Can playing tug-of-war with my dog make her aggressive?

by Dr. Ian Dunbar

Many people think it’s risky to play tug-of-war with a dog. And it’s true that, if the game goes too far, it can result in a dangerously out of control canine. But when played intelligently, tug-of-war is actually a great way to practice keeping control over your dog when she’s excited.

To play tug-of-war safely, always follow these rules:

  • You should be the one to initiate a game, not your dog.
  • Always be in control. Only play if you can get your dog to release the tug toy and sit at any time. Do this at least once every 30 seconds. Also mix in short training breaks–ask for a sit, down, stand, down, another sit, then restart the game as a reward.

These rules should apply to anyone playing tug-of-war with your dog.

Teach your pup to play the right way

To teach your dog to let go of the tug toy, stop tugging and freeze for a moment. Say, “Thank you,” and with your other hand, waggle a food treat in front of her nose. When she releases the toy to sniff the treat, praise her and ask her to sit. When she sits, praise her again and give her the treat, then waggle the toy and tell her, “Take it.”

Soon, you can ask your pup to release the toy without a treat in your hand. But keep rewarding her for letting go of the toy by immediately telling her, “Good dog, take it,” and giving her back the toy.

This exercise teaches the dog that it’s not the end of the world if someone takes away her toy because she’ll probably get it back–or get something of equal or greater value in its place. Once your dog figures this out, she’ll be less likely to develop a guarding problem.

When your pup breaks the rules

If your dog ever puts her teeth on you:
Immediately yelp and freeze for a moment. Take the toy and stalk away from the dog for a 30-second time-out. Then go back and ask her to sit, and practice taking and giving back the toy a few times before resuming play.

If your dog tries to take the toy before you tell her to:
Give her a 30-second time-out. Then go back, ask her to sit, and offer the toy again.

If your dog makes the same mistake three times in a row:
End the game–no exceptions.

Once your dog knows the rules of tug-of-war, it’s a great way to burn off energy and teach her to settle down quickly, even when she’s very excited.


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