Pet Care

Teaching Your Dog to Play Tug-of-War

Dog playing tug-of-war outside with a man

Why Play Tug?

Playing tug with your dog can provide a wonderful outlet for her natural canine urges to grab and pull on things with her mouth. You can also use this game to exercise your dog and teach her important lessons, such as how to listen to you when she’s excited.

First Things First: Get a Good Tug Toy

Many dogs will play tug with any type of toy, but most people prefer something soft and comfortable to hold. Try a tug toy made of fleece or soft rope that’s one to three feet long. Toys made of bungee material make great tugs, too. They’re easy on the hands and put less stress on you and your dog. Some people like using tug toys with handles, but beware: dogs also like those handles and might try to grab them!

Basic Tug Rules

Once you find a tug toy that suits you and your dog, it’s important to make a few rules:

  • Your dog can’t grab the tug toy before you give her permission to do so. She must sit or lie down and then wait for you to invite her to play. You can invite your dog to grab the toy by using a special word or phrase, like “Take it!” or “Get it!” to initiate a game of tug.
  • Your dog must let go of the toy whenever you ask her to do so. Teach your dog that when you say “Drop it” or “Give,” she should release the toy. We’ll explain how below.
  • Your dog can’t put her mouth on human skin or clothing while playing tug—even if she does so accidentally. “Missing” and grabbing anything except the tug toy should immediately result in the end of the game.

How to Play

Now you’re ready to start teaching your dog how to play tug.

Step One: Get Your Dog to Grab the Tug

  • Grasp the toy with one hand at each end. Ask your dog to sit.
  • When she does, say “Get it!” and wave the toy in front of her face or drag it along the ground in front of her. Try to get your dog to grab the middle part of the toy so that she avoids your hands. When she grasps the toy, verbally encourage her to play. While you and your dog are hanging on to the toy, move it back and forth, and up and down. Allow the tug session to continue for 10 to 20 seconds.

Step Two: Teach Your Dog to Drop the Tug on Cue

You should NOT shout or intimidate your dog in order to get her to release the tug toy. Just speak in a conversational, calm voice. Different training approaches work for different dogs, so consider the following methods and see which you like best:

  • Before you start a game of tug with your dog, hide a few treats in your back pocket. During play, when you want your dog to release the toy, say “Give” or “Drop it,” and instantly stop tugging. Let your arm go limp, but keep holding the toy with one hand. Then, with your other hand, take out one of the hidden treats and put it right in front of your dog’s nose so that she can’t help but smell it. Most dogs will instantly release the toy to eat the treat. When your dog lets go of the toy, say “Yes!” and give her the treat. Ask her to sit. When she does, say “Get it!” and invite her to play tug again. If you repeat this sequence many times, your dog will eventually learn to release the tug toy as soon as she hears you say “Give” or “Drop it,” and you won’t have to use the treat in front of her nose. Continue to reward your dog with treats when she releases the toy until she consistently drops it as soon as you ask her to do so. When you think your dog has learned the release behavior very well, you can start rewarding her by inviting her to play tug again instead of offering a treat. Note: This method might not work well for you if your dog seems reluctant to play again after receiving her treat. Some dogs are so motivated by food that they’re uninterested in play after they realize you have treats.
  • Say “Give” or “Drop it,” and instantly stop tugging on the toy. Let your arm go limp, but keep holding the toy. Then say “Sit.” If your dog releases the toy and sits, immediately say “Get it!” and entice her to play tug again. If you repeat this sequence, your dog will learn to let go of the toy and sit as soon as she hears you say “Give” or “Drop it.” When your dog consistently drops the toy on cue, you can start to vary how long she must stay in the sit before you invite her to tug again.
  • Say “Give” or “Drop it,” and instantly stop tugging the toy. Put it between your slightly bent knees. Use your knees to clench the toy and hold it stock still. The purpose of this action is to take the toy out of play, which will discourage your dog from continuing to tug on it. When your dog lets go of the toy, immediately say “Get it!” and entice her to play tug again. If you repeat this sequence, your dog will learn to release the tug toy as soon as she hears you say “Give” or “Drop it,” and you won’t have to put it between your knees anymore. When your dog consistently drops the toy on cue, you can start to vary how long she must wait before you invite her to play tug again. You can also ask your dog to sit before giving her permission to retake the toy.
  • Say “Give” or “Drop it,” and instantly stop tugging the toy. Let your arm go limp, but keep holding the toy with one hand. With the other hand, reach over your dog’s head to cover her eyes. Some dogs will release the toy as soon as you do this. If your dog releases the toy, immediately say “Get it!” and entice her to play tug again. If you repeat this sequence, your dog will learn to let go of the toy as soon as she hears you say “Give” or “Drop it,” and you won’t have to cover her eyes anymore. When your dog consistently drops the toy on cue, you can start to vary how long she must wait before you invite her to play tug again. You can also ask your dog to sit before giving her permission to retake the toy.
  • Say “Give” or “Drop it,” and instantly stop tugging the toy. Let your arm go limp, but keep holding the toy with one hand. With the other hand, reach toward your dog and grasp her collar. Gently pull her forward, toward you, and hold her stationary. This makes any tugging she does ineffective. Continue to hold your dog’s collar and wait. Don’t say anything. Most dogs will drop the toy after a few seconds. The instant your dog lets go of the tug toy, say “Yes!” and release her collar. Then say “Get it!” and invite her to play tug again. If you repeat this sequence, your dog will learn to let go of the toy as soon as she hears you say “Give” or “Drop it,” and you won’t have to take hold of her collar anymore. When your dog consistently drops the toy on cue, you can start to vary how long she must wait before you invite her to play tug again. You can also ask your dog to sit before giving her permission to retake the toy.
  • After your dog has enjoyed the tug game for a few minutes, choose a moment when she has a secure hold of the toy and is actively tugging. Then, facing your dog, take one end of the tug toy in each hand. Lift your dog’s muzzle up toward you and say “Give” or “Drop it." If she does not immediately stop tugging on the toy, stop all movement and hold the toy still as you repeat "Give." Then push the toy gently toward your dog. You might even have to walk toward her, pushing the toy into her mouth as she tries to keep the game going by backing away from you. Do your best to keep a static but secure hold on the toy until your dog's jaws loosen their grip. Once you feel your dog’s hold on the toy slacken, ease it from her mouth. The instant that the toy is no longer in your dog’s mouth, say "Get it!" and resume the game.

