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I've always loved to play tug of war with my dogs, finding that if done in moderation and selectively, it is a great release for pent-up energy. Lately, though, I've read some articles discouraging the practice, warning it may build up aggression in a dog. What's your take on this?

With my most recent adopted pooch, I'm mixing in tug of war play every couple of days (putting the toy away afterwards, to signal it's mine), and so far, I'm not seeing any aggression building up. I've also found it useful to train the "leave it" command: after a bout of tugging, I slacken the line, say "leave it," and trade for a treat and/or reward with praise when she lets go. I think it's also working well because she's not given to hard pulling--sometimes I have to tease her with the tug/rope toy to get her to start.

Yesterday, while building a tarp setup (for her, to shield her cover patio when the rare SoCal rain comes), she went for the tarp to pull on it. I said leave it, and she stopped short--so she's getting it! (Note: we've also practiced the command while playing fetch.)

What are your thoughts on this?
 
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Nothing wrong with a healthy game of tug with the dog -- as long as the dog understand it's a game...

I've never used drop it or leave it - Gnostic actually put it best - it'll likely generate more interest in the thing you're telling it to drop. Like telling a kid the stove is hot, don't touch it - many get more curious about it.

The major thing for me with tug is the dogs intensity - I watch some owners playing tug with the dog - and the dog isn't playing. The intensity in the eyes, the growl, it's like they are trying to kill this thing, it's mine - you're not getting it. So if the dog locks on to someones fingers or arm (not saying it's going to happen), it'll likely turn into a game of tug.

When playing tug with the pin, I swear he just likes to hear himself growl, sounds like a 2 stroke engine at the red line. Little bit of tug, I'll take the toy from him and throw it, he retrieves, brings it back and game on again. But when I stop the game, he surrenders the toy, surrender being the key word.
 

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I LOVE playing tug. I really, really don't buy into the fact that it builds aggression. I've never seen aggression from any dogs I've played tug with.
Tug is my dog's favourite reward for high energy activities like agility. I like it because there is so much engagement when you play tug. I also let my dog win on occasion to see if there is still value for bringing the toy back (I've never had them opt to not come back for more tug!)
 
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I love playing tug as well. I've never noticed a single bit of aggression. I have noticed that she plays tug differently with me than she does with the kids. She lets go a lot when the kids play and will never give up if she's playing with me haha.
 

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I LOVE playing tug. I really, really don't buy into the fact that it builds aggression. I've never seen aggression from any dogs I've played tug with.
Tug is my dog's favourite reward for high energy activities like agility. I like it because there is so much engagement when you play tug. I also let my dog win on occasion to see if there is still value for bringing the toy back (I've never had them opt to not come back for more tug!)
This is healthy...

This is not...
 

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Playing tug is great interaction and with many dogs a better reward rather than a food reward. I want the dog to attack the tug toy and really display some "attitude", the harder they pull the better. I also believe it helps build confidence in a dog which needs more when you let the dog win the tug game, if they don't win on their own. I prefer to use "aus" as the command for the drop/release it when required rather than "leave it". I reserve leave it as the command for situations such as you described with the tarp because I'll never allow the dog to take items such as the tarp in her jaws. It might seem like splitting hairs to many but I never want my dog to question for a second that the tug toy ever represents a "leave it" item as I want her full intensity immediately on the tug toy.

If your dog loves the tug toy and interaction, scrap the food scraps and use the tug as the reward and lure. Good example shown here in this video.
 

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I prefer to use "aus" as the command for the drop/release
Same reasoning here! I use "Out" for please release the toy and "leave it" for please don't put that smushed squirrel in your mouth. =/
 
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Challenge your dog - put the dog to the test.

Bring the dog into a strange environment - and have a stranger play tug with your dog.
 

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Tug is great, I would go as far to say it is a must do training exercise, but always let the dog win and end the game (a "moment" in the dog's perception) with the dog being allowed to carry the toy away in his mouth. This is called "bite and carry" and is hugely beneficial in building attraction to the toy and to allow the dog to channel it's energy into that, rather than other dogs, squirrels, cats, joggers, cyclists.... you get the drift.

