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Why Do Dogs Like Tug of War: Exploring the Fun and Benefits - PawSafe

Why Do Dogs Like Tug of War: Exploring the Fun and Benefits

Photo of Tamsin De La Harpe

Written by Tamsin De La Harpe

why do dogs like tug of war

When you see dogs tug on a rope or a toy with their human friends, you might wonder why this game is so appealing. It’s not just about physical exercise. Tugging taps into your dog’s natural instincts and is good for their mental health. In the wild, dogs work with their pack to pull down prey, so what seems like a fun game to you is actually mirroring their ancestral behaviors. It’s also about the bond that forms between you and your pet during this playful time.

Research into animal behavior sheds light on the complexities of dogs at play. Tug of war can offer insights into social dynamics and communication between dogs, which can be fascinating to watch. As you two pull back and forth, your dog gets to experience feelings of success and understands the boundaries of strength and control within the scope of play. Understanding these intricate details of play is crucial, and Canine Play Behavior: The Science of Dogs at Play offers a window into the science behind your dog’s love for tugging.

Like other mammals when dogs play, they mimic behaviors of adults. For dogs, this means replicating a lot of hunting and fighting behaviors, such as chasing each other or a toy, play fighting, or pretending to kill something. When a dog plays tug, they are re-enacting the adult behavior of grabbing prey and tearing it apart. It’s also a form of play fighting. 

How well a puppy grips a toy and plays tug when they are young can be a good marker of how well that dog will do in sports that involve protection work, such as biting decoys. In other words, just like scratching the ground, playing tug is a very natural behavior.

Here’s what’s happening during the game:

  • Primal Instincts: By tugging and pulling, dogs mimic the action of capturing prey in the wild; it’s like they are holding on to their catch and won’t let go.
  • Exercise: It’s a workout! Your dog gets to burn off extra energy, keeping them fit and happy.
  • Bonding Time: As you hold the other end of the toy, you’re part of the game. This shared activity helps strengthen your bond with your dog.
  • Healthy Competition: Dogs naturally enjoy a bit of a challenge. Tug of war engages their competitive spirit in a safe and controlled way.

Remember, when your pup tugs on a toy with gusto, they’re not just doing it for the thrill. For younger dogs, this behavior might even hint at their potential for sports that involve similar skills.

So next time you’re in a tug of war with your pet, know that you’re engaging in a game that’s more than just fun; you’re participating in a deeply-rooted canine pastime. Just make sure to teach them to play nicely, so everyone enjoys the game.

Canine Instincts and Tug of War

Doodle dog tugging on a rope toy

When you play tug of war with your dog, you’re tapping into their basic instincts. This game mimics the actions dogs would use in the wild to secure their food. Now, let’s dissect these instincts a bit more.

Understanding Prey Drive

Your dog’s innate prey drive is a key factor in why they enjoy tug of war. This drive is a remnant of their ancestors’ need to hunt for food. When your dog tugs on a rope or toy, it’s similar to how they would pull on prey to dismember it for eating. This doesn’t mean your dog is aggressive — it’s a normal behavior for canines, rooted in their evolutionary history.

Bite Inhibition and Control

During a game of tug of war, your dog also practices bite inhibition and control. Bite inhibition is a dog’s ability to control the force of their mouthing. As puppies, dogs learn to bite gently during play to avoid hurting their playmates and being rebuked. When you engage in tug of war with your dog, they’re not just biting; they’re carefully modulating how hard they bite to maintain grip without damaging the toy—or your hand.

The Benefits of Play

two small dog playing tug with red toy

When your dog plays tug of war, it’s not just about fun. This activity is actually packed with benefits that are good for your furry friend’s body and mind.

Exercise and Energy Expenditure

Playing tug of war is a fantastic way to give your dog the exercise they need. It helps in burning off excess energy and keeps them physically fit. Just like you hit the gym or go for a run, your dog needs to work out too, and tug of war is a rigorous activity that will get their heart pumping.

Mental Stimulation

Your dog’s brain needs a workout just as much as their body does. Tug of war requires them to focus and use strategy to win, providing mental stimulation and keeping their mind sharp. It’s engaging and challenging, making playtime both entertaining and enriching.

Teeth Cleaning

Surprise – playing tug of war can help keep your dog’s teeth clean! The rope toy acts like a toothbrush, scraping off plaque and helping to control tartar build-up. This means your dog is getting a mini dental cleaning while they play.

Confidence Building

Tug of war can also be an excellent confidence builder for dogs. It teaches them that it’s okay to hold onto what they have and to try their best to win. This game can especially help shy or timid dogs gain more self-assurance, making them feel more secure and happy.

Bonding Through Tug of War

two dogs playing tug on toy

When you play tug of war with your dog, you’re doing more than just tugging on a toy — you’re strengthening your bond, building trust, and enhancing communication. Each tug brings you and your four-legged friend closer in a fun and collaborative game.

