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Tug of War – The Rules of Engagement


tug of war dog gamesPlaying tug-of-war with your dog can be a blast as well as a fantastic way to reward your dog for a job well done. It can also excite some dogs too much and, if played without rules in place, encourage pushy and mouthy behavior. Here are my “Tug of War – Rules for Engagement”:

1) You start the game.
2) Dog plays nicely.
3) You play nicely.
4) You can stop the game – instantly.

1) You start the game.

This means that if your dog grabs your dish towel you do not – repeat do not – play tug. That is a situation where you say: “Sit” then “Out”. If you feel like playing, tell your dog to go get his tug toy, go with him encouraging him, then play with that. We want to target him on that tug toy.

When it is time to play, build a “behavioral gate” around the game. Meaning, there is a sequence he goes through to get to play. My “gate” is “Sit” then “Wait” then “Git It!” The dog I am working with must sit and look at me before the game begins.

Why do I go through this? Several reasons. First: attention to me = good things, second: self control = good things, lastly: I do not want him grabbing and tugging on things. Years ago, 6-year-old, Kaitlyn Hassard, died when the family golden retriever grabbed her winter scarf and playfully tugged. That is rare but that tragedy has stuck with me. The dog, Jessy, was probably just doing what she had been unintentionally trained to do.

Don’t train your dog that grabbing things on your body or in your hands starts a fantastic game.

2) Dog plays nicely.

This means your dog’s mouth stays on the toy and no teeth touch human flesh. At all. For any reason. Dogs are masters of their mouth. Grabbing your hand was not a “mistake”. If a dog tooth hits human skin – any human skin – the game ends. Full stop.

Depending on the situation, the game can start again from the beginning: Sit, Wait, Git It! But play more calmly and check, frequently, to see if your dog is still under your control. (We’ll go over that in a future post.) If you cannot stop your dog, then the game ends and you work on that. This is a fantastic game for teaching your dog how to manage his excitement. It is always a game that is played with your dog. When it is no longer “with” then you regroup until it is. If your dog is struggling with this part, leaving a training tab on him can help.

3) You play nicely.

It can be fun to play really roughly with your dog but your dog is not bionic. You can hurt your dog by whipping his head back and forth or swinging him around. You can also rev him up too much so he is no longer playing with you but starts to play at you. (You’ll know exactly what I mean if it happens.) Pulling straight back is my preference. That can strengthen your dog’s legs and doesn’t risk his neck.

This is especially true for puppies who are still developing: physically and mentally. I wait to play tug until self-control is more established, adult teeth are in and set and bodies have matured. There are plenty of ways to play that don’t involve physical forces being applied to young bodies.

4) You can stop the game – instantly.

When I stop playing, my dog automatically spits out the toy. I learned this from Mike Ellis, a fabulous sport dog trainer. He works very intense dogs and knows how to develop keen play and instant release. He has a DVD out just on tug: The Power of Playing Tug with Your Dog. Tug of war is, as mentioned above, a great way to practice getting control when your dog is really excited. Great practice for you and for your dog.

Ask your dog to stop the game frequently when you play. If he doesn’t then stop play until he does. Take a pause and then play again in a calmer way. Taught properly (and that is for another blog) stopping the game means starting the game so your dog stops instantly and eagerly. If you cannot stop the game then you aren’t really playing “with” your dog any longer. And that means the game needs adjustment.

Using these Rules of Engagement, tug of war can be a fun game and a very useful training exercise, as well. However, it isn’t necessary to life with a dog and if your dog cannot play by the rules, fix that before playing any more.

Now you know.

Author: Sarah Wilson

Sarah Wilson, Dog Expert, offers experienced-based dog info with humor. Author of 8 books, seen on PBS, Sarah knows all about dogs. {Pip} is her rescue dog.


  1. Hi Sarah, when you say “When I stop playing, my dog automatically spits out the toy.” Could you explain briefly how you would train that?

  2. You’d kill me! I let him play-bite me and wrestle for the tug-of-war toy. But I trained him early to be gentle, it just looks loud and agressive but he’s just loud. Only plays rought with me, with everyone else he is very gentle.

    • Hi Oscar – Nope, I wouldn’t. As you say – you taught him early to be gentle and he doesn’t play this was with others so – wrestle on!

  3. Would tug be a good game for a reactive dog who needs lots of practice with self-control? I’ve skipped it but now am wondering if it might be a learning opportunity for our 9 month old dog particularly since he will sometimes try to engage in tug with objects he “steals”. Is there a post about how to teach the components? Clearly, I need to work on out or drop it which is not 100% reliable at this point.

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