After choosing one of the methods above, you’ll need to practice the tug-release sequence many times to make sure your dog understands how to play tug properly. Let your dog tug for only 10 to 20 seconds, and then use your cue to ask her to drop the toy. Repeat the sequence at least 10 times per session.

Delivering the right kind of rewards with very good timing will help your dog learn faster. If you’re using the second or third method above, you’ll reward your dog for releasing the toy with a new game of tug. Don’t waste time praising or patting your dog. She may love a good snuggle when the two of you are just hanging out together, but when she’s excited about tugging a toy with you, she won’t want praise or patting. If you use the first method above, your dog has two incentives to release the toy: a tasty food reward and the chance to play again. Right after you feed your dog a food reward, be sure to get the tug game going again quickly so she doesn’t get bored and lose focus.

Additional Tug Tips

  • Remember that you shouldn’t allow your dog to jump forward to grab at the toy before you’ve invited her to tug. If, at any time, she does, say “Uh-uh!” or “Nope!” or “Oops!” Then immediately pull the toy behind your back or over your shoulder so that your dog can’t reach it. If your dog already has the toy in her mouth, do what works to get her to release it again (see options above), but don’t reward her when she lets go. Next time, be ready so that when your dog jumps forward to grab the toy, you can snatch it away before she gets it. This will teach her that she never gets the toy when she grabs at it before you give her permission. Make a habit of asking your dog to sit and wait before you present the toy and invite her to “Get it!” If you’re consistent, your dog will learn that the best way to get you to play tug is to sit and wait patiently until you start the game.
  • If, at any time, your dog misses the toy and puts her mouth on your hand, instantly yelp or shriek loudly—even if it didn’t really hurt. Then immediately walk out of the room (taking the toy with you), and give your dog a brief time-out. Wait outside the room, in silence, for 20 to 30 seconds. After the time-out, return and act like nothing happened. Invite your dog to play tug again, but use a very calm voice so that you don’t overexcite her. (If she’s really hyped up when tugging, she’ll be more likely to accidentally bite you again.) If your dog bites your hand more than three or four times during one play session despite the time-outs, she may have trouble learning to play tug appropriately. If this is the case, it might be a better, safer idea to try teaching your dog to play fetch instead. However, if you’re really committed to teaching your dog to play tug with you, try these tips:
    • Use very long toys so there’s plenty of room for both your dog’s mouth and your hands.
    • Only tug with your dog for a few seconds at a time (less than 10) before asking your dog to release the toy.
    • Try giving your dog a slightly longer time-out. If she misses the toy and accidentally bites you, follow the time-out sequence above, but leave her alone for three to five minutes.
    • Play Zen Tug. Instead of using a loud, playful voice when tugging, talk to your dog in calm, soft tones. Let her provide most of the tugging action. Just hold the toy for her and let her go to town for a few seconds before asking her to drop it.
  • When you’re ready to end the game, follow the same steps you’ve been using to get your dog to release the toy. When she does, ask her to sit and offer her a treat. While she’s eating the treat, put the tug toy away. Do not give your dog free access to the tug toy. She only gets to enjoy it when you two are playing together.
  • Play growling during a good game of tug is fine. You can even growl back! However, if your dog starts playing tug with you but then seems to become aggressive, she may not be playing at all. Stop the game immediately. Just drop the toy and walk away from your dog. Although most dogs can tug with their humans, some start guarding tug toys during play. If you think that your dog might guard toys, avoid playing tug altogether. Watch for these signs that might indicate a switch from play to aggressive behavior:
    • 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 see any of the body language above—or if you just suddenly feel uncomfortable—remember to simply drop the toy and walk away. DO NOT try to get the tug toy away from your dog. DO NOT yell at your dog or attempt to punish her in any way. If you feel at all threatened by your dog, please see our article, Finding Professional Help, for information about locating a qualified expert, such as a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB or Associate CAAB) or a board-certified veterinary behaviorist (Dip ACVB) for help. If you feel at all threatened by your dog, please see our articles for information about locating a qualified expert, such as a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB or Associate CAAB) or a board-certified veterinary behaviorist (Dip ACVB) for help. If you can’t find a behaviorist in your area, you can seek help from a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT). However, be sure to determine whether she or he has professional or academic training and extensive experience treating aggression, as this kind of expertise isn’t required for CPDT certification.