How to play tug of war with your dog so you can reap the benefits and avoid the pitfalls.
Tug of war is a great game to play with your dog. The best benefit is it is physically stimulating, making it a good game to tire them out if you missed your daily walk or it's raining outside. It is also very dog like; it is something that allows them to chew and tug and bite in a way that is very natural to them and appropriate for you.
Dog owners often come to me talking about the challenges they have with tug of war, such as it gets too out of control or the dog bites them while they're playing. Some owners avoid playing all together because they think it will encourage the wrong type of behavior, typically aggressive behavior. However, if you play in a manner that communicates the type of play that is acceptable to you (and this is different for every owner) and you follow my tips for avoiding unwanted behaviors that usually associate with tug of war, you can reap all the benefits that tug of war offers for you and your dog. Below is a step by step guide to how to play tug of war with your dog.
Step 1: Engage In Play
Some dogs naturally gravitate to tug of war and others do not. It is nice to start out playing when you want to, setting yourself up to control the play from the very beginning.
Whether you are trying to get your dog to play for the first time or the hundredth time, make it exciting for them. Communicate to them that you are ready to play. Make them chase around the rope a little, give off a positive tone, and make your body language playful by getting low to the ground. When they gravitate to the rope and start engaging in play, communicate that they are doing what you want by saying things like "good boy" and "let's play!".
Step 2: Communicate Good Play
How will your dog know that he is doing something you like? You tell them! You can tell them by saying things like "good play" and "good boy" and continuing to play with them. Don't wait until you are not having fun to tell them they are doing something wrong. When they get a little rough, you can say a command that they know, such as "gentle", and then when they play more gently, say "yes" to communicate "yes, thats what I wanted! Thank you! Let's keep playing!".
Step 3: Take Breaks Multiple Times During Tug of War
For many reasons, you will want to ask your dog to let go of the rope throughout your play session. Taking breaks gives you the best chance of having a positive tug of war session for you and your dog because it helps you avoid most of those pitfalls like overexcitement and aggression.
Manage Their Excitement: A lot of unwanted dog behaviors are associated with overstimulation and excitement, and that holds true for playing tug of war as well. When they are overly excited, signs may be growling, being too mouthy, and they whipping their head back and forth. When their overall energy level rises, that is a good time to ask them to drop the rope. Your goal is to ask them to drop the rope before you see unwanted behaviors!
By managing their excitement, we can manage the tone of the play session and keep it at a level that we enjoy.
Control: We are trying to avoid the session from getting out of control, out of the tone of play that you want to have a dog owner. When they are getting too excited, disengage and reengage when they are calmer. This communicates the type of play you do want because you are reinforcing the desired behaviors when you play with them when they exhibit those behaviors. Follow the steps below for controlling the pace of play:
Good times to take a break are when your dog is getting too excited, they are acting relentless, or it has simply been too long a period of time since you last took a break.
Communicate to them that you are not playing anymore by standing still.
Ask them to "drop it". Use a treat to lure them away from the rope if they are still learning the command. Reengage when they are calm again.
Step 4: Tips to Avoid the Pitfalls of Tug of War
Long Rope: This naturally will help you get distance from your dog (and their teeth and their nails.)
Re-gripping: The reality it that your dog will be excited and may accidentally bite you. Our goal is to try and prevent those accidents so you don't get hurt. One way to do that is to know when and how to re-grip the rope. As your dog's mouth gets closer to your hands, you will want to re-grip to avoid getting bit. See below for how to re-grip during play.
Notice how Max's mouth is getting close to my hand, this is my cue to re-grip so I can avoid him biting my hand by accident.
I grab the other end of the rope with my other hand and am now pulling on the rope from both ends.
Then I let go of the rope with the hand that is close to his mouth so his mouth is far away from my hand again.
Stay Low: If we lift the rope up and swing it over our dog's head, your dog is quite likely to jump to get it. Stay low to ground to avoid your dog jumping on you during your session. Not much good or fun will come from your dog jumping around. It will get them more excited, they can scratch you, or they can get you with their teeth while jumping for the rope. We want to keep four paws on the ground!
Step 5: Stop Playing
When you want to stop playing, you need to communicate that to your dog. I recommend using a command like 'All Done' to communicate that you are all done playing tug of war and they should do something else.
Training 'All Done': If you don't have a command like 'All Done' established, this is one good way to practice what 'All Done' means. For me and my dog, 'All Done' means he is stopping what he is doing; that could be anything from chewing on a bone to barking to training. Say 'all done', and when they stop doing something, say "yes" and give them a treat and say "good all done". Help them stop what they are doing by giving them something else to do, usually best if it doesn't involve you!
The most important thing here is to not continue to play in any way. For example, don't throw the rope away from you and expect them to know that means you want them away from you. Put the rope away, and if you need to, remove the rope completely.
You are looking for engaging, safe, and controlled play. If you follow the steps and the tips above, you are sure to reap the benefits of a physically stimulating game of tug of war. Have fun! If you have any questions, you can write them in the comments or reach out to TheTreat Training.