Tug of war can be a fun way for dog and owner or even two dogs to interact, but it is not without its controversy. Many owners shy away from playing tug with their dog because they believe it can make the dog too aggressive. While tug certainly does have an aggression factor, there are also many plusses to this type of play. As with most behaviors, it's something you should be sure to undertake in an appropriate manner in order to get the most out of it.
In fact, a good game of tug-of-war can be a lot of fun for dogs, who enjoy grasping and pulling things. It can be a particularly good way to work off excess energy, especially for highly active breeds like the Australian Shepherd, but you should always play by a very strict set of rules in order to curb the tendency to be aggressive. Also, while it can help to develop the jaw muscles and strengthen teeth, you should choose tug toys for dogs carefully and never play with your puppy while he's teething.
Before playing tug of war, you'll want to get a good tug toy. The most effective toys are soft and easy to grasp. Some people prefer toys with handles but anything that you can hold easily without putting too much stress on your arm or your dog's mouth will work. There are many tug toys for dogs available, from knotted ropes to the unique "Bumi" from West Paw Zogoflex, which is made from a patented buoyant material that is stronger than rope but has plenty of give.
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No matter which type of toy you choose, you need to institute a few basic rules so that play remains safe for you and your dog. First and foremost, your dog should never be allowed to grab the tug toy until you give him permission.
You can use a special command like "Take it!" or "Get it" to initiate your tug-of-war game as you hold the toy out to your dog. If he tries to take the toy before you give the command, say "no" and pull it back.
Once you're playing tug of war, make sure that the dog always lets go whenever you ask him to. Again, you can use special commands like "Drop!" to teach this behavior. You should give the command at regular intervals during the game to ensure that the dog is behaving. Also, if your dog should ever make contact with your skin or clothes, even accidently, then you need to drop the toy and walk way. Making physical contact is never acceptable and should never, ever be allowed.
Your dog may growl and shake his head while playing tug-of-war but this is normal and no cause for concern. If, however, he displays a stiff body, stiff tail, "hard" eye contact, snarling, or raised hackles, these are signs of dangerous aggression that should send up a red flag. At the first sign of these behaviors immediately end the game and walk away. Give your dog an extended break and then try again, later that day or another day.
Though it can lead to hyperactivity or aggression in some dogs, in most cases tug of war is a perfectly safe and healthy game to play with your pet. Just make sure to approach it the right way and have your dog learn and follow the rules. That way you can both relax and have fun with no need to worry!