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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)

The question of should you play tug of war with your puppy comes up a lot amongst new pet parents and we understand why. While play is one of the best ways to mentally and physically challenge a pup’s growing mind and body, some dog owners are rightly concerned about whether this form of fun could have unwanted consequences.

Unlike most of the best puppy toys, which focus on skills like fetching, chasing, and solving puzzles, tug toys are designed to be pulled on, with you holding onto one end and your puppy’s mouth holding onto the other. 

Sounds like a whole lot of fun, right? It is! But if you’ve heard that playing tug of war with your puppy can lead to aggressive behavior down the line, you’re not alone. It’s a common myth that floats around in pet owner circles, although we can assure you it’s just that – a myth.

So, should you play tug of war with your puppy? Absolutely! Learning how to play with a puppy is far more important than what you’re playing together and 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.

Let’s put that idea to rest straight away because it’s simply not true. And we don’t want you to take our word for it either, which is why we’ve looked to science to back us up.

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. 

However, it’s worth noting that these results occurred most often when pet owners started the game, suggesting aggression and dominance may be an issue if the dog is the one to initiate.

While we don’t recommend you choose to play tug of war with your puppy if they’re already showing signs of aggression, for all other puppies it’s a great way to engage their brains and bodies – and it comes with plenty of other benefits too.

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

The first thing you need to do before you can play tug of war with your furbaby is to make sure you’ve got the right toy to play with. You can purchase a tug of war toy online or 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:

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 one of the best puppy treats 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 Rosenberg

Kathryn is a freelance writer with a passion for creating health and wellness, travel and wildlife content. Originally from New Zealand, her nomadic lifestyle has her currently fur baby-less. She scratches her pet parent itch by stealing frequent cuddles with any neighbourhood cat kind enough to indulge her.