The Tao of Tug

Playing tug with your dog was highlighted in a previous article on motivation as a great example of an interactive reward event. But tug hasn’t always been viewed in such a positive light. There has been a real paradigm shift over the years in how working dog handlers incorporate tug into their training.


Back in the day, the mantra for most handlers was “never play tug with your dog”. The conventional wisdom was that it would make them aggressive and possessive. And there was probably merit to that thinking given the general rules of engagement at the time. Tugging was seen as a gateway to aggression work for police and protection dogs.

Then there was a shift on the spectrum and handlers were encouraged to play tug with their dogs, but only if the handler always won. An approach which actually does encourage aggression and possession in dogs.

Happily, we now find ourselves in a time when most modern trainers encourage handlers to play tug with their dogs, and to always let the dog win. Not surprisingly, this approach does not promote aggression and possession. The game is fun and motivating.

But there are still a few things to consider when incorporating tug into your training. You want the dog to strike the toy with energy and to tug vigorously. And if you want to use tug as an obedience reward, the dog needs to have a solid “out” or “drop”, and should bring the toy back to the handler. It’s tough to get multiple repetitions of a behaviour if it takes you ten minutes to get the toy back each time.

When teaching the “out,” it can be easier to immobilize a traditional tug toy, such as those made from rolled jute or other similar rugged material. Some dogs find a ball on a rope more motivating, but it can be difficult to immobilize a ball on a rope when teaching the “out”. You can always start with a tug toy and transition to a ball on a rope once the dog understands the basic rules of the game.

I tend to use a traditional tug toy for more formal tugging (where I’m after multiple repetitions), but a Kong on a rope is SAR Dog Keji’s reward of choice after work exercises like a rubble search or track. Which, after some informal tugging and a toss or two, he gets to proudly carry all the way back to the vehicle.

It’s probably a holdover from the early connection with protection work, but some handlers have a tendency to buy a tug toy that is too big for their dog’s mouth. Hold the tug with both hands, with room between for the dog to bite. Using the web handles makes it difficult to immobilize the tug (I often just remove them). You want the dog to engage with the tug – don’t shove it into their mouth.


If you play enough tug, it’s probably only a matter of time before you get bitten. And it will likely be your fault. The most common handler error is poor presentation. Move the tug in a straight line away from the dog and move your body out of the way. Avoid side-to-side movements and don’t turn your body. Wear gloves.

Once engaged, pull the tug toy away from the dog in short bursts. Resist the temptation to lift or swing the dog. Don’t tug too hard – you want to keep the dog engaged without stressing them out. Keep the sessions short: tug – let the dog win – re-engage – repeat. Ensure contrast in movement between tugging and stopping. I like to keep backing up and have SAR Dog Keji return to me with the tug to keep the game alive.

The beauty of a good game of tug is the engagement and interaction between dog and handler. It can be highly rewarding and motivating for the dog. But be careful not to over-stimulate the dog – as with most things, balance is the key to avoiding conflict.