive dog.
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why is it that the best trained dogs in the world, attack dogs,
search-and-rescue dogs, detection dogs, are trained almost exclusively
through hunting games like fetch and tug? Even Jean Donaldson, a
positive training maven, writes that tug games “are not about dominance
and they do not increase aggression. These are myths.”
Right Into Cujo’s Mouth
took me some time before I was comfortable enough with my theories
(based on Kevin Behan’s ideas) to recommend playing tug-of-war to a
client with an aggressive dog. After all, I’d been taught the basic
canons of dog training just like everyone else. “Never play tug-of-war
with an aggressive dog.” It never occurred to me that tug-of-war could
actually cure aggression. Not until I met Margo, that is.
is a young Rottweiler who was rescued from a locked basement in
Manhattan by the Humane Society. She’d been kept on a chain her whole
life. In fact, she still had her puppy collar on when she was found. It
had to be surgically removed because her skin and fur had grown up
around it. A terrible situation for this sweet-natured animal.
came Michael. He fell in love with the dog and brought her home, not
realizing how much trouble he was in for. A few days later he called me
and I agreed to come help him out.
soon as I got to the top of the stairs on the second floor of Michael’s
building, Margo met me in the doorway, snarling and growling, ready to
kill me if I came too close.
course I knew that a good part of what was stimulating Margo to act
this way was that any kind of movement around the den door always
stimulates a dog’s urge to bite.
Michael was stunned. “Why is she acting this way?”
“She’s just guarding the den,” I said. “Put a leash on her and meet me downstairs in the lobby.”
knew that even if Michael were able to lead her back inside the
apartment, I’d still be in trouble the minute I came through the door.
And I didn’t think Michael was strong enough to control her, either.
Meeting her on neutral territory, with enough space around us so that
she didn’t feel confined, was what I wanted.
with a situation like this a dominance trainer would’ve tried to
dominate Margo, feeling compelled to show her who’s boss --a sure way
to make matters worse. Since I was unfettered by the need to be alpha,
I knew that if I met Margo away from her den door she wouldn’t have
been so eager to bite me and we could become friends—problem solved.
So I met them in the lobby. I made friends with Margo by lying on my back and allowing her to come to me at her own pace.
When she finally came over to sniff me I gave her a treat.
we went back upstairs to the apartment where Margo turned into a
complete pussycat, rolling over next to me on the couch and asking for
a tummy rub. I obliged her and also put my hand in her mouth and let
her gently chew on me while I scratched her belly. Can you imagine this
scene? Ten minutes earlier this same dog was acting like Cujo, the most
insanely aggressive dog I had ever seen. And now, here I was, putting
my fingers right into Cujo’s mouth and encouraging her to chew on them.
told Michael to let Margo chew on his fingers like that every day and
also to play tug-of-war. He followed my advice and that was the last
time Margo ever tried to kill anybody.
I had tried to dominate Margo her aggressive behavior would’ve worsened
to the point where she would’ve have eventually had to have been
euthanized. (In a sense I did dominate her, of course. I just used my
brains, not my brawn.)
... And the Beat Goes On
a Cavalier King Charles spaniel was biting the younger members of her
household; a family of five. I recommended playing tug-of-war and
always letting the dog win. I also suggested they play a rousing game
of fetch with her every day. They followed my advice and Baby’s biting
habits were soon brought under control.
a black pug, had a severe case of leash aggression. I told his owners,
Josh and Bree, to play tug-of-war with him every day and they did.
After less than a week of tug therapy, Mugwa’s leash aggression had
almost completely disappeared.
is a German shepherd, owned by Dorian. When Dorian moved to New York
from Connecticut, Satch—who’d been a sweet, almost submissive animal
with other dogs—began to exhibit a severe case of leash aggression. He
also had a tendency to go overboard at the dog run, playing too hard
and rough for the other dogs to handle.
