One of the BEST games to play with your dog is tug-of-war, but you must ALWAYS let your dog win. Let me tell you why and how it’s done.
We’ve already discussed the basic ways dogs interact emotionally with the world, and how working with this emotional interaction channels our dog’s energy into desired behavior, satisfies them at their deepest level, and makes them the happiest dog on the block. Here is one practical tool to help you do just that.
Tug-of-war – where the dog ALWAYS wins
Tug-of-war is a fundamental tool for becoming the center of your dog’s universe. You most definitely should play tug-of-war with your dog, and you should always let your dog win. Always. That means that at the end of the game, your dog ends up holding the tug toy, not you. They always, always, win; no exceptions. (You might have to set aside your own ego for the moment. Go ahead. Be a gracious loser; it’s for the good of your dog.)
Most theories and books on dog training will tell you that letting your dog win at anything, ever, produces aggressive behavior, and something truly terrifying will happen. This does an enormous disservice to dogs. Playing tug-of-war with your dog will boost their confidence, but in a good way; it also encourages the dog to keep coming back to you for more play. Think back to when you were a kid. Did you have an older sibling or cousin or neighborhood kid who beat you at a certain game, every time? How interested were you in continuing to play the game, once you figured out you were never going to win?
First things first – Head OUTSIDE with Two Tug Toys
One essential element of playing tug of war the right way is to always use two identical tug toys. I prefer long toys that allow you to keep your hands out of harm’s way (like, for instance, two lengths of natural rubber garden hose cut from a coil). Having two toys allows you to maintain control over the game, by always having a toy in your possession with which to tantalize your dog. You’ll see how this works in a moment. You also want to play with your dog outside, as the outdoor environment keeps the emotional energy of your interaction from getting too intense. (I talk about indoors vs. outdoors in more detail in this article on my blog)
Choose one of the toys, and tempt your dog – let them bite down on the toy. As they do, notice the joy with which your dog clamps their jaws down. For dogs, biting is an essential way to release stress and tension that they’re accumulating throughout the day. If you experience any stress around your dog’s need to bite, this game is also a great way for you to get comfortable – as I said, just make sure your tug toys are long enough to keep your hands out of the reach of teeth.
Begin the game of tug-of-war in a fairly relaxed manner, and as your dog progresses, you’ll be able to play higher and higher energy games. The goal is to pull hard enough and long enough to challenge your dog, and encourage a stronger bite on the tug toy. After tugging for an appropriate amount of time, with an appropriate amount of energy…let go! You might want to let go when your dog gives a good yank on the tug toy, so they really feel like they won, instead of feeling like you gave up. And don’t forget to praise your dog for playing so well.
Once your dog has won the round (with an allowance of a few moments for your dog to prance proudly around the yard), take out tug toy #2 and start tantalizing your dog with THAT toy. What you want your dog to do is drop toy #1 in order to get toy #2. See if you can get your dog to chase you a bit before letting them get a grip on toy #2 – then have another good tug, letting your dog win before the game gets TOO intense (or your dog gives up). While your dog heads off with toy #2, go pick up toy #1. And repeat.
Don’t play for too long at first, because you don’t want your dog to get bored with the game. It’s much more effective if you can leave your dog wanting a bit more tug, so they will be even more psyched the next time you play. If your dog growls excessively, you are probably escalating the game too quickly and your dog has grown scared of losing, so end it by letting the dog win.
Why it’s important
The game should produce gradually larger amounts of tension, but it always end with the huge relief (and release) of winning. Your dog may act like they’re in a life-or-death struggle with you over the tug toy, but each time, as they win, they will feel more and more confident, safe, and relaxed. This makes an important imprint on them: they experienced this cycle of high-energy tension and relaxation…with you. They begin to understand that they can rely on you to create the space for the fulfillment of their desires, even in a stressful situation. This elevates tug-of-war from a really fun and compelling game for your dog to an important bonding lesson for both of you. You have also gained the confidence of knowing that you can satisfy your dog’s intense desire for the toy-prey.
Have fun, and let me know how it goes!
note: for a more in-depth discussion of how to play tug of war with your dog, visit this article on naturaldogblog.com
Neil Sattin is the author of www.naturaldogblog.com a website devoted transforming your relationship with your dog (and yourself) with a centered, nonviolent, and radically different way of training. He released "Natural Dog Training: The Fundamentals", an instructional 2-DVD set that teaches his methods. Neil lives with his wife, two children, three cats, and, of course, his dog Nola outside of Portland, Maine.