Tug Of War

Tug-of-war doesn’t cause aggression, it imitates it


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By Karen Fazio, The Dog Super Nanny™


It’s a common myth that tug of war causes aggression. This myth may have come out of the dominance theory camps or from owners who, after witnessing frightening displays of aggression during play, decided it causes aggression. This can’t be further from the truth. Tug-of-war doesn’t cause aggression – it imitates it!

To help the skeptics I decided to video tape three dogs engaging in the game. Two videos are provided (links are available below). Both include lots of snarling, head shaking and barking – from the dog who gets left out. The three players have their own unique ways they play the game. The players are Shea (far left), Kelby (center), and Champ (right).

In the photo of the three dogs Shea (left) enjoys lots of snarling and growling during game play. Champ (far right) is flexible and gives him what he’s asking for. Kelby (center) chooses to play the game with little or no growling, and enjoys keep away when he gets the rope to himself. Champ doesn’t engage in growling or snarling with Kelby because growling is not Kelby’s thing. I think the Shepherd is quite flexible in that he will play by their rules so he can enjoy games.

Also present during game play is lots of sneezing, which is the doggie equivalent of laughter or happy pleasure. If you look closely at the dogs eyes you will see that they are soft and almond shaped and each does lots of blinking. All these are subtle signals indicating friendship and peaceful intent and are used to convey that it’s all in good fun and not serious. Ears are softly in a backward position of friendliness.

During both videos you will hear lots of barking from the dog who is left out, or lost his grip in a three-way tug. In the video on the right you will see my hand reach for the toy during a rousing game to give the barking dog his piece.

You will hear me narrate (as best I could) during each game. To dispel the myth that only dogs familiar to each other will not fight over toys, it’s pretty impressive that this Shepherd was only introduced to Shea and Kelby two days prior to taking these videos. How well dogs play with each other – whether known or unknown to each other – in my opinion, depends largely on the dog’s temperament, level of socialization and willingness and flexibility to play at the energy level of those he’s playing with at the time, without losing control of itself. Tug-of-War can help raise self-esteem levels, provide an outlet for frustration as well as an excellent source of exercise.

An interesting observation is how Champ makes eye contact with me several times during each game. I assure him he’s doing a great job and I encourage him to continue play. Champ is recovering from the sudden death of his owner. Read more about Champ’s story and his availability for adoption at the end of this story.


Photos/Videos by The Dog Super Nanny™ Tug of war does not cause aggression, it imitates it.


More information on tug-of war

According to the opinion of experts such as Jean Donaldson the game is one of cooperation, not competition and represents a symbolic re-enactment of two dogs who hunt for prey, catch it and then grab each end of it to tear it in two pieces so each can have their share. It’s not a game of competition, and it certainly does not encourage aggressive behavior.

Those in the dominance theory camps may warn owners that they must win the game every time. Hogwash! Let me put it to you this way … If you were to play a game that you lost at every time you played, would you be interested in engaging in that game any longer? No! This is why I detest gambling. I never win, so I don’t enjoy it. This game is no fun without a partner to play with. Winning is actually losing.

If, however, you have a dog with resource guarding issues or has health reasons why tugging with the teeth may be unhealthy then this may not be an appropriate game to introduce to your dog. If, however, your dog does not have behavioral or medical issues such then it’s perfectly safe and healthy to play.

Tug of war can be a great way for your dog to get exercise, provides an outlet for frustration and behaviors such as growling, tearing, pulling, biting and more. This is not a game that comes without rules. In fact there are many rules my dogs must comply with when engaging in this activity. They mustn’t jump to get a better grip, they mustn’t make contact with human skin and if the rope comes loose from their mouth they must sit in order to play again, not lunge for it.

To teach my rules I purchased a very large rope with one knot in the middle. This knot represents the foul zone. If the dog’s mouth goes over the knot the game ends and I walk away for a moment. When they enter my playing area (above the knot) that is considered a foul and I give them an “oh, no” and end the game again. This brief time out lets them know that they mustn’t go over the knot. I created this rule because I wanted to avoid my dogs’ teeth grabbing a finger or hand in their excitement to regain a better grip on the toy.

On the other hand, since I know my dogs love to jump and have a desire to lunge for the toy I will dangle it above their heads and ask them to “jump” in order to get it. I do this several times during my game because they love doing it, and rather than smother their natural desire to jump to gain a better hold on it, I encourage them to jump when the time is right. Not every game includes jumping, but if my dog is especially excited I may allow him or her to jump when I say so. This technique is a superb one to use on dogs that have jumping issues. The reason being is that they have learned how to jump on their own at inappropriate times. By playing the game and encouraging a jumper to jump when I say so, it helps the dog gain control over very impulsive behaviors while providing them a positive, controlled outlet for the behavior.

