You’ve got a new puppy and are starting to explore and play with them. While there are lots of great games to play with your dog, your pup might approach you with a toy and initiate one of their own without any teaching on your part: tug-of-war.
In fact, tug-of-war is one of the most natural games you can play with your dog. But why do dogs like tug-of-war so much?
Let’s break down the definitive truth to this question and more below.
The Behavioral Reasons Behind Tug of War – and the Benefits
As it turns out, tug-of-war has a lot of behavioral connections to dogs and their instincts.
For starters, tug-of-war is just another fun way for puppies to engage in rough but safe play. Play is very important for puppies and all other young mammals.
Play teaches a wide variety of things, including:
- Bite inhibition or how to control bite strength
- How to communicate with other animals or people
- How to read the body language of other pups/pet parents
- And more
Since tug-of-war is a physical way to express energy and play with others, it’s only natural that puppies stumble onto this game by themselves more often than not. All it takes is a single good stick or tug-of-war toy, and they’ll get the hang of it in no time.
Next, tug-of-war is an inherently collaborative form of play. While puppies will play with themselves by tossing things into the air or chasing imaginary targets, they prefer to play with their fellow puppies or their pet parents.
Tug-of-war requires another person by definition since someone else has to be pulling on the other end of the stick or tug toy. Because of this, tug-of-war counts as a form of socialization as well as a form of regular play. So, it’s a good thing to play with your puppy because they get two benefits from it: They get to spend time with their loved one, and they get to play and let out some of their energy.
It’s Not Harmful
Tug of war is also not harmful to puppies or pet parents. Puppies will play tug-of-war in the wild because it’s one of the best ways to play with their siblings or parents without running the risk of accidentally injuring the other.
After all, most of the bite strength (or hand strength, in your case) is focused on the stick or tug-of-war toy, not the other player.
It Mimics Natural Behavior
On top of all that, tug-of-war is popular among puppies because it mimics a natural behavior: tearing meat or carcasses apart. In nature, dingoes, wolves, and other canine-related species will eat meat by tearing it off the bones of dead prey animals.
Tug-of-war simulates these motions with sharp yanking and pulling from the shoulders, neck, and mouth. While most puppies don’t try to actually eat their tug-of-war toys, it still mimics this behavior and can serve as an aggression outlet for your pup.
It Strengthens Muscles and Coordination
Lastly, tug-of-war is great for strengthening your puppy’s muscles and coordination. Another big reason why puppies play in general is to get exercise and to strengthen their muscles. Tug-of-war strengthens many of your dog’s most important muscles for everyday activity, for self-defense, and for play, including their legs, chest muscles, neck muscles, and mouth.
If you want your dog to be as healthy as possible, you’ll make sure they get plenty of playtime each day. Tug-of-war is a great playtime activity because it provides lots of exercise (relative to other activities).
So, Is Tug-of-War a Good Game To Play?
Absolutely! In fact, tug-of-war is one of the best games you can play with your dog, bar none.
- Fun for both you and your pet
- Serves outlet for your dog’s extra energy
- Teaches your dog how to control their body and their bite instinct. When done right, tug-of-war can teach your dog that only certain things are appropriate for biting
- Collaborative and a great way to bond socially with your puppy
- And more
What if Your Dog Only Likes Tug of War?
That said, some pet parents find that their dogs have a preference for tug-of-war beyond anything natural. Their dogs may only like to play tug-of-war and may not want to play other common puppy games like wrestling, chasing after balls, or other activities.
This is alright! If your dog has a big preference for tug-of-war, don’t worry. It doesn’t mean that your dog is overly aggressive, that they are a danger to other pups, or that you have to worry about other behavioral issues. It just means your dog has a preference, just like you do.
You have some of your favorite activities, and so does your dog. Depending on their genetics, experiences, or inherent personality, your dog might just simply like tug-of-war due to years of inherited and bred traits.
Still, you can try to introduce your dog to other types of games, and we recommend doing this as early as possible. The more experiences you expose your dog to when they are young, the better they will be at adapting to new stimuli and the more readily they will accept changes in their day-to-day routines.
It’s better to teach your dog to play multiple games in case they ever get siblings or when they socialize with other pups. But even if your dog will play chase or other games with other dogs, they may still always return to tug-of-war out of a personal preference.
How To Play Tug-of-War Correctly
While tug-of-war overall is a great game to play with your puppy, you should be sure to play the game correctly. Tug-of-war, perhaps because it mimics many natural motions and activities for puppies, can lead to the development of bad behaviors if you aren't careful.
Start the Game When You Want To Play
Firstly, you should only rarely (if ever) let your puppy start a game of tug. If your dog sets their tug toy in your lap, consider carefully whether it’s a good idea to start playing. If you set a precedent for your dog starting a tug-of-war game, they might continually put their toy in your lap again and again, even when it isn’t appropriate.
