Wednesday, May 22, 2013

To Tug, or Not to Tug?

When we first brought Athena home from the shelter, we didn't really know what to do with her.  We knew that she loved to chase balls, so we played fetch with her in the yard.  Soon we realized that Athena also loved to tug and at the time we didn't see anything wrong with a game of tug.

Vintage Athena on her first day home from the shelter with her tennis ball

Will tug turn Athena into an aggressive pack leader?:

As I began to delve deeper into dog ownership and training information, I read so many things that said not to tug with dogs for various reasons.  Some said that tugging would "make your dog aggressive" while others said that "if you don't win every game of tug, your dog with see itself as pack leader."  All of this mumbo jumbo scared me, so we stopped playing tug for many months.

Athena's brand new "Go Ducks!" tug that I recently made for her

Tugging for dog sports:

That is until we started flyball training.  We quickly learned how integral a tug is for flyball as it is with most other dog sports.  Essentially, dogs are rewarded with a game of tug after they successfully complete their "job."  In flyball, Athena is rewarded with a game of tug for successful box work, passing, recalls, and runs.  We rarely use treats at flyball practice, because tug is a HUGE reward for Athena.

Miss Ball Obsessed even gets tennis balls on her tug toy!

Creating a well-mannered, focused, and fun, dog with tug:

One major thing that I've learned from using tug in flyball is that there must be rules to the game for it to be successful.  Athena had to learn to tug on cue.  She is not allowed to touch her tug until she hears the cue "tug."  It was also extremely important that we teach Athena a solid "drop it" command for the game.  This was a challenge for us, because before flyball started, we really struggled with the "drop it" command.  Now, Athena does a solid "drop" and will drop her tug and other toys as soon as she hears the cue (dropping her ball at flyball remains a challenge even though she will gladly drop her ball at the park, however...).

Tug has become a bonding experience for us and is a game that both Athena and us enjoy playing together.  It is a great way to practice impulse control because we ask Athena to get revved up, and then expect her to settle whenever we ask during the game.  This was definitely a struggle for Athena in the beginning, but she quickly learned that if she didn't follow the rules, she didn't get to play the game.  Tug is also a great energy releaser and is a perfect rainy day activity because it really does exercise Athena and get her extremely tired out (especially with all of the mental training that we add in).

Rules of tug:

When we first started teaching "drop" with the tug, I would say the "drop" cue once and if Athena didn't drop the tug, the tug went bye bye until our next tug session.  Five or ten minutes later I'd get the tug back out and try again.  Athena quickly learned that if she didn't "drop" the tug, the game would end as quickly as it started.  She will still sometimes take a bit too long to drop the tug, so now instead of ending the game and putting away the tug, I will ask her to perform a series of commands before starting a new game (for example I might have her do a sit, down, sit, spin, tug) to get her refocused and to remind her that there are rules to the game.

Raring to go!

We also practice the "tug" and "drop" command with many of Athena's toys.  Although she has a couple of tugs that we specifically use for practice and at-home tug sessions, we wanted to make sure that Athena understands that "tug" and "drop" apply to other objects such as her babies.  This has really helped her to better understand the true meaning of "drop."  It is a true miracle that Athena has learned this amazing skill!

Here's a great resource for teaching the "drop" command using food & tug (which we did):

Teach Dog to Drop It / Give by Playing Tug of War

I'm curious, do you play tug with your dog?  If you do, what rules must your dog abide by?


  1. We tug, obviously! Both dogs have a pretty basic understanding of "out" for their tugs, but I'll admit, they could be better. But, Koira has been slowly improving over time with it, so I am not really all that worried. As long as I can get the tug back fast enough to not hold up the next heat in flyball, I'm good!

    Other than that, our main rule in tug is that the dogs need to be aware of where their teeth are. Koira is really good at this, and I have very rarely gotten any accidental grazes from her teeth. Pallo, on the other hand, regrips on his tug a lot more, which makes him nab me as well as the tug occasionally. To combat this, I highly encourage him to target the very end of his tug, so his teeth are as far away from my hands as possible.

    1. Oh yes, I forgot to mention the being aware of teeth rule. That's very important! We don't worry about it too much with Athena, because she's pretty good about it. But like Pallo, she does regrip often. Tara has suggested I wear gloves just in case Athena gets me one of these days, but I still have yet to purchase any =)

    2. My rule for Tempest is: if the teeth touch me, I drop the tug and the game is over. She pouted at first, but the re-gripping and biting has stopped! She bites and holds and I don't bleed. :)

  2. I don't buy too much into the 'tug is a dominance game' theory. I do caution adopters at the shelter where I volunteer to avoid it until they've done some obedience training with their new dog, because the last thing you want is to be "playing tug" with your necktie or favorite shoe or couch cushion...but once the dog has a reasonable grasp of the 'drop it'/'leave it' command, I agree it's a great way to work on impulse control.

  3. Yes! Tess really has very little interest in toys in general (unless Ed has one - then she wants it), so I actually couldn't even teach her "drop it". When we got Ed, we were learly about playing tug - we read the same things! But we quickly realized the benefits we could get. We have the same rules as Athena (and the same ones as the flirt pole). You definitely want to work on the commands you use prior to actually playing the game - we made sure Ed had an understanding of the commands before we added excitement.

    As for the teeth - we have always said "OW" very sharply when we got any sort of teeth (we used it as a part of his bite inhibition training when he was a mouthy little boy). I use the same with our play time, except we recently started ending the game when we got teeth (for a few minutes, then we break it back out) - so he knows that his teeth were on me and it cause the toy to go away.

    We have seen HUGE strides in the pooches' response to "drop it" and "leave it" since pairing it with tug and flirting - a really handy thing if they ever get into something dangerous!

  4. We struggled with Gambit a bit on putting his teeth away as a pup. At 4-6 months, he wanted to cling to sleeves, didn't have a strong drop command, played tug with the couch cover ties, didn't care about us saying OW/ending game when teeth touched him. Because of that he didn't get to play tug for several months. We do now realize that while his adult teeth were all in when we got him, that didn't mean he was 100% done with teething. Once he had good bite inhibition, understood that his teeth were never to graze my arm no matter how gently, and had learned "drop" solidly we brought back tug and he loves it. Eddie is flat out not interested.

  5. I don't see a problem with tug as long as it's done with some boundaries such as knowing whether your dog is getting overstimulated or making sure they know when to drop it and the game is over.

  6. Tug is one of my most favorite games and we play just like you play with Athena. There are some serious rules if I want to have some serious fun :) Once in a while, instead of saying "drop it," mom will say "okay" and let go and I get to run around with my tug toy until she calls me back to play again.

    Oh, I hope I get better so I can play tug again soon!

  7. Loving your blog! I found it today searching for a dog tutu tutorial. I have a boxer/border collie puppy and she is also a "picker" so I'm loving your ideas on here! Are you planning a tutorial on how to make the tug toy above? I would love some directions as Kylie would LOVE that toy!