It’s also a wonderful game to teach dogs more lessons in self control when it has its teeth sunk into something. This is particularly helpful for breeds such as the Cane Corso Italiano, American Bull Dog, English Bull Dog, Dogo Argentino and Pit Bull Terriers because I teach them how to release the toy on command. This takes a bit of time and has a learning curve to it, because most dogs don’t want to give it up. During play I will let the dog grab a hold of the toy, it can shake its head, growl or bite down harder.

During play I will introduce the words off or release. I will repeat these words during play. As the dog begins to bite and release the toy repeatedly I say Yes, or good job eat time the dog’s teeth comes off the toy even if the brief release is for the purpose for getting a better grip with the next bite. During this process I coach the dog, continually with yes and good job until he releases it. When he does he gets a jovial good boy and is rewarded with another rousing game. Over time the dog will learn how to reliably off or release the toy on command. Never use this command to end a game. If you do the dog will learn that it is a punishment and be less likely to release it during future games. To end a game you can take a deep sigh or whew, I’m tired and sit on the couch. You can also follow up game-ending with a special treat or stuffed kong to settle them down. Leave the toy laying on the floor and when the dog loses interest in it, put it in a safe place for another day. If you always leave tug toys laying about the house the toy will begin to lose value, much like the many toys now stuffed away in children’s toy chests, never to be played with again.

Some people may be put off by a dog’s growling or snarling during games. This is a natural and fun activity for them to engage in, so long as it does not terrify you. I happened to like it when my dogs growl because they hardly ever growl at anything. When they growl I’ll say things to encourage it such as give me that, I want that toy, or I’ll touch their head, nose or the fleshy area under their chin. Growling becomes louder and so does my laughter. When the dog gets complete control over the toy because I lost my grip and I will say give me that and proceed to chase them around the house in an effort to get it back. Dogs love nothing better than a great game of I-have-it-and-you-don’t, so this is a real thrill and gives me lots of exercise.

If you are uncomfortable with growling and you wish to lesson or eliminate it then you can walk away from the game when the dog engages in the behavior and return a minute later. If you repeat this process the dog will learn that growling or snarling ends the game. But, I try to convince the anti-growl group to allow their dog to let their hair down and have fun with it.

Every game, no matter how enjoyable has rules. Feel free to make your own rules and stick by them. Your dog will learn in short order what behaviors turn the game on and off.

A word about head shaking: Be careful never to shake a dog’s head. This can cause a shaken baby syndrome like injury. The dog can shake its head all he wants, but the human should never shake. One cane jiggle the rope to re-enact the feeling of struggling prey, but never shake.

About Champ

Champ, the German Shepherd recently experienced a high level of trauma at the loss of his owner. Champ has an amazing disposition and is friendly to strangers, children, and small fast-moving animals. He suffers from a severe case of separation distress and I’m working with him on confidence-building exercises involving balancing of his weight, independence building skills with games of concentration and those that provide an outlet for frustration. It’s my impression that Champ is suffering from PTSD due to his sudden loss. It’s my impression that he will eventually be able to spend time on his own once he’s convinced that his home life is stable and he has found his forever home.

Champ is doing exceptionally well and he’s looking for a home with a stay-at-home owner(s). Champ will calmly walk off leash next to your side and check in constantly by touching your hand or thigh with his nose. His favorite place is anywhere his companion is at the time. Champ is 3 years old.

If anyone is interested in adopting Champ please contact Rescue Ridge in Spring Lake, NJ at 732-681-3450. For Champ’s PetFinder profile ,click here.

Karen Fazio, “The Dog Super Nanny TM,” is a professional dog trainer and owner of My Best Friend Dog Training LLC and The Dog Super Nanny TM in Keyport, NJ. She is the co-host of the live radio show, “Thursday in the Doghouse,” on WNJC1360, contributing writer for Inside Jersey magazine and member of the

Karen Fazio, PDT, Association of Pet Dog Trainers; The Association of Animal Behavior Professionals and active Supporter/Friend of Tufts University Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine and Planning Committee member of the Purr’ Pooch Foundation for Animals. She specializes in chronic behavioral issues such as fear, aggression, obsessive disorders, and behaviors related to medical issues.

For more information visit her site at thedogsupernanny.com, or email her at dogsupernanny@yahoo.com. To read more articles like this, as well as information and updates in pet training and pet industry, subscribe (free) to her monthly newsletter by clicking here.

Originally posted and shared at http://www.nj.com/pets/