Strengthening Bonds

The secret to a tighter bond with your dog might just be in a simple game of tug of war. As you and your dog pull back and forth on a tug toy, you’re participating in a mutual activity that many dogs find incredibly satisfying. It mimics the cooperative nature of a pack and creates a shared goal. Success in this game can make your dog see you as a supportive teammate, which in turn, strengthens bonds between the two of you.

Trust and Collaborative Play

Collaborative play is essential in trust-building. Through the game of tug, your dog learns that you’re a fair playmate who respects their strengths and boundaries. As you establish rules like ‘no teeth on skin’ or ‘drop it when asked,’ your dog understands the structure and predictability of the game. This framework fosters a trusting environment where your dog feels comfortable and secure during play.

Communication and Body Language

Dogs communicate volumes with their body language during tug of war. Paying close attention to their cues – like a wagging tail or a bright, eager gaze – helps you understand how they’re feeling. By acknowledging these signals and responding with your own clear signals, like a smile or verbal praise, you’re developing a powerful mode of communication. Dog owners who are in tune with their dog’s body language during play can enhance the shared experience and make it more enjoyable for both.

Tug of War as a Training Tool

Pitbull dog playing on tug toy

Tug of war is not just a game; it’s a powerful way to train your dog. When you use it wisely, it teaches them valuable skills.

Impulse Control

Playing tug of war requires your dog to follow rules and constraints, which is excellent for practicing impulse control. You can teach your dog to:

  • Wait: Before starting, make them sit and wait for your cue.
  • Release: Train them to let go of the toy on command by using terms like “drop it.”

Engagement and Rewards

Your interaction during tug of war keeps your dog engaged and makes training an enjoyable activity. Here’s how you make it rewarding:

  1. Frequent Praise: Say “good dog!” when they follow a command.
  2. Short Sessions: Keep games short to maintain their focus.
  3. Turn-Taking: Let your dog win sometimes to boost their confidence.


Tug of war can be a social activity that teaches your dog to play nicely with others. Remember to:

  • Introduce New People: Let others play under your supervision.
  • Guide Interactions: Calmly step in if play gets too rough.

By integrating these tactics, tug of war becomes more than a game — it becomes a valuable training tool enhancing your dog’s discipline, bond, and social skills.

Choosing the Right Equipment

When you play tug of war with your dog, the equipment you use can make a big difference. You want a tug toy that is durable, safe, and fun for your pooch.

Selecting the Right Tug Toy

To find the right tug toy, consider what your dog enjoys and the size of your dog. A good tug toy should be made of strong material like rubber or a blend of durable fabrics that can withstand the strength of your dog’s pull. The size of the toy should match your dog’s size; smaller dogs need smaller toys, while larger dogs require something sturdier.

  • Materials: Choose a toy made from non-toxic rubber or nylon.
  • Size and Length: Make sure the toy is long enough to prevent your hands from getting nipped.
  • Handle: Look for a toy with a comfortable handle to protect your grip.

Safety Considerations

Safety is crucial when selecting the right tug toy for your furry friend. Always inspect the toy for any parts that could come loose and become a choking hazard. Regularly check the toy for signs of wear and tear, replacing it when it’s no longer safe.

  • No Loose Parts: Avoid toys with small pieces that could be swallowed.
  • Inspect the Toy: Before playtime, look for any damage to prevent accidental ingestion of toy fragments.
  • Supervised Play: Never let your dog play with the tug toy without supervision.

Remember, the right tug toy should make playtime enjoyable and safe for you and your dog!

Playing Tug of War Safely

When you play tug of war with your furry friend, keeping it fun and avoiding aggressive behavior is key. Here’s how to enjoy the game safely.

Setting the Rules

First things first, establish commands like “take it” and “drop it” to start and end the game. This ensures you’re in control and the game only happens with your permission. Remember, tug of war is a cooperative activity, not a battle of wills. Make sure to use a specific tug toy that’s durable and long enough to keep your hands clear from those excited teeth.

When to Play and When to Stop

It’s game time only when you decide. If your dog gets too excited or begins growling, it’s a signal to stop the game. Growling isn’t always a sign of aggression; it can be part of play, but pay attention to your dog’s body language to be sure. And if your dog tries to start the game without an invitation, like bringing the toy to you and not obeying the “drop it” command, it’s time for a break to reinforce that rules must be followed for the game to continue.

Also see this article on if dogs wag their tails when they are angry.

Tug of War for Different Scenarios

When you play tug of war with your dog, the setting and the participants — whether it’s just you and your dog indoors, outdoors, or with another dog involved, can greatly affect the play experience.

Indoor vs. Outdoor Play

Playing tug of war indoors eliminates most outdoor distractions. This allows your dog to focus solely on the game and you, which strengthens your bond. Just make sure you have ample space free of breakables for safety. On the other hand, playing outdoors provides a more dynamic environment, with fresh air and ample room to move, making the game more exciting. Just be mindful of outdoor distractions like squirrels that could interrupt the game.

