Wrestling, rough-housing, and tug-o-war, oh my!

I saw a video posted, linked & shared in various Fb groups this week, and comments were divided. A guy in a onesie was singing & dancing, his dog came in all excitable, there was laughing and a bit of wrestling, the dog got over-excited and started using its teeth… and the guy got mad.

Straight up and I hope obviously, this is not ideal. Please don’t rile up your dog and then get mad if they bite you.

But is this another example that proves we shouldn’t play these kinds of games with our dogs at all? Isn’t it well known that tug makes your dog aggressive? Doesn’t wrestling mean they learn that teeth on skin is ok, and it’s too confusing to allow it, ever?

Nah. Not in my opinion.

We just need to put some work in to teach our dogs the rules of engagement, and when/how to de-escalate.

Think about any sport. What if there was no way to tell it started? What if there were no rules? It would be a free-for-all mess, and probably not very fun to watch. Even if you give a couple of kids a ball and tell them to play, they come up with rules. Rules provide structure. And if the rules are broken, there are penalties.

With our dogs it’s the same. We have to set some rules and structure our play sessions. The first thing I do is establish the start and end of the play session, creating a window of opportunity to play.

  • Create a starting cue to open the play session. I use “playtime”. You may already inadvertently have done this with words like “are you ready” or “let’s go”, or even by putting on a onesie and singing a certain song. It can be anything as long as it’s unique to your cues.
  • Create a closing cue to finish the play session. I use “finished”. Other suggestions include “done” and “game over”. Again, it can be anything as long as it’s unique (and preferably not you getting mad at your dog).

Establishing understanding around those cues is the first thing to do. You might need to be a bit silly in your play at first, to get your dog into it. Keep sessions short and fun. Like a play bow, your opening cue will act as an invitation to play, and also to not take you too seriously. And then follow through with your closing cue to make it clear – don’t say it, then still chuck the toy around or whatever. It’s time for serious face.

Then you layer in your rules. Rules can be almost anything you want, without being too arbitrary. My rules revolve around signs of over-excitement, such as:

  • No teeth on skin
  • No barking
  • No excessive jumping, or jumping towards head area

If a rule is broken, the penalty is your no reward marker and play stops (you go still, the toy “dies”, etc). Give the opportunity for your dog to self-correct. If they do, say your reward marker and keep playing! If they don’t, end the session – you have to follow through at this point, but can restart soon when they’ve calmed down a bit. They will start to get when they break a rule, the play pauses or stops, which is no fun at all.

Once your play cues and rules are understood, you can layer in stronger controls like “easy” and “leave it”. You will notice you’ll get better at reading your dogs excitement levels, and be able to start easing them out of it before they even break a rule, and lots of dogs will generalise these cues outside play (if you’ve been on my Social Walks you’ve heard me use “easy” in real life).

Tug with Murrumba

Then as your game matures, you can start layering in obedience cues. So you play play play, sit, yes, play some more. This will cement your obedience by teaching your dog how to listen even when excited and in the thick of something super fun. With the reward being more play, you are also easing away from any reliance of food you might have… cough-guilty-cough!

Play is really important for biological fulfilment of dogs. They are predators, and we can provide surrogate hunting activities through play to enrich their lives. We can replicate elements of the play-prey sequence (searching > stalking > chasing > fighting > celebrating > consuming) in play, and find what really turns our dogs on. We can tailor play to cater for what they were bred for. We just need rules to help, or they will make their own, and then we might get mad at them.

One final rule for you: maintain hope. If the dog never wins, they lose hope, which will cause loss of enthusiasm for the game. End sessions when they still want more, so you’re not getting into a cycle lowered enthusiasm influencing the next game.

So go put on your onesie and your favourite tunes, and play with your dog.


My opinions on play are largely influenced by Jay Jack of Next Level Dogs, and founder of GRC Dog Sport; his stuff, especially on YouTube, is worth checking out!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *