Gail Fisher's Dog Tracks: Playing tug o' war can be a rewarding activity for dogs and owners

GAIL FISHER June 08. 2013 1:26AM

Last week, I responded to a reader who had written about an issue the family is having with their 18-month-old dog. The reader wrote: "He loves to play tug of war and will get excited when you are holding something in your hands (any kind of cloth or blanket item) or when you're putting on or wearing gloves or mittens. He'll jump and try to grab the item and will nip at your hands or body, getting almost aggressive if you try to stop him. He wants to play tug of war, which we won't do, since we don't want to encourage the aggressiveness."

This week, I want to address the last sentence, which refers to a common misconception about playing tug o' war. Some misunderstandings include:

1) Playing tug o' war leads to aggression. It doesn't. However, if your dog is already aggressive, I don't recommend playing tug as it can increase your dog's arousal, which can "drift" into biting, either accidently or even on purpose. If you already have a biting issue, talk with a behavioral trainer about eliminating it.

2) The human always has to win the game. Again, not true. You can either ask the dog to release the toy, or you can let your dog have it, ending the game. Either is perfectly fine unless your dog is a resource guarder (he guards his toys, food bowl, etc.). In that case, don't play tug - as you shouldn't be ... see No. 1.

3) The dog must never initiate the game. There's nothing wrong with your dog bringing you a tug toy and inviting you to play. You have the choice of either playing or saying "not now" and ignoring your dog. If, on the other hand, your dog's invitation to play becomes annoying or obsessive, limit access to the tug toy for only those times that you want to play, and put the toy away at the end of the game.

Having corrected these myths, here are some reasons that playing tug o' war is a good idea:

. Playing tug builds teamwork between owner and dog. Think of it as a cooperative game: It's you and your puppy against the tug toy.

. The desire to play is a primary reinforcer. That is, dogs are born wanting to interact and play. They don't need to be taught to love playing. Another primary reinforcer is food. So that brings us to the next good thing about playing tug: It provides non-food reward. Because play is a primary reinforcer, it can be used as a reward for a job well-done. For example, you can whip out your tug toy and play a brief, enthusiastic game of tug to reward your dog for coming to you.

. Tug can build confidence and overcome fear. A timid or shy dog can become bolder through learning to play tug o' war. Further, a game of tug may be used in a fear-producing situation (such as thunder) to get the dog's mind off what he's afraid of.

. Tug o' war gives a dog owner a chance to teach important lessons. Through play, you can teach your puppy one of the most critical lessons he can learn: to inhibit his bite. Dogs naturally use their mouths in play, and they can learn to both moderate the pressure and to be careful not to allow a tooth to touch your skin. Other lessons the dog learns include self-control, how to handle frustration and being physically handled, and to keep his head when he's excited. He learns to switch "on" and "off" at the start and end of the game, including learning how to give things up on cue ("drop it").

. And finally, playing an active game of tug o' war is a great outlet for your dog's mental and physical exercise, teaching the dog that we (humans) are fun, and that reinforcement (a fun reward) can happen at any time.

The bottom line is that playing tug o' war can be a positive and rewarding activity for both ends of the tug toy. Next week, I'll describe how to teach your dog to play tug appropriately, including establishing the rules of the game.

Gail Fisher, author of "The Thinking Dog," runs All Dogs Gym & Inn in Manchester. To suggest a column topic, email or write c/o All Dogs Gym & Inn, 505 Sheffield Road, Manchester, NH 03103. Past columns on her website.


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