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Should you play tug of war with your puppy?

Should you play tug of war with your puppy? A labrador puppy tests out a tug of war toy outside
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Should you play tug of war with your puppy? If you've been pondering this question, rest assured, you're not alone. A lot of new pet parents worry about whether or not tug of war is a suitable game for our smallest canine companions, but when the proper rules are followed, tug of war is both safe and super fun.

Playing with your puppy is one of the best ways to give both their brains and bodies a stimulating workout and while the best puppy toys are wonderful for games of fetch and chase, tug toys are wonderful if you're looking for a plaything that will help deepen your bond with the newest member of your family. 

While a lot of people worry that playing tug-of-war could lead to puppy aggression, if you learn how to play this game correctly, you'll reap all of the benefits without your puppy developing any unwanted behaviors. 

When it comes to learning how to play with a puppy, the way the two of you are engaging together is far more important than what you’re playing. To help you get the most out of this energizing game, you’ll find everything you need to know below to help make tug of war a fun bonding experience for you and your furbaby.

Will tug of war make your puppy aggressive?

If you’ve just welcomed a new bundle of furry joy into your family, then you may have already stumbled across an idea that links a puppy’s early exposure to tug of war with dominant and aggressive behavior later on in life.

While this is a very common story that floats around, it's just that - a story. But, to ensure you're not just relying on our word, we've made sure to back up our comment with research to put your mind at ease.

In a study published in the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, researchers observed 50 dogs and their owners playing tug of war and other rough games and found there to be no impact on the dog’s levels of aggression. If anything, the team found that engaging in tug of war games made the dogs more confident engaging with their owners and deepened their level of attachment. 

What is worth noting, however, is that these results occurred when pet parents started the game and there is a question mark around whether there could be a potential link between tug-of-war and aggression if dogs are the ones to initiate.

If your puppy is already showing signs of aggression, then tug of war is a game you'll want to steer clear of until you've got this issue resolved. But for all other puppies, tug of war is a mentally and physically stimulating game that your little one is sure to love. 

The benefits of tug of war

Should you play tug of war with your puppy? A Keeshond puppy pulls on a tug of war toy outside

(Image credit: Getty Images)

While it may seem simple, the humble game of tug of war has a surprising number of positive side effects that make it a great choice for you and your pup:

  • There’s no better way to bond than with a game that encourages lots of eye contact and lets you get up close and personal with your pooch.
  • It’s a great way to keep your furniture in one piece by channeling your puppy’s instincts to want to chew and wrestle into something that’s not going to destroy your home or belongings.
  • Games like tug of war are fantastic for teaching your pup about rules and boundaries.

And if you’ve been reading up on how to make puppies sleep, there’s nothing better than a high-energy workout before bed to send your furbaby quickly off to the land of nod. Who knows, it might even help you sleep better too!

Teach your puppy to play tug of war

Before you take your puppy outside and get them all excited about a rousing game of tug of war, you'll want to make sure you have the right toy for the job. There are some fantastic rope toys online or you can check out our guide to DIY puppy toys for a few inexpensive options that you can whip up at home.

Once you’ve got your toy ready to go, follow these easy steps from the book Puppy Start Right, authored by vet power couple Debbie and Kenneth Martin to help make sure your puppy gets off on the right paw with your game of tug of war:

1. Always be the one to initiate the game of tug of war with your puppy. If they bring the toy to you and try to get you to engage, walk away.

2. Give the verbal cue ‘take it’ and present the tug toy. Move the tug toy back and forth slightly to get your puppy interested

3. When your puppy has the toy in his mouth, engage him in a gentle game of tug. Reward his interest in the tug – but only verbally at this stage.

4. Stop any tugging and toy movement and freeze. Give the verbal cue ‘drop it’ and follow the command by holding a puppy treat directly under your pup’s nose. Reward with the treat when they drop the toy. Pick the toy up again.

5. Add the cue ‘sit’ or ‘down’ and reward the behavior with ‘take it’ and the presentation of the tug toy.  Including the ‘sit’ or ‘down’ command helps to control your puppy’s arousal.

6. Repeat the above steps. Eventually, delay your presentation of the treat after giving the ‘drop it’ cue.

7. When the game is finished, place the tug toy out of sight and reach of your puppy.

If you have young children in your family, we recommend that your puppy only plays tug of war with an adult. The combination of your child’s excitement mixed with your puppies can make it difficult to control the game and train your pup correctly. 

5 rules of tug of war

Should you play tug of war with your puppy? A puppy playing tug indoors with his owner

(Image credit: Getty Images)

While playing tug of war with your pup can be a whole lot of fun, there are a few rules that are worth keeping in mind:

1. Remember that your puppy’s jaw hasn’t fully matured yet and they still have baby teeth, so you want to be very gentle with the puling and tugging and keep games short.

2. Always let your puppy win. While people worry that this will cause aggressive and dominant behavior, they will quickly lose interest if they know they don’t have a chance of winning the game.

3. Make sure that you’re always the one saying when to play – never let your puppy initiate as this can lead them to believe they’re in control of your relationship.

4. Don’t let your puppy’s mouth touch any part of you. If they suddenly latch on to your clothing, an arm, or a leg, suspend the game until they’ve calmed down.

5. If your puppy refuses to follow commands, like dropping the tug toy when you ask them to, remove the toy for a day before reintroducing it.

And the most important rule of them all? Have fun!

Kathryn is a freelance writer who has spent the past two years dividing her writing time between her two great loves - pets and health and wellness. When she’s not busy crafting the perfect sentence for her features, buying guides and news pieces, she can be found hanging out with one very mischievous Cocker Spaniel, drinking copious amounts of Jasmine tea and attempting to set numerous world records for the longest ever FaceTime calls with her family back home in NZ.