Tug-of-war is one of the most common games played with dogs, but some trainers strongly recommend against it. Others see no reason not to play tug with dogs, so long as the pet parent follows a few rules. I’ll present both sides, then give my opinion.
Opponents of playing tug-of-war with dogs say that this game will encourage dogs to consider themselves dominant over their owners. This argument posits that dogs who win tug-of-war games and take the toy from their owners will then think they can take other things from their owners or that they are in control of the items in the home.
Playing tug-of-war can also risk a bite or nip from over-excited dogs who try to grab the other end of the toy from their owner’s hand. In addition, some dogs that play tug-of-war may refuse to give up other possessions when given a “drop it” or “give” cue.
One study found that dogs who played tug-of-war with their owners were more obedient after the game, whether they won or lost the toy. However, dogs that lost tug-of-war most of the time lost interest in the game, while dogs that were occasionally allowed to win continued to enjoy playing. Proponents of tug-of-war cite this and other studies as proof that tug doesn’t make dogs attempt to dominate their owners.
In addition, many agility and flyball handlers use tug toys to reward dogs for performing well, or in the case of flyball, to encourage them to trade the ball for a game of tug. Since these canine athletes must obey their handlers quickly and reliably in competition, it follows that handlers wouldn’t use tug-of-war as a reward if it made dogs less obedient.
I play tug-of-war with my dog, and I think it’s a great way for him to work off a little excess energy while building a stronger bond with me. He knows a solid “drop it” command, and I have taught him from puppyhood that if his teeth touch me, whatever game we are playing is over immediately. This bite inhibition training has helped him maintain self-control even when playing exuberantly.
The only situation in which I think tug-of-war should be avoided is if the household includes very young children. Kids don’t always enforce rules with dogs, and if the dog is large, they might even be pulled off their feet. I recommend teaching children to use a clicker and treats to reinforce learned behaviors like “sit” and “shake,” rather than playing games with dogs that could cause excessive excitement.