Tug-of-war sometimes gets a bad rap. If done wrong, it can cause more problems than it solves. But it can also be a great thing. An opportunity for bonding, exercise, and impulse control. It is one of my favorite games to play with my pit-mix, Dobby. I love when I’m sitting in my desk chair and she brings me a rope toy. She’ll give her trademark wiggle, then challenge me with a muffled “grrrrawwrrr”. Then, I’m being dragged around the room on the wheels of my chair while I try and pull the toy from her and she tries to pull me over. Both of us happily making “grrrrawwrr” noises.
The first thing that any dog owner should establish is the value of a “trade”. Teaching your dog to gladly relinquish things is priceless. Try offering something of higher value in exchange for something your dog has. For example, when your dog is chewing on a bone offer a handful of treats. If they accept the trade, then take the bone and then immediately give the bone back to them. The goal is that when we say, “can I have that”, then their response is “absolutely! Why not?”
It is relationship suicide to always insist on being “the alpha”. Tug-of-war is not immune to this truth. I have heard that, when playing with your dog, you should always be sure to win. Or at least, that you should always end by taking possession of the toy. These statements are ridiculous. Healthy play includes a consistent back and forth. The strong, in-charge, confident leader has no problem letting their puppy win. This goes for wolves, dogs, and humans. Every time I give up and say, “you win!”, the pup always tries to push the toy back into my hands. A well-balanced dog doesn’t want to “win”, they want to play. A well-balanced owner feels the same way.
On a similar note; DO NOT let it become a game of chase. Being willing to let the dog win (and who really wants a smelly dog toy anyway?) we can eliminate the chance of a chase game developing. But this is so important that I wanted to put it plainly, DO NOT let your dog play keep away. If doggo says “you can’t catch me”, then say “I don’t want to”. If pupper says “you can’t have it”, then say “I don’t want it.” Games of chase end with a dog who won’t come when called, which can end with a dog who runs away (or worse). Don’t play these games.
Lastly, be aware of how stimulated your pup is becoming and be prepared to change the subject. If your dog is becoming more excited than you would like, then create a new distraction. Ringing the doorbell, grabbing the leash, or heading to the kitchen is a great way to get most dogs to forget about the game. Simply giving up the game and speaking in soft, calm tones is often enough to snap doggo out of it. Dogs, like humans, sometimes get a little too competitive. And, also like humans, being scolded and told “calm down!” is the wrong way to handle over-excited dogs. Change the subject. Give them something else to do.
Tug-of-war is a great game if done right. And it really boils down to a few simple rules. Teach them how to trade. Don’t be a jerk. Don’t indulge “you-can’t-catch-me”. And don’t let it get out of hand.
Adam Claar – Colonial Williamsburg’s Senior Dog Trainer