ETA: when the dog does carry the tug toy away praise him excessively!
 

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@esuastegui -- The idea that tug builds aggression is a myth, fortunately. I can sort of see how the myth developed though, as tug does tend to increase arousal. The more excited dogs get, the more likely it is that people find them overwhelming, I think...just think of how many people already feel frustrated when their dogs don't listen, or get rough & jumpy, and I can see why people don't feel comfortable increasing excitement, or mis-read excitement as aggression! My dog is pretty intense, and tugs like a muscular fiend, which is definitely not everyone's cup of tea; I find it pretty useful for training though, and a ton of fun!

In fact, it seems to me that tug brings out a lot of high emotion in humans, which is one reason people get so passionate about how their "rules" are the only right ones. Really, like with any interaction with our dogs, I think the important thing is just to make sure that your dog is learning things you like (and that are a good fit for your dog too, of course). Though I agree that it's useful to have different cues for different behaviors, and to me, "spit it out right now" ("out" or "drop it") is different from "ignore that, please" ("leave it"). If you want to read more articles about tug from an excellent trainer, I think Denise Fenzi has some great posts & videos on her blog (denisefenzi.com).

Mostly, I think it's great that you've found a way to have fun with your dog, and at a game that your dog enjoys. Have fun playing!
 

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I play tug with my guys and use it as a reinforcer. Awsome for sports/performance like mentioned. And no aggression issues here either because of it.

I totally agree with you all on using a drop cue rather than leave it. Personally my drop means "spit it out/let go" and leave it means "do not put that in your mouth and move away." As I do include food and other items they may get at some point (for example dropped food or toys) into leave it training, my rule is they only get it after cued to "leave it" if I actually pick it up a deliver to their mouths. I never allow them to go get a leave it item on their own.
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Challenge your dog - put the dog to the test.

Bring the dog into a strange environment - and have a stranger play tug with your dog.
Not really understanding this...
Those of us using tug as a reinforcer likely do tug in many environments... In public, different training buildings, events, pretty much anywhere and everywhere.
And why another person?
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Not really understanding this...
Those of us using tug as a reinforcer likely do tug in many environments... In public, different training buildings, events, pretty much anywhere and everywhere.
And why another person?
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Ahh, so everyone plays tug anywhere and everywhere with the dog.

why a different person? It can a game changer. Last year, I watched an owner playing tug with her Lab, it was a healthy game. I went over and talked to her - let me try it. The second that toy was in my hand, the dog latched on - fingers and all. I had to surrender, she had to call the dog off. The dog didn't keep pulling out of aggression, I believe it was a stranger had the toy. That's where the rubber meets the road.

I practice this with the pin. I've had friends over that the dog hasn't met. After 10 or 15 minutes, I tell them to go get a toy out of the dogs kennel, don't say anything. It's game on, tug of war with a stranger. I tell my friend to stop and hold - no command to the dog - but the dog lets go. This goes on in different environments.

I've had dogs run up on me if I'm with the dog in the park, grab onto what I have in my hand and it's game on...
 

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Thanks, everyone, for the great information. I'll definitely add another command for release to differentiate from "leave it."
 

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@jagger
I would never let a stranger play tug with my dog. I wouldn't trust them that far, a mistake could be fatal--to the dog. Nope.
I love tug, great game, that said, I'm not gonna freak if I get accidentally nailed, that's my bad--flappy hands, bad timing , innappropriate toy (too small), etc.
Any time you feel the game is going in the wrong direction, it's time to stop, think and adjust your actions (I do this for all aspects of training).
I've never had tug go in the wrong direction with my dogs--it's mutual fun, rockin' good rowdy fun at it's best. @DriveDog I love that video. I could watch Michael Ellis work his dogs all day--Joy in obedience. ME was grinning--fun fun fun.
@gnosticdog -dog always wins and two toys is great advice especially for beginning or soft dogs. Eventually, they can work for it.

I love tug (can you tell?).

Right now, Sonic is too careful/cautious in tug, so no drop it command, though his learning "bring it" after a win.
 
