Rules of Tug

By Michael Baugh

Back in the day, trainers used to warn people not to play tug with their dog.  The worry was that it would promote competition and cause aggression.  Thankfully, we know better now!  Tug is actually a cooperative game that can set your dog up to learn valuable life skills.  My dog, Stella, loves it more than any other game… even more than treats.  Tug has taught her impulse control and manners–not to mention sharper attention–and it can do the same for your dog, too.

Like all games, Tug has rules. While they may seem simple, they can be easy to forget. Below is a quick guide on how to play.

  1. Pick the tug toy that your dog enjoys.  They all have preferences.  Some dogs like stinky old ropes, or even rags tied in knots.  My dog?  She loves her KONG Pull & Squeak.  Every time she tugs, it makes a noise. For her, that seems to add to the fun and, for me, I like it because the handles keep my hands away from her mouth (which makes it easier for Stella to follow Rule Number 4).  This is the one toy that she actually jumps for when playing tug – a very cool trick!
  2. Drop on cue.  Most dogs don’t need to be taught to grab a toy and pull.  The real trick is teaching them to let go of it.  I use “drop” but the word isn’t the important part of this rule.  It’s the action.  For new learners, say your “drop” word (just once) and then hold still.  After a second or so, prompt the dog to release by putting a tasty treat on the ground or near their nose.   The key is to say your “drop” word before you show the treat. Soon, your dog will drop whenever they hear the word because they know what’s coming.  Keep reinforcing the desired behavior with food after saying your “drop” word and before long, you’ll be able to set the treats aside.  You’ll simply cue a “drop” and reinforce the behavior with the chance to have more fun.  That’s when you know your dog is a real player!
  3. No grabbing without permission. Tug is a game of stop and start.  Once your dog has dropped the toy, make sure you have it securely in your possession and that they are completely still.  Ask your dog to sit before inviting them to begin another round. Stella isn’t allowed to grab the toy until I say, “take it” but again, the verbal cue is up to you. If they do grab the toy without permission, don’t begin the round. Give the “drop” cue, and wait until you have the toy secured and they are still before inviting them to play again. At first, keep the rounds short (30 seconds or so), before cueing “drop” again and gradually increase the time the better your dog becomes.
  4. Teeth on skin = Game Over.  Tug is a great way to teach your dog to be careful and gentle with human skin.  If your dog accidentally grabs your hand or arm instead of the tug toy (don’t worry, it happens), end the game for two minutes.  Simply walk away.  Your dog will learn quickly not to miss and to only put his teeth on the toy.

If you want your dog to be a world-class tug champ like Stella, here are a few goals to aim for:

  • Drop on the first verbal cue. No matter what.
  • Sit (or down) automatically after dropping.
  • Grab the toy again only on a verbal “take it” cue.  That means, even if the toy is presented, dangled or moved, they don’t grab it until you give the cue.

And one last rule.  Always remember that this is a game.  Smile, praise and laugh.  In other words, have fun!

Michael Baugh CDBC, CPDT-KSA teaches dog training in The Woodlands TX, Houston and surrounding areas.  He specializes in helping dogs with problem behavior related to fear and aggression. Stella is a 3 ½ year old retriever mix who lived for a short while at the Houston Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA).