Should I play tug of war with my dog?
Tug of war is one of those topics in the dog world that carries a lot of "baggage" with it. It's been a hotly debated topic for a long time (multiple decades!), and it's all too common for me to meet someone that's not quite sure where tug of war fits into their life with their dog, or if it's a good idea to play it with them at all! This is especially true if the person is concerned that their dog has any kind of behavior issues.
I think a lot of the debate about tug of war harkens back to the old days of dog training, when everything was about making sure your dog knows you're "the boss". Unfortunately, years ago the only real "dog training" on the market was built on the very false assumption that your dog is trying to take charge and that the most important thing you need to do is make sure your dog knows that you're the "pack leader". Inevitably, if you view tug of war through this lens it becomes a very real competition between you and your dog, and you need to make sure that you "win" every time to prove a point and make sure your dog knows that you're in charge.
The truth is that there is no real value behind who "wins" the game of tug of war, and I frequently encourage my students to let their dog "win" and wait to see if the dog takes the toy and pushes it back into their hands for more. This can be especially important if the dog needs some help with confidence building; giving them the ability to "ask" for the game and responding by saying "yes!" can be very empowering for some dogs and one way to provide them with a little more agency.
There's also the question: "will tug of war make my dog aggressive?" Many dogs will growl and become very animated when playing tug of war, and can sound quite serious. But the answer here is a resounding NO. There is no research concluding that tug causes or increases aggression in pet dogs, and in fact, anecdotally speaking, I find that giving a dog the regular opportunity to play tug can really HELP most dogs, especially the ones with behavior issues. If your dog is playing tug with you and growling but their body language is loose/bendy, and they repeatedly ask you to keep tugging with them by putting the toy in your hands, go ahead and keep playing with them!
Some people are very concerned with how animated their dog becomes during a game or tug, and maybe they've experienced their dog becoming so excited that they forget themselves and grab their owner's hand instead of the toy. This a very real concern, and something that can feel scary (understandably!). Luckily, this is something that can easily be worked on with training, consistency, and clear boundaries (read further on to learn more about this!)
So, are there certain dogs that should NOT play tug, or who you should be very careful playing tug with? Yes, these can include:
Dogs with a serious history of resource guarding (this is not to say that these dogs should never play tug, but you want to be very aware of their body language and be able to read if the dog is becoming tense or uncomfortable during the game, and in some cases where the dog has caused serious injury it may just not be worth the risk to try playing tug. This needs to be judged on a case by case basis by an experienced behavior professional.)
Dogs who ramp up quickly and have a difficult time controlling their emotional arousal level (i.e. how excited they are getting). If you have a dog that has a history of playing and then switching into jumping on/grabbing you, your clothes, your hair, etc. because they lose control of themselves during the game, tug may be a difficult game to play and may not be the best option. However, with the guidance of an experienced positive reinforcement pro you can likely make progress on this issue!
Dogs who are playing with children. I typically do not recommend children play tug of war with dogs unless it's a very specific combo (i.e. a particularly old or gentle dog, a very mature middle schooler or older, etc.). I much prefer kids play fetch and work on trick training or scent games with their dogs, as it reduces the likelihood of hurt feelings from the dog missing the toy and grabbing hands, the kid crying, etc.
So, knowing all of this, how can you safely play tug of war with your dog?
Number one, be mindful about what toy you are using. I do not play tug with dogs using any toy that is shorter than at least a foot long, but honestly the longer the better! The more toy there is, the wider the margin of error is for your dog when they regrip on the toy. They're less likely to hit your hand if there is more toy.
If you've tried a long rope toy with your dog and they didn't seem interested, I would instead try something like this furry toy for tugging. It's not uncommon for a dog to be interested in tugging, but not be interested in the classic rope toy, so having something different to offer may do the trick! (Heads up, toys like this will not usually hold up to chewing, so you'll want to only bring this toy out during tug games!)
Number two, start to build more structure into the game, and tug for shorter periods of time at first. The longer your tug session goes on with your dog the more they will get "lost" in the game, so by regularly interrupting the game and asking your dog to use their brain you can help your dog calm themselves down enough to continue making good choices. In the beginning of working on this you may need to use especially high value treats to get your dog to drop the toy and offer simple behaviors like "sit" and "wait". That's okay, use the high value stuff and be amazed at your dog's increase in responsiveness over time as they build this habit!
Number three, make sure your dog has practiced their drop it/out behavior! You want a dog who can relinquish the toy consistently so that it's easier to put these rules into place. If your dog struggles with this behavior, practice with lots of low stakes items in less exciting situations before applying it to tug, and consider hiring an experienced positive reinforcement trainer to help you with this.
Number four, teeth on hands immediately ends the game. This is particularly important if you have a dog that has a habit of "climbing" the toy to get to your hand or who has repeatedly grabbed hands in the past. Playing tug is a great way to build your relationship and burn off steam, but your dog must show you that they're being mindful not to grab you in order for the game to continue. Ideally the above rules will prevent you from having to end the game much, if at all, because it will help your dog be more thoughtful about where they are biting. But if you misread your dog, or your dog gets a little too overstimulated, and they do accidentally grab your hand, immediately release the toy saying something like "oh too bad" in a neutral tone (this is not meant to be scary or punishing! So make sure you say something that isn't scary for your dog, and try to use the same phrase every time), and walk away. Wait a while (something like 30-60 seconds, doesn't have to be a ton of time) and resume the game with your dog (I don't typically like to end the game on a negative note, so I do reengage the dog and then end the game with them having fun afterwards!).
And them's the rules! So if you've got a dog that loves to tug, but you're not sure how to safely play this game while keeping both yourself and your dog happy, try out the recommendations listed here, and see for yourself what a great game tug can be for your dog and you!