Is tug-of-war bad for my dog?

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 StraightShooter: The short answer is: You should play tug-of-war with your dog, it is a must. As long as you respect the best practices mentioned in this article.

Okay, tug-of-war is a wonderful game to keep your dog healthy, to teach him obedience and learn commands, but is it safe?

Well, if you follow these rules, it will. 

Best practices

Rule 1: Move the toy only from side-to-side. Never  up and down. 

Some dogs are playing intensely and pulling up and down could lead to spinal injuries.  

Rule 2: You control the game.

Super important, you should be the one starting and ending the game. Make sure your dog is sitting calmly before you start the game. 

Your dog might see you pick up the toy and get excited.If she lunges at you and tries to take it from you, immediately pull the toy away so she can’t reach it. If she was able to catch it, do what works to get her to release it, but don’t reward her once she gives it. Then, make your dog sit and wait for a minute. The game should start only once you clearly invite your dog to play. 

This will avoid future accidents where your dog could lung at guests trying to initiate a game of tug-of-war. 

Rule 3: Make sure your dog can give up the toy at any time.

Associate the command of giving the toy with a particular signal and a gesture. 

Personally, I use “drop” to make Belle drop the toy to the floor (my gesture is my hand going from closed to open with my palm facing the floor). The other command is “give it” to drop it in my hand (palm under my dog’s mouth facing up).

Let her tug for only 10 to 20 seconds, and then use your cue to get your dog to release the toy. 

Repeat the sequence at least 8-12 times per session.

A good way to practice this is to wave a treat near your dog noise while playing. When her interest moves from the toy to the treat, ask your dog to sit or lie down before rewarding him. Then start the game again. 

Your dog will quickly learn that giving up the toy doesn’t mean that the game is over. And most of the time, she gets something of higher value by giving you the toy. 

Rule 4: If your dog put her teeth on you, stop the game.

Teaching your dog the limits of the game is very important. If she puts her teeth on skin or clothing, even accidentally, stop the game. She will quickly associate this behavior with the end of a fun game and the behavior will go away. 

*A good way to teach your dog that this is a bad behavior and that it hurt you is to instantly yelp or shriek loudly.


Benefits of the game

  • It strengthens the bond between you and your dog.
  • It can build confidence.
  • It teaches your dog self-control.
  • It can be used as a wonderful reward when your dog listens to your commands.
  • It’s a great way to leave your dog exhausted and happy.




Will it ruin your dog’s teeth?

The answer is no, EXCEPT for puppies. You have to be careful when you play tug-of-war with puppies. The exact periods can vary, but from 12weeks to 6months, your puppy will lose her deciduous teeth and the adult teeth will come out. Plus, your puppy’s jaws are not fully matured. 

During this period, you should avoid playing tug-of-war.

Should you let your dog win the tug-of-war?

It all depends on your dog’s willingness to give it back. If she will come back once she won to play again, it can’t hurt to let her win. And AKC expert, Anna Burke, says that your dog should ALWAYS win tug-of-war because it helps build your dog’s confidence.


Be aware of

Your dog’s body language during the game. Some dogs become possessive with the toy and start guarding it. 

If your dog is guarding toys, then tug-of-war is not the game for her.


Here are the signs that the game is becoming unwholesome: 

  • A stiff body
  • A stiff tail, sometimes raised high in the air
  • “Hard” eye contact (prolonged staring without blinking)
  • Snarling (lifting or wrinkling the lips while growling)
  • Raised hackles (fur) on the back of the neck or along your dog’s spine


If you acknowledge any of these behaviors and feel uncomfortable, simply drop the toy and go away. Don’t try to get the toy or to punish her by yelling. 

If you are scared of your dog, try contacting a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists.




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