Rules of the Game: Teaching Tug for Fun and Exercise

It’s hot and hazy outside, and my dogs and I barely lasted half an hour even on an early morning walk. This time of year I get a lot of frustrated dog parents asking me how to help them burn some of their dogs’ energy without actually burning up, and my go-to answer is “Teach them how to play tug.”

Tug is a game that needs some practice and definitely some rules. There are those who believe tug can bring out the worst in a dog, and that tells me that these people are working with a dog who is guarding, not playing, and they haven’t established the rules of the game.

First, find a dedicated tug toy that is kept away except for when you decide that a game of tug is going to happen. It shouldn’t be the dog’s decision. I prefer a toy with a long, strong handle and something easy for the dog to grip on the other end. My favorite tug toy (and my dog’s) is a flirt pole I made from a yard-long piece of PVC pipe, a strong rope running through the pipe, and a squeaky toy tied to one end. This piece of equipment, like a sturdy fishing pole, allows my dog to get the most out of the game while I expend the least amount of effort: I can make him jump up to get the toy, or scurry across the ground to catch it, then I can lengthen or shorten the distance between us as he tugs.

Here is an example of priming the flirt pole (without tug):

No matter what toy you choose, the rules are simple but need to be enforced just like any training. The dog must sit and wait for you to say “Get it!” before he grabs the toy and starts the game. When you are tugging, always go side to side, never up and down, in order to avoid neck or spine injuries for your dog.  As you are playing, you want to randomly ask your dog to “Give” or “Drop it” by completing an object or food exchange. Then your dog must sit and wait for the cue to start the game again.

If your dog gets too amped up and goes for a part of the toy close to your hand or attempts to grab your clothing or a body part, the game abruptly stops with a “Too bad!” and the toy is put away for a little while. A dog that enjoys the game will learn quickly how to behave so that the fun continues.

A long, sturdy rope toy with several knots is great for tug. Toys with grip handles also make it easier to play.

Finally, if someone else wants to play tug with your dog, just make sure they are aware of the rules and willing to play by them. Children should not play tug with any dog unless they are supervised and also familiar with the dog and how the game should go.