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I love playing tug of war with my dog. This is partially because he didn't show interest in toys at all early on, and getting him to actually pay attention to a tug rope was a long and often unrewarding process. Thankfully, he is now always excited to have a quick game of tug with me.

I am confused about who should be winning this game. On the one hand, I've read (for example, here) that you should always let the dog win, because it sates their natural prey drive, and encourages them to look to their owner for help in relieving aggression or anxiety.

On the other hand, numerous sources (The Dog Whisperer, for example) say you should never let the dog win, especially if the dog is a dominant breed (bull terrier, ...), because they need to recognize you as the alpha, etc.

So my question is, which is it? I suppose it depends on the dog and its temperament, why we're playing, etc., but I am interested in any pertinent information.

I request no anecdotal answers. I am only interested in scientific reasoning (or lack thereof) behind the claims above.

  • 1
    Quite an interesting question. On the "anecdotal answer" side, I'd avoid ending the game always with the same winner. – Skippy le Grand Gourou Oct 29 '13 at 16:35
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    There is no such thing as a dominant breed... Don't let anyone tell you that there is. It's the dog, it's not their breed. I have a american pit mix who would (and does) rollover on his back for 3.5 month boxers. – jeremy Dec 23 '13 at 14:23
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    @Jeremy I would even go further and say that there are no "dominant" dog at all. In the usual sense of "alpha male" (whatever that means). But some dog can show "dominance" over resource control: food, games, etc. – Cedric H. Feb 12 '14 at 12:07
  • any chance you'd consider changing the accepted answer? The accepted answer is giving very poor advice and could lead to owners having issues with their dogs – Yvette Colomb May 29 '18 at 9:06
  • @YvetteColomb: Done. I changed to the only answer here that cited something other than blog posts or youtube videos. – Steve D Jun 1 '18 at 19:22
10

Tug as Play vs. Tug-Toy as Resource

Unless you are dealing with a dog with resource-guarding or bite-inhibition issues, healthy play between dogs is reciprocal. When playing with humans, the play should also be reciprocal, but the human should maintain some control over when the game starts and stops.

The ASPCA has a fairly thorough overview of tug, but you have to read between the lines a bit to see the twin goals of operant conditioning and resource management at work. According to the article, even when the dog "wins" the tug during play, the human clearly controls the resource:

When you’re ready to end the game, follow the same steps you’ve been using to get your dog to release the toy. When she does, ask her to sit and offer her a treat. While she’s eating the treat, put the tug toy away. Do not give your dog free access to the tug toy. She only gets to enjoy it when you two are playing together.

This is good generic advice, but isn't universally applicable. I play tug with my own dogs all the time, and let them "win" and keep the toy whenever I get tired of playing the game. My dogs aren't resource-guarders, and quickly lose interest in the tug toy when no one is contesting for it, and so the toys get ignored until the next time—or until someone trips over them and decides to put them away.

Dogs come in many shapes and sizes, and each has his own personality and set of drives. Therefore, your mileage will vary.

22

This answer is not correct.

If you have a dominance problem with the dog (which MANY people do) letting the dog win will just exacerbate the aggression displayed by your dog.

The act of playing is a release of energy and aggression, so I don't agree that you need to let the dog win in all circumstances. Personally I don't let my dog win at tug-of-war, and she isn't the least bit less interested in playing because of this.

That being said, I have trained some very timid dogs, and it is beneficial to them to win at tug-of-war, as it increases their confidence.

As with many other things, one answer is not suitable for all dogs.

Edit:

Let them win:

Don't let them win:

Depends (there are a lot of these, I left most of them out):

Now, I'm not asserting that all of these sources are credible by any means, but it gives you an idea that the problem is hardly "solved".

  • I totally agree with this. It's a shame the accepted answer is so upvoted and indeed, accepted – Yvette Colomb May 29 '18 at 9:05
20

If you want the tug of war to satisfy your dog's natural prey drive then it is essential that your dog must always win. The issue of winning in order to show your dog that you are the alpha won't get your dog the benefit he is supposed to derive from the tug of war. As you said,

[...] and encourages them to look to their owner for help in relieving aggression or anxiety.

How will the tug of war help them to look to you for relieving their anxiety if you always win?.

It’s not that you want your dog to want to eat you (obviously). What you DO want is for your dog to associate being around you with the highest levels of satisfaction possible. Now, how satisfying do you think it is to your dog to be flipped over on his back and shown who’s boss? Furthermore, how satisfying do you think those little treats are after you’ve given your dog a million of them? Clearly we need ways to up the ante with our dogs, so that interacting with us leaves them feeling like they just had the best day of their lives…again…and again. And one of the best ways is – playing tug of war. (source).

There are other ways to show your dog that your are the one in control but if you want to play tug of war, Your dog should always win.

Tug of war is supposed to give your dog an outlet for his natural aggresion so that he doesn't end up taking it out on the mailman or on some children passing by, etc. You dog will not be able to let put his whole aggresion if you're the one that always win.

LEE CHARLES KELLY's Article about the myths of tug of war with your dog also says that from his experience with various dogs, your dog should always win and outlines some essential rules to follow.

So, when playing tug of war with your dog, your dog should ALWAYS WIN. If you feel you cannot contain your dog then it is better not to play tug of war with him.

  • this is very poor advice. It teaches the dog that is has dominance over the owner – Yvette Colomb May 29 '18 at 9:04
6

Tug of war is a game I prefer to avoid with dogs, as it is a battle of wills, with a clear winner.

In the case of a dominant dog, never let them win. For some dogs, grabbing at leads and clothing, anything and failing to return it to the owner is a behavior problem, which, frequently, stems from the dog trying to assert dominance over the owner. The problem is, some dogs are just too strong to beat at this.

It is much better to play games, like fetch. The owner is choosing to relinquish the ball or stick. When playing with only one dog, if the dog doesn't return the ball, it's game over, so it's a self limiting challenge over possession.

With submissive dogs, there would be no issue over letting them win at tug of war. However submissive dogs are less likely to play, with any vigor anyway.

There is also the issue of harming the dogs teeth. Depending on the dog's size, age and dental health, combined with a vigorous game of tug of war, a dog can lose or damage teeth.

Sorry to sound like a party pooper, I'd recommend other games, for the reason's you've asked (it does involve dominance) and the others I've mentioned.

  • 4
    The ideas expressed in this answer are the old dominance theory and are not supported anymore by animal behaviorist. – Beth Whitezel Mar 5 '14 at 4:16

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