Tug games beneficial if they're properly handled

A game of tug-of-war doesn’t promote aggression in dogs if handled properly, says a certified animal behaviourist who debunks the myth noting the trick is in setting boundaries.

“The current thinking is that if tug-of-war and similar games are managed properly, dogs don’t become aggressive,” says Dr. Mary Burch, director of the American Kennel Club Family Dog Program.

“If, for example, the dog did snap at the owner’s hand while playing, this is not as much a result of tug-of-war as it is an owner who did not effectively set boundaries and teach the dog the rules of the game,” she says in an article on the AKC website. 

In fact, Burch says a rousing game of tug can strengthen the bond between the owner and dog. And it can improve behaviour and mood, according to a study out of the University of Bristol quoted in an article in the Tall Tails blog

“Tug games can build confidence and help the dog use up excess energy,” Burch adds, noting that “games such as tug-of-war provide mental and physical stimulation, and they can be used to teach a dog self-control.”

Burch says canine police dogs and athletes like fly-ballers are often rewarded for a good job with a rousing round of tug.

To initiate tug in a safe way, Burch recommends:

  • You are in control, so the game must be initiated by you.
  • If the dog is overstimulated or obsessed, take charge and stop.
  • Train the dog to release on command.
  • Play-growling is OK as long as the tail is wagging. If the dog becomes intense and won’t release, it’s time for a break.

Tugging on your end should be as gentle as possible, and always let your dog win.

Burch suggests the best toys to play tug with are soft and pliable and never sharp (don't use a stick, yikes!).

“A responsible game of tug of war can be a great experience for our dogs. Tug play is physically and mentally stimulating and teaches our dogs great lessons,” says Tall Tails. “When you set up reasonable parameters to prevent overly aggressive behavior, it offers some invaluable lessons, and they’ll love the game when they continuously walk away with their toy.”

Find a great tug toy here