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Discussion Starter #1
I've read a lot of conflicting information about tug and "rough play" over the years. It seems like I've heard some people say that dogs should never play tug (or never be permitted to "win") because of dominance concerns. That seems like old-fashioned thinking. I've seen a few positive trainers recommend tug with the caveat that the dog should release on cue and keep his teeth off the human's skin. Makes sense. And just now I was reading a clicker training book that recommended not allowing an aggressive dog (operational definition: a dog that has bitten a human under any circumstances) to play tug or wrestle with a human. The rationale given was that both activities (but particularly wrestling) allow the dog to rehearse approximations of biting behavior in proximity to humans, thus increasing the likelihood of biting.

I'm curious what y'all's thoughts are on this subject. Do you think tug is an appropriate game for all (or at least most) dogs? When does it become problematic? Is tug a particularly dangerous activity for aggressive dogs? Are there any other categories of dogs or any other situations where tug can cause problems with training? What about wrestling? I'm curious what experiences you've had with different dogs and what you think about the accuracy of the different explanations that are offered.
 

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My pup is not aggressive, but she sometimes bites when attempting to initiate play. It hurts. I'm working to stop the bad habit but I can tell it's going to take some extra effort of my part. I also play tug with her. She loves it! Personally, I do NOT believe the tug and the nipping are at all related. During tug, my girl never puts her teeth on me. She is quite polite during our tug times.

Early on, I trained her to "out" (drop) her tug toy, by bribing her with a yummy treat. Now, if I say "out" she will drop the toy immediately. We play a bit of tug almost daily and I often let her "win." I think letting her win now and then is a good thing, so she can feel like she accomplished something.

I recently started teaching my dog "take" & "give" (directly giving me the toy in my hand, which I'm finding is much more difficult). During our lesson, I'll sometimes use her tug rope or a toy we can tug. If I say "take" I'll let go when she grabs it. When I say "tug" she grabs and we play tug with me chanting "Tug, tug, tug it, my girl!" I want her to know that there is a distinct difference between "Take" and "Tug." When my girl wins a tug session, I now ask her to "Give." Sometimes she brings it to my hand. Other time she just drops it on the floor. While she has not yet learned the difference between "Out" (aka: 'drop it') and "Give," (to me directly), I have confidence that she will eventually catch on.

Wrestling is a whole other subject. I would not wrestle my girl and have forbidden my adult sons to wrestle her as well. Like I said, she nips to initiate play so I would worry that the body to body contact during roughhousing could escalate to teeth to skin contact -- at least with my dog. I can't speak for how other dogs might react.
 

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for me it's how you use it with any animal what your interaction teaches the animals. so both opinions are true depending on their own experiences in how they used it with the animal to cause the outcome. That had nothing to do with the individual animal they started with. but what the animal learned from their interactions applying it.
 

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I play tug with all my dogs. But I set rules and I guess there's sort of an agreement between us on how we play. I've seen other people have problems playing tug but I think the issue was it was more of a free for all than a set game with rules so to speak. I've had two female dogs that couldnt play together- it caused fights.
 

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Tug does NOT increase "aggression." Tug is a GAME and the dog NEEDS to WIN some of the time. He also needs to know that every time he comes to you with a toy he does not lose it.. but sometimes you play tug and the dog wins. Sometimes he has to "out" (let go). Games of tug can help improve and cement your relationship with the dog. The game is used as a reward in what I do.. even with the old house dog. She will bring me her toy and my "job" is to try to take it. Sometimes she lets go.. and she wants me to toss it and then the game starts over.

I teach the "out" with two tug toys (I use a ball on a rope in training). Dogs are funny animals.. if they have a toy they usually want to take the toy you have. So you show them that if the "out" the one toy they get the toy you have and then you pick up the toy they dropped and game starts over.

Tug is a great thing to use to unload a dog that is stressed. I work to make that tug toy the best thing in the world and then I use it in training and I have used it on walks. Dog exhibits stress because of a dog "over there?" Engage in tug. Dog just came when called? Engage in tug. Dog just got spooked by something? Engage in tug.

Tug can be a reward that redirects a dog's energy and returns focus to YOU and engaging with YOU and improving your relationship with the dog.

