For new puppy owners, whether or not to play tug of war with their puppy is a common question! Living with a young puppy can sometimes feel like living with an adorable piranha. They can seem like they’re constantly mouthing and biting- at our hands, our clothing, and their leashes! Giving our puppies outlets for their need to constantly mouth is important and playing tug can be a helpful part of your plan. The old misconception that tug promotes aggression is an incorrect one, but there are some considerations we need to keep in mind so that play is healthy and appropriate.
Here are some tips to keep in mind:
1. Pick your moment.
You won’t want to play tug of war with your puppy while they are in the middle of their “puppy crazies” (this is typically a good time to provide calming enrichment like a filled snuffle mat or stuffed Kong and a cozy place to nap, rather than interactive play). Instead, choose a moment where they are awake and active but not wild and mouthy. *Sometimes redirecting to toys can be helpful, but oftentimes the “zoomies” are a reflection of your puppy being overtired or having pent-up energy to burn. In moments like these, they are rarely gentle in their interactions and playing tug will increase their heart rate, potentially creating more rough play.
2. Keep tug toys long!
Excited puppies rarely make careful choices with their mouths. To decrease the likelihood your puppy will bite your hand rather than the toy, only play with long toys! You can buy and braid strips of fleece to create a nice long tug toy, buy a tug toy from a retailer, or attach the previously mentioned braids of fleece to your puppy’s favorite toys. To check if your toy is long enough when standing hold the toy in your hand and rest your hand straight down at your side. The toy should be touching the ground. If it is hovering above the ground while you’re holding it, it is too short for a tug with your puppy right now!
3. Wait for calm behavior before beginning playing tug of war.
Before you present the tug toy to your puppy, be sure to wait for a moment of calm. This may be literally a second of your puppy with their feet on the ground (without barking at or jumping on you) in the beginning. Eventually, you can ask for more advanced behaviors like “sit”, “down” or “watch me”. After your puppy offers the moment of calm, tell them to “tug it!” and engage them in play. This will teach your puppy that the way to ask for things they really want is to keep their body still and calm.
4. Keep play safe.
We need to be sure to keep the toy low and close to the ground so that our puppies aren’t leaping and launching at their toys, which is not appropriate for growing bodies. Do not shake or lift your puppy off the ground while tugging with them, keep your pulling gentle on the tug toy. When your puppy pulls you, move with them. When they pause, pull them slightly. Add pressure by doing gentle tugs, remove pressure by holding the tug but turning away from your puppy for brief moments. Keep play sessions short (no more than a few minutes at a time) and try to play on softer surfaces (think grass and carpet vs concrete) to keep their bodies safe.
5. Teach a “drop it”!
An important part of playing a safe game of tug is teaching your puppy to “drop it”. When you are ready to ask your puppy to let go of the toy, take a few high-value treats (like little pieces of hot dogs), say “drop it!” and toss the treats on the ground. While allowing them to eat the treats, gather up the toy, wait for polite behavior, then re-present the toy for more play and cue them to play by saying “tug it!”.
6. Ask for support!
If you are attempting to play interactively with your puppy, using long toys, keeping play sessions short, and trading for treats, but are experiencing a high level of mouthing and arousal or complete disinterest in playing with you or toys, it may be time to enlist a professional who can support you with safe interactive play with your puppy.
Tug of war can be a great way to exercise and bond with dogs of all ages. With a little planning and care, tug should be a fun, safe, interactive game, and an excellent option for directing the mouthing and intensity of our young puppies. Long-term, playing tug can be an excellent way to reinforce behaviors that involve fast movements, like coming when called. For more training tips check out this blog.