It’s a much better bet to simply ignore your dog when they propose playing tug – then, only play tug when you have decided it’s time to have a fun activity. Some exceptions to this rule include:
- When you are simply hanging out with your dog and letting them choose the activity
- When your dog needs to let out some energy and is clearly trying to do so in a productive way
If you teach your dog that it's only time for tugging when you say so, they won't constantly try to push the game on you and will find some other way to entertain themselves or enjoy time with you.
Use a Good Toy – And Only That Toy!
Next, be sure to use a great tug toy that can withstand significant wear and tear. If your tug-of-war toy is too fragile, your dog might break it up quite quickly and could swallow some of the pieces of the toy. Depending on what the toy is made of, this could lead to a poisoning risk, intestinal blockage, and other problems. Plus, you’ll have to pick up a mess no matter what.
With that in mind, you should consider Wild One’s Triangle Tug toy. This toy has two shapes and textures and is designed for tug-of-war from the get-go. Even better, the triangle part of the toy is made with 100% natural rubber. Plus, it features a reinforced core for extra strength.
It also comes with a rope made with natural cotton and reinforced stitching. Whichever side of the toy your dog ends up preferring, they’ll have a great time and won’t easily be able to destroy the toy during their play.
One more thing: make sure that your dog’s tug-of-war toy is only used for tug-of-war. Don’t try to use a toy for another activity, like a frisbee, as a tug-of-war toy. Your dog may decide that all toys are potential tug-of-war toys if you don't clearly teach them which toys are which.
If you get your dog a Toy Kit, try to teach them which toys are used for tug and which are intended for other games.
Teach Your Dog When Playtime Is Over
Just like teaching your dog that you decide when playtime begins, you should also teach your dog when playtime is over. After a good tug-of-war session of around 10 minutes or so, use a command word like "Stop" or "Play Over" and immediately get up and stop playing with your dog.
If your pup is still very young, they might jump on you and try to get you to continue the game. You should turn away and ignore them until they stop. This teaches your puppy that they can’t beg you for attention, and they can’t change your mind.
It also teaches them that you control when the game is over. When you do this, you’ll be able to teach your dog good habits and prevent them from bugging guests or other dogs when the other party doesn’t want to play tug-of-war.
Don’t Play Tug if Your Pup Is Being Aggressive
There are also some things to keep in mind to make sure you don't play tug when it's inappropriate. For example, if your dog is being overly aggressive by growling, biting, or chewing on things destructively, don’t reward that behavior by playing tug-of-war.
This just teaches them that their aggression is rewarded with playtime, even though you might think that you are providing them with a productive outlet.
The only exception to this is if your dog comes to you with the tug-of-war toy when they are clearly agitated; older dogs may do this when they know they want to bite and tug something and are trying to avoid their negative instincts.
Don’t Play Tug if Your Dog’s Teeth Are Sensitive
Similarly, don’t play tug-of-war if your puppy has sensitive or fragile teeth. This isn’t a problem for most pups, but some dogs can break their teeth or otherwise injure their mouths through the rough action of tug-of-war games.
Of course, your puppy will lose their first set of teeth relatively quickly after you adopt them. If these puppy teeth fall out during tug-of-war, don’t fret; that’s actually a good thing . You’re helping your puppy get through the teething process more quickly.
You may even find that your puppy wants to play tug-of-war more frequently when they are teething. During the teething process, your puppy’s teeth and gums will feel constantly uncomfortable, and they might want to play tug-of-war to relieve the sensation.
Should You Let Your Dog Win the Tug-of-War?
Here’s a pop psychology theory you may have heard of: you have to maintain “dominance” in your relationship with your dog if you want them to respect you. This is flatly false, and the research backs it up.
But this also extends to tug-of-war; if you are engaging in a contest with your dog, should you always win?
Not at all! In fact, it may be a good idea to let your puppy win tug-of-war from time to time. This boosts their ego and increases their confidence in their physical abilities.
But you don’t have to let your puppy play tug-of-war all the time, either. You can try to go for a ratio of 50-50 so you both have fun playing tug-of-war, and you develop your puppy’s mental and physical abilities.
In the end, dogs like to play tug-of-war for all kinds of reasons, ranging from the fact that it simulates hunting behavior to the fact that it’s one of the most natural ways to play and let out energy with their siblings. But no matter what, tug-of-war is an excellent activity to enjoy with your dog, provided you teach them how to play the game nicely.
You should also make sure you get a great tug-of-war toy to share with your pup. In that case, Wild One has exactly what you need in our 100% natural rubber toys, which are BPA-free and durable for tough chewing and tugging. Check out our toys today and the rest of our Wild One online store for other solutions perfect for new dog parents.
Dealing with Normal Puppy Behavior: Nipping and Rough Play | PAWS.org
Tug of War - Good or Bad? | WSHS
Teeth, Teething and Chewing in Puppies | VCA Animal Hospital
Current perspectives on attachment and bonding in the dog–human dyad | NCBI