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How to Teach Your Dog to Play Tug-of-War

You can train a reluctant dog to enjoy tug-of-war.

Tug-of-war is a great game to play with most dogs. It helps meet your dog's need to pull and shake things with her mouth that is still ingrained in her from her ancestors' hunting days. It helps keep her mentally and physically stimulated and decreases the incidence of negative behaviors that can occur when dogs are bored.

There are some situations when you should not play tug-of-war with your dog. You can read detailed information about which dogs should and should not play tug as well as the rules that should always be enforced while playing here.

Many dogs innately understand how to play tug-of-war, and just a small amount of encouragement to take a tug toy into their mouth, then some gentle tugging on the other end from you will serve to begin a rousing game. However, there are some dogs that don't immediately understand the game or that are a bit timid about playing it.

Steps to Take before Beginning Training for Tug-of-War

If you've decided that tug-of-war would be a good game to play with your dog, but she doesn't immediately know how to play, you can teach her. Before you start, there some things to consider:

  • Choose a great tug-of-war toy: Almost any toy can be a tug-of-war toy, but you will find it more enjoyable if you choose a toy that is soft and comfortable for you to hold. The toy should also be of soft, pliant material that is gentle on your dog's teeth and gums, like braided rope, fleece, or soft rubber. Some examples of great tug-of-war toys are: the CombatX Extreme Bone Tug Toy, the Mega Twister Rope Toy, and the Bumi Dog Toy.
  • Next, establish the rules for the game so that you can enforce them consistently from the beginning.

    • Your dog can not grab the toy from you, lunge for it before you invite her to play, jump on you, or grab at your clothes. She must lie or sit down calmly and wait for you to offer her the toy or use a command like "Get it."
    • Your dog has to let go of the toy any time you ask her to. Teach her a command like "Drop it," "Leave it," or "Give it" (Instructions on teaching this are below).
    • Your dog can not touch your skin with her teeth. If she does, end the game every time. Say "Oops" or "Too bad." Take the toy and walk away. Your dog may do this accidentally at first, but the ending of the game will quickly teach her to take great care with the placement of her teeth.

How to Teach Your Dog to Play Tug-of-War

Once you've chosen a toy and established the rules of the game, follow the steps below to teach your dog how to play tug-of-war:

  1. Dab a small amount of peanut butter on the end of the tug-of-war toy and let your dog lick it off.
  2. Repeat the peanut butter step until your dog acts comfortable licking at the peanut butter and starts chewing at the toy a little bit.
  3. When you see your dog nibble at the toy, grab the other end and wiggle it just a tiny bit.
  4. Repeat these steps, gradually working up to being able to tug at the toy a little without your dog immediately dropping it and backing away.
  5. Slowly work up to a game of tug-of-war.
  6. Always use the same verbal cue, such as "Get it" when you want your dog to grab and tug on the toy. That way, she will always know when it is OK to play the game.

You may not need to use the peanut butter to get your dog interested in the tug toy. Simply holding it and encouraging her to grab it may work by itself, but the peanut butter trick helps a very reluctant dog learn to grab the toy. Depending on what it is made from, you may also soak the tug toy in chicken stock to avoid needing to reapply peanut butter constantly.

How to Teach Your Dog to Drop the Tug Toy on Command

Do not yell at, hit, or otherwise intimidate your dog while teaching her to drop the tug toy. Your dog does not deserve this simply because she doesn't understand what you want, and it will lead to stress and negative behaviors.

  • When training your dog to drop the toy on command, first choose a phrase, then stick to it very consistently. Don't vary from one phrase to another.
  • While playing tug-of-war with your dog, practice having her release the toy to you every few minutes or so.
  • Every time you want your dog to release the toy, say the command that you have chosen and simultaneously stop tugging on the toy, but continue to hold your end of it. From there, you can choose one of the ways below to get your dog to relinquish her end to you:

    • When you say the command to drop the toy and stop tugging, use your other hand to hold a treat right in front of your dog's nose. When she releases her end of the tug toy, give her the treat right away. The second she has eaten it, give the command to invite her play again.
    • Once you have said the command to drop the toy and stopped tugging it, give your dog the "Sit" command. She should drop the toy in order to sit. When she does, immediately give her the cue to invite her to play tug again. This will eventually teach her to drop the toy on command and automatically sit calmly to wait for a new game.
    • Say the command for dropping the toy, stop tugging on your end while continuing to hold onto it, and use your other hand to gently cover your dog's eyes. This should prompt her to drop the toy, at which time you should uncover her eyes and give her the cue to invite her to play again.
    • When you say the command for dropping the toy and stop tugging on it, gently urge your dog by the collar to come toward you. This will counteract her tugging and should get her to drop the toy. Do not yank or pull roughly. Once she drops the toy, invite her to play again by giving the appropriate command.

Whichever method you choose, practice the release cue every few minutes while playing tug-of-war. Making sure that you immediately initiate a new game lets your dog know that dropping the toy will usually lead to her getting to play some more. If she does not have that reward, she may start to worry that dropping the toy will always lead to the end of the game. Also, give a short verbal affirmation that she's done what you want at every step, like "Yes" or "Yay."

Follow these easy steps, and you and your dog will be able to enjoy many fun games of tug-of-war.


References

  1. Miller, P. (2008, September). Tug O' War Is a Fun Game To Play With Your Dog. Retrieved from The Whole Dog Journal: http://www.whole-dog-journal.com/issues/11_9/features/Fun-Games-To-Play-With-Your-Dog_16059-1.html
  2. Teaching Your Dog to Play Tug-of-War. (n.d.). Retrieved from ASPCA.org: https://www.aspca.org/pet-care/virtual-pet-behaviorist/dog-behavior/teaching-your-dog-play-tug-war

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