Aggression is based in genetics and can be based in fear and defense or it can be based in fight drive or even prey drive. Dog aggression towards other dogs is almost entirely genetic.
 

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And just now I was reading a clicker training book that recommended not allowing an aggressive dog (operational definition: a dog that has bitten a human under any circumstances) to play tug or wrestle with a human.
I can see the logic behind this. Not because tug will make them aggressive, but because dogs can get riled up by a game of tug and it could escalate. I certainly wouldn't want to play tug with a dog who has already bitten someone. It also might not be a good idea to play tug with a tog who is a resource guarder with toys.

Tug is supposed to be a fun game so I guess you need to judge your own dog and see if that is also how he/she seems to interpret it. I didn't play tug with my one dog for the first couple of years we had her because she was kind of a thief - she would steal things and then refuse to let them go. Once she had a reliable "drop it' we started to play tug, but only if she dropped it on cue. If not, the game was over. Now it's one of her favourite games! She always drops it on cue and waits for me to initiate tug again. Of course I let her win most of the time :) These days I'm usually let off the hook. As soon as I start to play tug with her, my other dog comes over and wants to join in, so I bow out and let them tug together.
 

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It depends more on the temperament instead of the dog breed.
My neighbor's GSD is more understanding and calm compared to my dizzy (labrador).
Sometime we hurt their ego and their behave strangely for hours. So, i personally avoid playing tug with my dizzy.
 

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We have 20 toys used for retrieve and exercise. My dog gets to run jump and retrieve these across our living room. We do the entire exercise twice in rapid siccession so it’s a lot of running in a short time. Each has a name that I call out for the retrieve. “Old rope”, new sock and old sock are the tug toys. As she retrieves these she brings them to a dead still motionless stop then outs. The three tug toys get an additional toss to jump and grab then run around. Occasionally we do tug them but she always “wins” . She was not a natural retriever so I had to teach her the exercise step by step. She still does not naturally retrieve strange objects. She will run and inspect them but I have to encourage her to pick them up.
Properly done tug toys are good exercise. If the dog will carry them around like a great pride it’s a good thing and a good release for the dog.
 

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Tug does not increase aggression. Tug increases arousal, which can lead to accidents if the dog is not trained to respond in that high arousal state, if the dog guards resources such as toys (ex. the dog wants the toy, and is not enjoying tug), or if the dog has poor bite inhibition.

It's a staple activity in my household and I encourage almost all pet owners to play tug appropriately with their dogs, if their dog enjoys it.
 

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Discussion Starter #10
Ahh, a lot of what y'all are saying makes sense. Gives some broader perspective on the issue - thanks!

I can see the logic behind this. Not because tug will make them aggressive, but because dogs can get riled up by a game of tug and it could escalate. I certainly wouldn't want to play tug with a dog who has already bitten someone. It also might not be a good idea to play tug with a tog who is a resource guarder with toys.
That makes a LOT of sense. I guess it's like anything else - all depends on context and what the triggers are. I honestly didn't think of resource guarders, lol. I'm a dum-dum. xD

Tug does not increase aggression. Tug increases arousal, which can lead to accidents if the dog is not trained to respond in that high arousal state...
That really clicks (no pun intended). It's not so much that the activity carries over into other areas, but more that it creates...undesirable antecedents? In other words, a situation where the dog's bite threshold might be lower?

Do you think this would also be ill-advised in dogs that are uncomfortable being handled? Like dogs that exhibit a strong startle response to be touched on their back or rump? I would imagine if they are focused on the tug game, they might be less likely to notice a hand approaching. Although I will confess that I sometimes find it hard to distinguish between a playful startle and an aggressive one, especially in more confident dogs. Well, play behavior in general. Sometimes I see two dogs playing and it looks so...frenetic it stresses me out just looking at them, but then they break off and act real relaxed. It seems like there is a fine line between excitement and aggression for some dogs (not sure if it's the dogs themselves or just my inability to read them, heh).
 

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Discussion Starter #11
Tug does NOT increase "aggression." Tug is a GAME and the dog NEEDS to WIN some of the time.
That has always been my impression. I always thought there wouldn't be much point to tugging if you never got to keep the toy! But it makes a lot of sense to use the game to teach the dog impulse control. They get to release some of the energy but they also learn to release that energy at the appropriate time. I imagine that impulse control carries over to other training situations.

