Over the years pet many owners have developed a fear of playing tug with their dogs. This is because of the misconception that playing tug will result in a dominant and even aggressive dog. People also believe that tug teaches dogs to play roughly and can even result in teaching dogs to bite.

In all actuality this could occur, but the more than likely your dog could benefit greatly from playing tug. The key factor is that the game should be controlled. Teaching your dog to play a controlled game of tug will help reinforce your bond as well as your role as pack leader. Controlled tug can provide your dog mental stimulation as well as teach him impulse control. Dogs instinctually want to tug so this game provides a good natural outlet for them and often provides a good source of motivation. If played correctly, controlled tug can build a shy dog’s confidence level. It can also teach an over reactive dog to calm down after a high level of stimulation.

The best way to teach controlled tug is to back-chain the behavior. Back chaining consists of teaching the animal the final behavior first and then working backwards until we reach the initial behavior. Since looking calmly at the toy would be the final behavior in controlled tug we will start here first.

Start by showing your dog a soft tug toy. Give them a reward for looking calmly at the toy. If your dog becomes instantly excited at the site of the toy you should try using an older less interesting toy or something your dog wouldn’t consider a toy such as an old knotted rag. Holding the toy completely still show the dog a toy and instantly hand him a treat. The moment the dog finishes the treat hand him another before he can become excited about the toy. Repeat this 5-10 times slowly spacing out the treats so the dog has more time to look at the toy before being rewarded for being calm. Repeat this in multiple locations so that the dog generalizes the calm behavior. This can be done over several sessions. Once your dog can calmly look at the toy in several locations you have completed stage one. Breaks should be taking between each stage. A break can be 15 minutes or a few hours. Remember dogs learn fastest with short frequent training sessions.

To start stage two place the toy closer to his nose and shake it a little. If your dog touches the toy hand him a treat. If your dog puts the toy in his mouth gently pull back for 1-3 seconds while praising him, before handing him a treat. Repeat this 5-10 times in multiple locations so that he generalizes the behavior of calmly pulling on the toy. If your dog will not put the toy in his mouth try becoming more animated with the toy. Place the toy on the ground near him and slowly drag it away from him. When your dog bites onto the toy praise him while the toy is in his mouth, but prior to giving him the reward. If your dog will not release the toy when you show him a treat either find another treat he desires more or try swapping the toy with a second toy. This second toy would be his reward.

Once the dog learns to tug calmly for a few seconds and then release the toy you can move onto stage three and teach him commands. It is easiest to teach one command at a time. Show the dog the toy and let him tug for 1-3 seconds. Then show him his reward. When he lets go of the toy say “give” and then hand him the reward. It is important to say “give” as the dog is letting go or just after. This is so the dog learns the word. If you say “give” while the dog is holding onto the toy “give” will actually mean tug to your dog. Repeat this 5-10 times. Then say “give” prior to showing the dog his reward. If he releases the toy praise him and hand him the reward. If he does not release the toy show him the reward and then pair the action of letting go of the toy with the word “give” 5-10 more times prior to testing the command again.

Once the dog understands the word “give” means to release the toy you can teach him that “tug” means to grab on to the toy. This will help prevent your dog from grabbing the toy out of your hand prior to you initiating the game. Show your dog the toy and when he grabs it say “tug” and praise him. After tugging for 1-3 seconds ask the dog to “give” and then give him a reward. Repeat this 5-10 times in multiple locations until the dog understands the command “tug.”

Although we want the game of tug to be controlled it should also be fun. Tugging for 1- 3 seconds isn’t very exciting. Once your dog will grab and release their tug toy on command you can move onto the final stage of fine tuning the game. Ask your dog to “tug” for 1-10 seconds. Pull harder and move around more but don’t let the dog get too excited too quickly. After several seconds ask your dog to “give” the toy and reward him. Wait 5-30 seconds until the dog appears to be calm then ask him to play again.

Taking these short breaks in between play sessions teaches the dog to become calm after levels of high stimulation. Continue to play the game in this fashion until play time is over. It is important that you end the game. When you determine to end the game say “game over” and put the toy away out of your dogs reach until the next session. Now you can use this wonderful game anytime you desire to relieve stress from your dog as well as burn energy and work on their impulse control.