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I don't think it builds aggression either. Energy and excitement, but not aggression. But it also depends on the dog. If there is an aggression concern with the dog, I'd probably pick another game until the aggression issue is address via training. But most dogs, just tend to get too excited and yes it can be a bit overwhelming. Tank can get pretty amped up and I swear he forgets that he's a 60 lbs animal, because he will run through my house and slide across my hard wood floors knocking over stuff in his wake. I see it time and time again with him, Nintendo, and my sister's dachshund/chi mix Tunkin. I called them Hurricane TNT. But yes... Tank can get overwhelming. This is where I stop everything and say... "Calm down Tank, now sit." He usually listens and that's his queue to chill the heck out for a second. If he can't seem to calm himself down, I let him out to go run it off in the backyard. lol
 

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@jagger
I would never let a stranger play tug with my dog. I wouldn't trust them that far, a mistake could be fatal--to the dog. Nope.
This is where I differ from alot of people, I want my dog to be able to interact with strangers - from adults, to kids, to dogs.

There's times i'll sit and watch people as they interact off leash with their dog in the parks, it's fun actually and a good learning experience. People have a rope toy, heavy and throwable. They throw the rope, dog retrieves and brings it back - game of tug and repeat the throw. Once in a while, one sees the dog get distracted - rope is thrown, dog doesn't know where it is.

Now if a stranger goes to pick up the toy to bring it back to you - or whistles at the dog to come and get it - how do you know what the dog is going to do?

I don't like surprises. I'd be mortified if any of my dogs bit anyone whether they meant to or not.
 

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I like my dogs to be able to interact with people as well. And I specifically have trained distractions such as people approaching with something, handing off items including tugs, talking to me and my dogs, holding out/offering food and toys, etc.

but don't allow strangers to tug with my dogs...
People I know very well, know my dogs, and train like I do... Maybe... And that would likely only be my husband and a couple trainers.

I need my dogs to stick with me on and off leash in very close proxity to other people and dogs playing. Tug is our thing and a reinforcer. Don't want a huge reinforcement history of tugging with others as it will likely result in some conflict (My friend is right there with that cool toy we played with yesterday, but I'm working with mom... What to do?) and would prefer avoiding that in my current dogs.
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Challenge your dog - put the dog to the test.

Bring the dog into a strange environment - and have a stranger play tug with your dog.
I actually see this as a horrible idea. Tug should be a game that my dog only engages with me. I use it as a reward when we play agility and I would hate for my dog to see someone walking by with a tug and assume that she can play tug with anyone. Not to mention the liability if she accidentally gets someone's finger while she is readjusting her grip. She's gotten my finger a ton, especially if we are using a smaller tug (I use smaller tugs in practice because I have to be able to shove it into the back of my running pants and run with it).

I believe tug is healthy when the dog has a proven release and can tug in a controlled manner. My dog gets intense when we tug after a run, she is amped from the run we just did and usually we are tugging with a specific toy that she loves (her pocket tug with food/ her chuck it on a handle). She will growl and flail her head, and I encourage it because it's a reward for a good run. But when I ask her to release, she releases.

I've never seen aggression from tugging, but of course I have only had on hand work with this with my dogs. It's hard to believe though that tugging can lead to aggression when 75-85% of people who compete in agility utilize it as a reward. If tugging directly attributed to aggression, I can't imagine so many people would encourage it (including top training professionals).

This is where I differ from alot of people, I want my dog to be able to interact with strangers - from adults, to kids, to dogs.
My dogs have learned to interact with people perfectly fine without having them play tug with people.

Now if a stranger goes to pick up the toy to bring it back to you - or whistles at the dog to come and get it - how do you know what the dog is going to do?
My dog wouldn't grab the toy, because they know better then to grab toys out of people they don't know's hands. And if they did go to grab the toy I would interrupt it with a quick 'Leave it' as that is rude behavior I wouldn't allow. But they more then likely wouldn't because they have never played tug with a stranger. I don't want my dogs thinking it's ok to run up to people they don't know and grab something out of people's hands, even if it is something I was just giving them. What happens if that person is wanting to hurt your dog? Nope. No thanks. Can't trust people.
 

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I also don't let strangers play tug with my dogs. The way some people play tug with their dogs make me cringe, so we will stick to our way. :p
 
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