Maddie's Pet Project

Rules for playing tug-of-war with your dog

By Mark Robison

Mark Robison

In another column, I’d mentioned making a dog toy by putting an empty plastic soda bottle in a sock and then playing a bit of tug with it to signal to the dog it’s a toy. Dogs like the crunchy noise and sensation of a plastic bottle inside cloth.

Dave S. in south Reno wrote to say that he doesn’t think playing tug is a good idea because it “stimulates the aggressive instinct” in dogs. While I hadn’t considered this possibility, I wanted to learn more about this given the seriousness of aggressive behavior.

I contacted Certified Animal Behaviorist Kelley Bollen. She is currently a faculty fellow at Tufts University Veterinary School and also served as the director of shelter behavior programs at Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine.

Bollen had some concern about my suggestion to cover a plastic bottle with a sock warning that it is never a good idea to give a dog something to play with that would otherwise be off limits to the dog, such as old shoes or socks. She does however, support playing tug games with your dog – with a few caveats.

“Some people worry that tug-of-war games cause aggressive behavior in dogs but that is simply not true,” she said by phone. “Certainly if you have a dog who has aggression issues, playing tug could cause problems. But tug-of-war is a great game for the average pet if you follow certain rules.”

Here are the rules Bollen recommends for playing tug-of-war with dogs:
•  Rule 1: Use only one specific tug toy. The dog should know there is only one toy to play tug with.
•  Rule 2: You are always the one to initiate the tug game, not the dog. So keep the tug toy in a drawer or cabinet.
•  Rule 3: During the game, request the dog to “Drop it” a few times. If the dog does, give the toy back and keep playing. If not, say “Too bad,” turn around, and walk away – end of game. (This teaches impulse control, which can be used in other situations.)
•  Rule 4: When you're ready to stop, cue “Drop it,” pick up the toy, say “All done” (or something similar that you’ll use consistently), and put the toy away.

Bollen explained why these rules are so important: “You don’t want the dog to think he can grab anything – such as a toy out of a child’s hand or the sash on your bath robe. Tug-of-war needs to be very specific to the toy.”

As for as how to train a dog to drop it, you can give the dog any toy (not just a tug) to take in her mouth. When she has it in her mouth, show her a high-value treat. When she spits out the toy to get the treat, say “Drop it” in a cheerful voice and then praise and give her the treat. Then pick up the item she dropped and give it back to her. Repeat this several times and then leave her with the original toy to play with. This way she learns that dropping an item is rewarding (because she gets a treat) and she will often get the item back.

Practice this exercise with as many different toys as you can so she understands what to do when you say, “Drop it.” When you think you have associated the words “drop it” with the behavior of spitting something out (about a dozen times), the next step is to test your cue. Without showing the treat, say “Drop it.” If she does, reward her heavily. From now on, you will not have to show the treat up front to get the behavior.

And you’ll be ready for a game of tug-of-war.

Mark Robison is co-executive director of Maddie's Pet Project in Nevada. He lives in Reno. Reach him at mrobison@humanenetwork.org.

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