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To Tug or Not to Tug? Safe & Fun Play

Many of my clients are worried that playing tug with their dog will give the dog the wrong idea. They have been told to avoid tugging games as the dog may think that they are in charge; winning the game; ruling their world, the old dominance argument yet again.

If done correctly, playing tug with your dog can have a multitude of positive outcomes. Some examples of these would be confidence building in a timid or insecure dog, distraction and focus in a reactive dog and reward in a high energy or overly frustrated dog.  Believe it or not, tug also improves retrieve training.  If the best fun is playing tug with their owner, why would your dog not bring the toy back to you to keep the game going.

In order to play tug safely, some basic regulations must apply. Forget about the concept that letting your dog win will make him believe you’re not the boss, but rather agree on some key rules of engagement.
1. Don’t allow kids to play tug unless they are at least 10yrs old (you know your kids best but this is usually an age when sense around dogs begins to apply) and even then, I would supervise until both dog and child know rules 2/3/4.
2. If I ask for the toy back, you give the toy back. More often than not, releasing the toy will result in the tug game resuming again immediately.
3. I will occasionally win the toy and take it away. Occasionally you win the toy and take it away/run around/show off/strut your stuff etc.
4. No matter how excited the game gets, if you-even by mistake-nip my clothes or skin during play, I will yelp loudly, drop the toy and walk away closing a door between us for at least one minute. Remember it takes two to tug, so if your dog is enjoying the game, then leaving him with the toy, but with no human to tug with, is a huge punishment for breaking the rules.  Next time you play make sure you avoid excitement escalating to nipping level.

Make play time a specific fun time with your dog. Remove access to most of and especially his favourite toys. Playing with toys is something your dog should associate with you, the owner, not something they do on their own. You can still give chew toys (Kongs, Busy Buddy’s, dog chews etc) to your dog if/when they are bored. If you can get your dog obsessed with one particular toy, this will become your best method of distraction and reward when you need to keep his attention out and about.