How to Play Tug of War With Dog [+ Dog Growling When Playing Tug]

It’s a rainy day here, and my Labradoodle Max and I are trapped indoors. No walk or trip to the dog park.

On days like this, you are looking for great ways to burn your dog’s energy indoors

There are plenty of brain games and activities to tire your dog mentally – but an active dog with energy to burn needs something more.

how to play dog of war with dog
Learn how to play tug of war with a dog safely, and when tug of war is BAD for dogs.

Playing this tug of war with your puppy or dog is a popular game that many people enjoy for this exact reason. It burns so much energy! 

You will have a tired pup before you know it!

However, does playing this game with your dog actually create behavior problems? 

Why do people worry about a dog playing tug?

Many people believe playing tug-of-war with a dog is not safe. If this game is played without caution and it goes too far, injury can occur, or the dog may get out of control. 

Dogs often growl and make intense noise while playing which people worry is a sign of aggression.

But if you stick to the guidelines, playing tug-of-war can help a pet parent practice control during rowdy times. It provides them with exercise, and it is beneficial for their teeth.

Here is what we consider before playing tug games with any dog we train.

Why is playing tug of war with your dog is controversial?

Our Oodle Life YouTube channel has a video all about playing tug of war with your dog.

It’s a popular opinion that this game creates behavior problems for dogs. In contrast, others say it builds healthy relationships between them and their owners or playmates.

While there are many different opinions about playing tug of war games with your pet, one thing is sure: you should always supervise these types of interactions. You must do this to avoid any possible injuries that could result in costly vet bills and discomfort. 

Reasons NOT to play tug of war with a puppy or dog

The cons of playing tug of war with your dog are the following four

  • You may be teaching your dog to use pressure and dominance rather than intelligence to get what they want. 
    • This can create behavioral issues down the line if not addressed early on.
  • Playing “tug” also can lead to a dog biting or snapping at you when playing.
    • Your dog may become aggressive or overexcited. If he does this while playing the game, you could accidentally cause injury to yourself, your dog, or someone else in the room.
    • Suppose your pup becomes too excited during a game of tug-of-war and starts biting hard on their toy. In that case, they may sustain an injury from pulling too hard against themselves.
  • Your dog may also become possessive of the toy and try to guard it from other people in the room
    • This behavior is less than ideal for a family pet. We need a gentle pet who will need to play nicely with children and other animals. 
  • It’s also essential to make sure your dog knows when the game of tug is OVER. The game ends when you say it ends and not before. You can practice the LEAVE IT command as you play to ensure they know that the buck stops with you. 
    • If your dog is yet to master these commands, consider other types of play rather than tug of war. The habits formed by misplaying tug of war can be hard to break.

While many dogs enjoy this interactive game, some tend to get overstimulated by it. An overstimulated dog can bite, bark, or display other undesirable behaviors. If this is allowed to continue, the dog can think this is acceptable.

A game of tug is a healthy, interactive way for you and your dog to have fun together, but both the game and the rules must be clearly understood by all parties playing!

how to play tug of war with dog
Simple steps guiding you how to play tug of war with dog

Pros of playing Tug of War with your dog

The benefits outweigh the negatives: Playing Tug of war is a fantastic way for you and your pup to spend time together engaging both mentally and physically while having some fun! It also helps build up trust between an owner and dog.

  • This activity is a top-notch way to tire out a dog with boundless energy
  • The game of tug is also an excellent way to teach your pup to consistently follow some fundamental commands. (LEAVE IT for example)
  • Chewing is fine for dog’s teeth and can help with puppy teething. It can also direct chewing behavior to acceptable times rather than furniture and shoes
  • Tug of war games will not create negative behaviors

What are some other dog games or activities I can do instead of ‘tug o’ war’?

Simple games that tire your dog out instead of tug of war include chasing games, playing hide and seek with treats or fetch with a ball or chew toy.

Hiding treats and encouraging nose work (sniffing) also tire your dog out surprisingly well. Check out the muffin tin game for nose work inspiration.

And don’t forget about taking your pup for a walk, run, or to the dog park! Even 15 minutes will go a long way to tire out your dog.

a puppy sitting on a deck with a tug toy
This puppy LOVES his tug toy!

How to Safely Play Tug of War with Your Puppy

If you do want to play tug with a chew toy or rope toy, here are some steps to consider to ensure a positive round experience

  1. It’s important to have your dog thoroughly trained in the LEAVE IT or DROP IT command before playing tug
  2. YOU are in control -take frequent breaks. By simple pressing PAUSE on the game for 10 seconds every now and then you are asserting that this will only proceed under your rules. The dog must respect any verbal cue we give
  3. Another critical point is that we, the pet owner start the game, don’t let your puppy initiate
  4. Look out for problem signs like snapping
  5. An upset or angry dog may also drop its tail between its legs
  6. Finally, always end on a positive note by giving rewards (treats) for success!

Dog Growling While Playing Tug?

Is it normal for dogs to growl while playing tug of war? Some people may think that this behavior is “uncivilized” and should be stopped immediately. Others might say that they are just being playful.

Growling while playing tug of war is however NORMAL! It is part of the fun. 

Dogs who growl while playing tug are usually just vocalizing what feels like victory – much like how humans yell “Grrreat!” after winning something!

  • Some breeds of dog are more prone to growling and snapping while playing tug. 
  • Those that are likely include terriers, herding dogs (like the Border Collie), Retrievers (and Goldendoodle and Labradoodles), hunting dogs like Beagles, as well as some larger breeds such as German shepherds 
  • It is always a good idea to take your own dog’s breed into consideration before assuming they are aggressive or noisy when they play.

Signs that a dog is actually being aggressive when playing tug of war include : 

  • Seizing and shaking the tug toy violently (normal) but then IGNORING commands (not normal)
  • Barking ferociously over the dog toy or not engaging with the tug game due to being distracted by barking
  • Growling at other dogs nearby while playing is the only real growl to be worried about – this is resource guarding and not a normal part of the game

If your dog is showing any of these body language signs, this would be cause for mild concern. Take a break! Take the toy, get your dog to sit for 30-60 seconds and then resume only once calm

Note: As a dog owner you should always supervise children if there’s potential danger/aggression on display. Just be extra careful to puppy or child don’t come off second best.

a puppy outdoors with a rope tug toy

Should You Let Your Dog Win Tug of War?

Despite popular belief it is OK to let a dog win tug of war games against you. It does not create behavior problems. 

It is simply… a myth. Research shows that the occasional win of this fun game does not make a dog “respect you less” or change the pack’s dynamic.

With that said, I would encourage balance and win more often than not to avoid any hypothetical risk. A dog trainer named Brian (shout out for the emails Brian, always helpful) shared with Oodle Life recently with his thoughts on Tug victories.

Dogs who always “win” at every tug session (in other words, dogs that consistently win every single game) are more likely to show aggressive tendencies towards people or animals when they initiate play in a noncompetitive situation. They believe it’s their role as top dog!

This is not a poor reflection on your dog’s personality rather just an example of the deep prey drive that household animals still posess.

But he emphasized this is only an extreme case where you always let the dog get their way. Be consistent, win yourself sometimes, and do not allow rowdy behavior.