Dog Psychology

Why Dogs like to Play Tug of War

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"Why Dogs like to Play Tug of War"
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A friendly game of tug-of-war between human and canine companion is simply a game of give and take.  There are eight key reasons why dogs like to play tug-of-war.

Tug-of-war is interactive play.

Dogs are very social and interacting with other dogs or humans means being involved in healthy, structured play. Tug-of-war is a way to be engaged with a dog in a play sequence that has been properly trained. Just handing the dog a tug toy and starting to tug is not a good way to proceed. Training how to play tug-of-war with rules is the key to playing a safe and fun game without incident. Tug-of-war allows for quality time between owner and canine important to development and increasing the bond and relationship. 

A dog's predatory nature needs an outlet.

Dogs are predators and scavengers. They need an outlet for exercising their instincts. The predatory sequence is eye, stalk, chase, grab/shake, and beyond that kill, eat. The game of tug-of-war keeps the sequence at bay, trained properly, to grab/shake. It is a satisfying experience for the dog and can be a very good training tool. A healthy outlet for natural prey instincts is to understand that the key is to play the game with rules

Dogs simply love to "play".

Working with dogs, it is common to hear comments such as, "my dog doesn't know how to play" or "my dog doesn't want to play". It is a clue the dog either wasn't allowed to play or was not taught how to play and lack of play stimulation can be a key reason for the onset of behavioral issues. The domestic dog often doesn't have an educator or teacher other than their human companion once they leave their mother and littermates. Play is the job of the dog owner especially if other dogs aren't present or if older dogs aren't up to the task. All young animals love to play and should be allowed to do so. Tug-of-war is one game to teach a dog to engage safely with their owner and to stimulate a playing frame of mind to last well into their senior years.

Drive satisfaction. 

For high-drive dogs it is and can be rewarding to play tug-of-war. Some dogs have higher drives than others. Genetically dogs display certain drives depending on breed or mix of breeds. Herding dogs love to chase, bark, and are prey driven. Sporting dogs naturally hunt, point, flush. Drives need to be satisfied, whether it is a guard drive, food drive (scavenging), play drive or other natural drive. Tug-of-war satisfies a need to use the mouth in a pulling manner. Satisfying drive can be valuable in training and motivating a dog. 

Canine teeth are made for pulling, tugging.

The national organization of the ASPCA says, "Playing tug with your dog can provide a wonderful outlet for her natural canine urges to grab and pull on things with her mouth." Experts who know dogs and their natures confirm that tug-of-war is a way for dogs to practice behaviors which may no longer be so natural in domestication, such as pulling meat from bones. Tug-of-war played correctly can help satisfy natural urges for pulling and tugging. Dogs naturally do everything with their mouths, like humans would use their hands. Played with rules, tug-of-war is a tremendous predatory energy burner and good exercise for both dog and owner.

Urban Dawgs says, "The game doesn't make the dog a predator: he already is one. The game is an outlet."

A nautral energy outlet.

An energetic dog needs an outlet to avoid behavioral issues like hyperactivity, lack of mental stimulation, boredom and stress. Releasing excitement, play drive, hunting instincts and grab and pull instincts can be channeled through proper tug-of-war play activity.

A source of exercise. 

Exercise is an important part of a dog's day. Tug-of-war can provide mental stimulation at a level that exercises a dog especially if the weather outside doesn't allow for a daily walk.

Allows dog to have fun and goof around in an acceptable manner.

Providing energetic games, exercise, and providing for a dog's needs is an important part of dog ownership. Tug-of-war can meet a dog's need to have fun, goof around and avoid negative releases of energy such as fool around, fight, flight and freeze behaviors. It can keep boredom away.

History of tug of war

With humans, villages used tug-of-war games to settle disputes. Throughout military history humans engaged in games of tug-of-war and so it makes sense people have a natural need to play a game of tug-of-war with their canine companions. There is even a United States Tug-of-War Association outlining a very lengthy history of tug-of-war and humans.     

What does tug of war teach a dog?

It teaches positive awareness of how and when to use their jaws.

It can be a great training tool.

It’s intensity increases focus and builds positive confidence.  

The big payoff is in lowered incidence of behavior problems due to boredom, stress and understimulating activities. 

It is a great reward and motivator in dog sports. 

It allows the human to influence when the game begins and when it ends.

Tug-of-war can be played in all types of areas, locations and durations. 

It is a way or dogs to learn impulse (self) control and how to come down quickly from the game play.

It can be a great tool for a dog to learn to listen when excited.

How do you know if tug of war is being played properly?

If you and your dog are tugging and the dog gets the toy away from you either by accident or choice, meaning you let go, you will know the game has been trained properly because the dog will choose to continue playing the game by bringing the tug toy back to you. 

How do you know if tug-of-war has been trained wrong or that you should not play tug of war with your dog?

The dog will choose to leave and guard the toy, if they get it away from you. This equates to a more serious and even problematic form of the game and one you want to avoid. The fun and safety should be mutual to avoid retaliation, biting, or serious resource guarding.

Concerns with tugging.

There will be some growling in play form during tug-of-war. If the rules are being followed, the body language is proper, and the game is being played properly, you do not need to be afraid of play growling.  If the dog's tail has a soft, wag, side to side, they are playing. Intensity of proper play does not indicate aggression or danger. 

Scientific studies on play and tug-of-war interactions with humans.

A study done by Applied Animal Behavioral Sciences on playing styles in dogs and the cause and effect on human participant discriminates between agonistic behavior defined as conflict resolution or defensive aggression and whether it signifies predatory behavior or not. The study examines the effect of six factors on dog–human play behaviour: the familiarity of the play partner, the type of the game, the dogs’ gender, age and breed, and the duration of daily active interaction between dog and owner. It is a great go-to study for deciding whether to play tug-of-war with your dog or not.

Another study on Social cognition in the domestic dog and behavior in interspecific games like tug-of-war done by Science Direct says, "When the competitions were playful, as indicated by signals performed by the human, the spectator was more likely to approach the winner first and/or more rapidly, suggesting that winners of games are perceived as desirable social partners. When the human did not perform play signals, changing the social context from play to contest over a resource, spectators were slower to approach either of the participants, suggesting that participants in contests were less desirable as social partners than participants in games. If the dog was prevented from seeing the game, it still reacted differently to the winner and the loser, but its behaviour was not the same as after games that it had seen."

Following the rules for playing tug-of-war with a dog is what keeps the game fun and safe for everyone.  It can teach the dog when to start and when to stop and help them to understand what are considered as the dog's toys versus a human's valuables. Dr. Ian Dunbar's "Errorless Chew Toy Training" in his books Before and After You Bring Your Puppy Home is a priceless way to teach a dog to respect which toys are theirs and which objects are not. Safe, fun play with tug-of-war can be beneficial for both humans and their dogs.

More about this author: Diane Garrod

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