One Dog vs. Two Dogs

If it’s just you and your dog tugging away, you have control over the game’s intensity and can enforce rules like “let go” more easily. In contrast, tug of war between two dogs must be closely supervised to ensure play stays friendly. Look for signs of aggression and be ready to step in, as what starts as play could escalate if one dog isn’t responsive to the other’s cues to back off.

Troubleshooting Common Issues

When you play tug of war with your dog, sometimes you might hit a snag. If your dog gets too worked up or can’t focus because of other stuff happening around, don’t worry. Let’s work through these common hiccups to make playtime fun and safe.

Handling Overexcitement

Does your dog go a bit wild during tug of war, maybe jumping around all over the place? This is often because they’ve got excess energy to burn. It’s good they’re having a blast, but you don’t want it to turn aggressive. Here’s what you can do:

  • Pause the game: If your dog starts getting too rowdy, stop the game. Wait for them to calm down before starting again.
  • Use commands: Mix in commands like “sit” or “stay” during play. When they follow the command, get back to the game as a rewarding experience.

Dealing with Distractions

Your furry friend might get distracted by pretty much anything — squirrels, other dogs, you name it. To keep your tug sessions on track:

  • Pick a quiet spot: Play in a place without many distractions, so your dog focuses on you and the game.
  • Be more interesting: Keep the game exciting. Change up your movements, use a fun tone of voice, and make sure your dog sees this as the best game ever.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Tug-of-war is a beloved game for many dogs. It’s interactive, physically demanding, and it taps into their instinctual drives. You might have some questions about this common play behavior, so let’s tackle those head-on.

Are some dog breeds more inclined to enjoy tug-of-war games?

Yes, certain breeds with strong jaw muscles like Pit Bulls, Rottweilers, and Terriers often find tug-of-war especially satisfying. The game satisfies their natural instincts to pull and shake prey.

Can playing tug-of-war with my dog lead to aggressive behavior?

Playing tug-of-war with your dog doesn’t necessarily cause aggression. It’s a healthy way for them to expend energy and bond with you. Always maintain control over the game and ensure it stays playful.

Should I let my dog win at tug-of-war sometimes?

Definitely! Letting your dog win can build their confidence and enhance the game’s fun. It encourages them to play more, keeping them engaged and happy.

How long is an appropriate duration for a tug-of-war session with my dog?

A tug-of-war session can last anywhere from 5 to 15 minutes. Watch your dog’s energy levels and stop before they become overtired or if the game escalates too much.

Is it normal for my dog to growl during a game of tug-of-war?

Growling during tug-of-war is often normal. It’s simply a sign they’re enjoying the game. However, if the growling sounds more serious or is accompanied by aggressive body language, it’s time to take a break.

Could tug-of-war cause any harm to my dog’s neck?

Playing tug-of-war properly shouldn’t harm your dog’s neck. Avoid jerking the toy and let your dog dictate the force used. If you’re concerned, consult with a vet on safe play practices for your specific dog.

Final Thoughts

When you play tug of war with your dog, it’s more than just a fun game. You’re giving your furry friend a chance to tap into their natural instincts. They get to pull and wrestle just like their ancestors might have done in the wild. It’s a workout for their body and brain!

Remember, this should be a positive experience for both of you:

  • Use a safe and sturdy toy;
  • Set some ground rules to keep it friendly; and
  • Let your dog win sometimes to boost their confidence.

This bonding activity can help your dog learn to listen and follow commands better. Have you noticed how they watch you closely when you say “drop it”? They’re learning to work with you as a team. Just be sure to keep it gentle and fun, never letting it get too rough or competitive.

So next time you grab that rope toy, know that you’re doing more than just playing. You’re strengthening your bond and providing valuable mental and physical stimulation for your dog. Happy tugging!

Meet Your Experts

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Tamsin De La Harpe


Tamsin de la Harpe has nearly two decades of experience with dogs in rescue, training, and behavior modification with fearful and aggressive dogs. She has worked closely with veterinarians and various kennels, building up extensive medical knowledge and an understanding of canine health and physiology. She also spent two years in the animal sciences as a canine nutrition researcher, focusing on longevity and holistic healthcare for our four-legged companions. Tamsin currently keeps a busy homestead with an assortment of rescue dogs and three Bullmastiffs.

Tamsin de la Harpe has nearly two decades of experience with dogs in rescue, training, and behavior modification with fearful and aggressive dogs. She has worked closely with veterinarians and various kennels, building up extensive medical knowledge and an understanding of canine health and physiology. She also spent two years in the animal sciences as a canine nutrition researcher, focusing on longevity and holistic healthcare for our four-legged companions. Tamsin currently keeps a busy homestead with an assortment of rescue dogs and three Bullmastiffs.