How to Teach Your Dog to Play the Game of Tug of War

A German Shepherd grabbing a tug toy with her mouth.

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Do you want to have some fun with your dog?

Playing a good game of tug of war is a great way to bond with your dog and give them some exercise. It can also be a lot of fun for both of you.

Follow these simple steps to teach your dog how to play tug of war. He will be playing in no time!

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Get them to grab the toy

A German Shepherd biting a tug toy.

The first step is to get your dog to grab the tug toy. You can do this by holding the toy in front of them and letting them smell it.

Then wiggle the toy gently to make it more exciting and to entice your dog to grab it. Once they grab the toy, praise them.

Start the tug game

Now that your dog knows how to grab the toy, it is time to start the game.

To do this, simply pull gently on the toy while giving the verbal cue, tug in a happy or excited voice.

If your dog starts to pull back, praise them. If he doesn’t pull back, try gently tugging on the toy again.

Teach start and stop cues

Once your dog seems to understand what they are supposed to do, it’s time to teach them the start and stop cues for tug.

It’s important to teach these cues to help you control the game and make sure it doesn’t get too out of hand.

To do this, say “take it” when offering the toy to your dog. Once your dog has the toy in their mouth say “tug” and start the game.

When you are ready for the game to end, say “drop it” or “let go.” If your dog already knows a drop-it cue, they should let go of the tug toy when you give them the cue.

If they don’t know drop it yet, place a food reward directly below their nose when you say “drop it.” As soon as they let go of the toy, give them the treat. Continue this a few times and then slowly increase the time between their dropping the toy and their receiving the treat.

When the tug session is over, place the toy where your dog can’t get it. This prevents them from chewing it up when you aren’t watching.

Provide positive reinforcement

Using positive reinforcement as you play tug with your dog helps them learn what to do. By praising them when they grab the end of the tug toy, they will learn that you want them to grab onto the toy there instead of close to your hands.

Positive reinforcement also helps to reinforce the behaviors they are using when playing tug. It will also help encourage them to want to play tug of war in the future.

Enforce the rules

German Shepherd showing her teeth while biting a tug toy.

While tug is a simple game to teach your dog, it’s important to have some rules and to enforce them. The most important rule for your safety is to not allow your dog’s teeth to touch human skin.

Some dogs get very excited and carried away when playing tug and may accidentally bite or scratch your hand with their teeth. If this ever happens, that should end the game.

Immediately tell your dog to drop the toy and put it away for a while. Do this every time teeth hit the skin and eventually your dog will get better self-control with where they place their mouth.

This is especially important if you have a large dog with large teeth like Luna. Besides her very large teeth, Luna loves to grab the toy close to my hands. At first, when she was a puppy, she would frequently grab the toy a little too close to my (or someone else’s) hands.

Each time her teeth hit someone’s hands, the game ended. After a few times of this, she got better at not getting the hands.

Besides the no teeth rule, you can set any other rule that seems appropriate to you for your dog. Just make sure that the rule is something your dog will be able to figure out.

By enforcing the rules of the game, you will help your dog understand what is expected of him and make sure that the game is safe and fun for both of you.

Tugging between dogs

A poodle terrier and young German Shepherd playing tug together.

Tug can also be a fun game to play between dogs.

To play tug with two dogs, start by holding the toy and have each dog grab one end of the toy. Once they both have hold of the toy, give the cue to start tugging and let go of the toy.

It is important to watch the dogs playing and not let them get too rough with each other.

If one dog seems to be getting too aggressive, end the game and put the toy away.

Benefits of playing tug with your dog

Tug is a great game to play with your dog because it provides mental and physical exercise. Tug is an excellent way to burn off some of your dog’s excess energy on days that outdoor play is limited.

Playing tug with your dog is also a great way to build your bond.  As you play with your dog, they will start to see you as a fun and trusted partner.

Tug can also be used as a training reward, especially for those dogs who are not as food motivated as other dogs. To do this, just bring out the tug toy for a quick game of tug instead of giving your dog a treat.

This works best for those dogs that really enjoy playing tug.

Tips for playing tug with your dog

Tug is a simple game to play with your dog, but there are a few tips that may make it more enjoyable for you and your dog.

Use a specific toy

A German Shepherd pulling on tug toy.

Use a specific toy when you play tug. This makes it easier for your dog to know that you want to play tug. It also helps reduce the chances of them trying to play tug with anything that makes it into their mouth.

Appropriate tug toys are toys specifically made for tug or rope toys. You can purchase these on Amazon, Chewy, or Petco. You can make your own from old t-shirts with this tutorial.

Get the tension right

A German Shepherd looking at a tug toy.

The key to playing tug of war is to get the tension right. You want there to be enough tension that your dog feels like he is playing a game, but not so much that he feels like he is being pulled.

The best way to find the right tension is to watch what happens when your dog lets go of the toy. If they are able to quickly grab it again, especially higher up, you may want to increase the tension some. The goal is to have it fall away from them when they drop it.

Play low to the ground

According to De Marinis Dog Training and Behavior, dogs naturally keep their bodies low when they are playing tug. By not following this natural behavior and playing higher you could put too much stress on a dog’s spine.

So try to keep the toy at the level your dog chooses. If bending low is difficult for you, you can try using a longer toy. A long toy will make it easier for your dog to be down low while you remain standing.

Let your dog win sometimes

A German Shepherd playing with a tug toy by herself.

It’s a good idea to let your dog win sometimes. If your dog never gets the toy from you they may start to lose interest in the game. By letting them take it, they will enjoy the game more.

When they get the toy some dogs will run off with it and play by themselves for a while. Other dogs will bring it right back to you for more tug.

When you let your dog win, give them a couple of minutes to play with the toy how they want before calling them back to play tug again.

Let your dog do the work

A German Shepherd tugging on tug toy.

Once your dog understands how to play tug, you shouldn’t have to do much other than hold onto the toy.

Let your dog do most of the work, they should be the one doing most of the pulling, shaking, and head-turning. You may have to occasionally move the toy, but your dog should be the one doing most of the work.

Are there some dogs that shouldn’t play tug of war?

Tug of war can be a fun game for most dogs, but there are some dogs that may not be able to safely play this game.

Dogs with neck or back problems should not play tug as it could aggravate their condition. If your dog has any health concerns, check with your veterinarian before playing tug.

Another type of dog that probably shouldn’t play tug is the resource guarder, especially if they resource guard their toys. If you have a dog that resource guards you will need to check with your vet or professional dog trainers before trying to play tug with your dog.

Resource guarding is a serious behavior issue and needs to be treated with care and professional help.

Dogs with aggressive behavior may also be poor candidates for playing tug. If your dog shows signs of aggression they should be treated the same as resource guarders. Discuss the pros and cons of playing tug with your vet or professional dog trainer before trying this game with your dog. They will have the best idea of whether you can play tug with them safely.


Teaching your dog how to play tug of war is a great way to have some fun and bond with your pet.

It also provides mental and physical stimulation to your dog and can be a great training reward for those dogs that enjoy the game.

By following the tips in this post, you and your dog can enjoy this simple game together.

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