Aggression is based in genetics and can be based in fear and defense or it can be based in fight drive or even prey drive. Dog aggression towards other dogs is almost entirely genetic.
I have indeed noticed that different dogs respond vastly differently when placed in similar circumstances. It does seem like there are dogs who wouldn't bite you even if you chopped their leg off and others that would bite you as soon as look at you (and everything in between). But surely the dog's learning history has a very significant effect as well? A dog that has had bad experiences with certain stimuli is more likely to react aggressively to those stimuli. And a dog who has successfully used aggression to gain access to resources or to defend itself is more likely react aggressively in the future, right? Because it is a strategy with a proven successful track record?
 

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That really clicks (no pun intended). It's not so much that the activity carries over into other areas, but more that it creates...undesirable antecedents? In other words, a situation where the dog's bite threshold might be lower?

Do you think this would also be ill-advised in dogs that are uncomfortable being handled? Like dogs that exhibit a strong startle response to be touched on their back or rump? I would imagine if they are focused on the tug game, they might be less likely to notice a hand approaching. Although I will confess that I sometimes find it hard to distinguish between a playful startle and an aggressive one, especially in more confident dogs. Well, play behavior in general. Sometimes I see two dogs playing and it looks so...frenetic it stresses me out just looking at them, but then they break off and act real relaxed. It seems like there is a fine line between excitement and aggression for some dogs (not sure if it's the dogs themselves or just my inability to read them, heh).
I don't think it would create undesirable antecedents. I think it would create undesirable consequences if unfavorable antecedents were in place (ex. a dog who is unstable and prone to redirecting on humans).

If the dog already has a low bite threshold (ie, doesn't know to tone it down), if the dog has poor control when highly aroused (ie, BITE EVERYTHING!!!), tug may be a poor game of choice. But tug in itself does not increase aggressive tendencies. Also, just because a dog is, say, aggressive towards other dogs or people, doesn't mean the dog can't appropriately play tug with you. Dogs are highly contextual. If a bite happened, or a dog is aggressive, they are likely to behave that way under the same situation. Biting a jogger running down the street is totally different than biting a toy in your hand. In human minds, teeth are involved in both so it must be similar. But it's not. Let's say I stabbed someone in self defense. Doesn't mean I'm going to go around stabbing everyone because someone gave me a knife.

On a similar note, tug does not mask existing problems even if the dog enjoys the game. So in your example of a dog having handling sensitivities, tug might be a great outlet for that dog and it wouldn't have anything to do with handling! Now, I might not play-slap or pet the dog while I play tug (which I do to my dog all the time) since in that high arousal state AND with handling sensitivities the dog might let go of the toy and nail you in self defense.

I see generalized thinking about tug all the time, especially among bird hunters. They think that if they play tug with their dog it will make their dogs hard mouthed with birds. Totally untrue. People think of the dog's mouth as this appendage that only has one setting. Like humans, they can learn to behave differently in different contexts. I can show you a video of my dog completely bonkers tearing into a tug toy, and that same dog being so stupidly gentle with a milkbone that he's gumming it around and not even chewing on it.

For your average dog and owner, tug is a fairly benign activity. The worst I've seen among pet owners is dogs who get too excited and accidentally nip the owner, or adolescents who get into shark mode after the game ends. Both scenarios can be avoided with proper play etiquette and handling. I love Shade Whitesel's course on Play on FDSA and I like her 2-toy approach. But I have never seen tug of war exacerbate aggression issues.
 

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I went and made a video example (been meaning to make this anyways). This doesn't speak to aggression, but is a demonstration that how a dog uses their mouth is not generalized across all situations.

 

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Discussion Starter #14
It's a good thing I wasn't watching that in full screen or I would have fallen off my chair, haha! Thank you for posting that - it is really interesting to see such a high contrast in the dog's behavior, especially with a dog that is obviously so energetic. Thank you for taking the time to explain.

I have been reading a lot about behavior recently and that does seem to be a very common thread: behaviors that look very similar can have very different functions, depending on context. I think that is what makes reading dog body language so confusing for me; the more I read about it, the more complicated it seems and the less confidence I have in my ability to read any dog!
 
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