In the field of animal behavior, there are many myths circulating amongst those who own or work with dogs. Many of these myths can be harmful or take away wonderful aspects of our pet’s lives. One of the more common myths is that one should not play tug of war with a dog because playing tug can make the dog aggressive. There is absolutely no scientific basis for such a recommendation. This is a great example of people repeating things they hear without any support to validate such recommendations. Part of my job is to educate the families that I work with on what is fact and what is fiction.
Tug of war is a game I frequently recommend people play with their dogs because it is a fun game for the dogs and is game that can be played inside the home. This game can also be used to teach dogs an invaluable skill….impulse control. In order to play this game successfully, certain rules should be followed. First a long rope toy (or a toy that is long enough to maximize distance between the human’s hand and the dog’s mouth) should be used. Second, the dog is taught the responses “take-it” and “drop-it” After that, it is play time!
Many people are concerned because their dog growls during tug and they worry that the growl is aggressive behavior. Many dogs will do a play growl during games. The underlying emotional state for that growl is a happy emotional state, not an aggressive emotional state. This type of growl is safe and okay as the dog is NOT communicating a threat. For any dog owner who is unsure if their dog’s growl is play growl or an aggressive growl, you should consult a trained professional. You can also send a video to me and I’ll let you know.
Are there some dogs where playing tug or any game leads to over-arousal and and an out of control dog?? Yes. This is not the case for the majority of pet dogs. For those people who own such dogs, they need to make sure they teach their dogs impulse control. For some dogs this can be done with certain training exercises whereas other dogs need an overhaul of how they are being managed. In cases where these changes are not enough, other modalities need to be considered. Such modalities include but are not limited to nutritional supplements and medications.
* It is a very rare situation that I advise a dog owner not to play tug.
By the way….tug has nothing to do with being dominant…..future myth buster posts will comment on this.