first thing I taught Dorian was to stop saying “No!”, to stop
correcting Satch and to stop scaring him with a shake can. I also
taught her how to get Satchmo to jump up on her on command, to distract
him and praise him on the street, and to play games with him—games like
fetch and tug-of-war that stimulated his hunting instinct. Satchmo is
now one of the best-trained, and best-behaved dogs on Manhattan’s Upper
Are you starting to see a trend here? Tug-of-war gives a dog an outlet for his natural aggression. In Natural Dog Training, Kevin Behan writes:
parents may be nervous about this whole notion of prey instinct. We are
not creating the prey instinct: it is already there. We are channeling
it into an appropriate activity. This way it is not as likely to go
where it does not belong, such as after a child’s hand. Otherwise, you
are leaving it up to the dog to decide what he wants to do with his
There is more to
these stories than tug-of-war, of course. The first thing I impressed
upon the owners of all these dogs was to stop all negative, dominant,
or confrontational forms of behavior modification. No more saying,
“No!”, no scolding or punishing the dog, no shake cans, no leash
corrections. Playing tug-of war was only the second step towards
eradicating aggressive behavior in these dogs.
is also good for basic obedience. I worked with a great Dane named
Achille, whose recall had gotten a little rusty when he was around
other dogs in Central Park, so I played a vigorous game of tug with him
each day for three days, without any other form of training on the
recall. We just played tug-of-war and had fun. And after just three
days, his recall was perfect.
Tug-of-War, What Is it Good For?
is tug-of-war such a good game? First of all, as I said before it gives
the dog a safe outlet for his natural predatory instincts. Yes, we all
want our dogs to be gentle and non-aggressive, but a dog who is gentle
twenty-four hours a day is not really a dog—or not a happy one at
least. Dogs have a deep-rooted emotional need to kill things, even if
it’s just in play. Tug-of-war satisfies that need in a safe and
controlled manner. All of your dog’s natural aggression goes into the
tug toy so that there’s nothing left to take out on the mailman or that
nice little schnauzer who lives down the block.
it’s a shared activity. The tug-rag has no life of its own. Without you
on the other end to wiggle it and make it seem alive, it’s just a dead
piece of cloth. Your dog quickly comes to understand that you’re the
one who’s responsible for his emotions being satisfied. He begins to
look to you as the keyholder to his wildest and most pleasurable
instincts. This is why Achille’s recall improved after playing
tug-of-war for three days. Why go sniffing around after other dogs when
there’s so much fun to be had right there at your master’s side?
it gives the dog a sense of power and confidence. Many would agree that
confidence is a desirable quality to nurture in a dog, but question
whether it’s such a good idea to give the dog a sense of his own power.
But think of the dog as a martial artist: The more aware you are of
your own power to hurt others, the less likely you are to need to prove
it. The novice—who hasn’t learned how to center himself—is always
picking fights. The master—who knows his own power—never does. In fact,
he’s able to transform violence into peace. The same is true for dogs.
Played properly, tug-of-war gives a dog the emotional centering
necessary for him to live peaceably without the need or desire to bite
or harm others.
7 Rules of Engagement
There are seven simple rules for playing tug-of-war:
1.) Always let the dog win and praise him for winning.
2.) Stop playing before the dog gets bored or loses interest.
3.) If the dog doesn’t know it’s a game, don’t play.
4.) If you have an aggressive dog and his behavior doesn’t improve after three days, stop playing tug with him and give us a call.
5.) If the dog’s teeth stray onto your hand or arm, stop playing, but keep doing this day after day until the dog learns that when he bites the tug toy the fun continues, but that when he bites your hand or arm the fun stops.
The best tug toy is a bandana, wash rag, or old sock. Something less
substantial than the rubber and rope tug toys sold at your local pet
store. When a dog wins a rope, it still feels good in his mouth; it has
some play of its own left in it. But when he wins a bandana or an old
sock, it’s just a lifeless piece of bleh. Using a less substantial tug
“rag” will motivate a dog to want to bring it back to you so you can
give it life again.
7) Some trainers make a big deal out of
making sure the dog always drops the toy on command, interrupting the
flow of the game. So don’t follow that bit of bad advice. However, your
dog should know how to drop any toy on command, and it’s okay to toss
that command into the mix every now and again. But make sure you make
it seem like part of the fun, and not that you’re being the mean “drop
So ignore the myths, obey the rules, and have fun playing tug with your dog!