Why Do Dogs Like Playing Tug of War?

Dogs like playing tug of war for a simple reason: it's fun! Of course, this is just the short answer to the question as there may be several other reasons why dogs find this game so irresistible. In order to better understand why dogs are so enamored with tugging, it helps to take a look back to a dog's evolutionary history, but there's likely more going on.

Many dogs like playing tug of war and they will often seek out anything for a good game of tug. Whether your pup plays tug with your curtains or your pant legs and sleeves, the goal is always the same: tugging at something that offers "resistance." The more resistance, the more fun the game is. 

A Look Back  in History

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A dog's evolutionary past may help provide some insights as to why dogs love to play tug

If we look back into a dog's evolutionary history, far long before dogs were fed bags of kibble served in shiny food bowls, we can clearly see that a dog's ancestors depended on their ability to hunt for the purpose of survival. It is courtesy of digging back to these days, that we can obtain some deductions as to why dogs are so attracted to the game of tug of war.

Back in those times, "dogs" didn't have access to all the fancy toys we have to offer them today. Deprived from bouncy balls, squeaky toys and interactive toys, youngsters had to therefore come up with their own forms of entertainment.

 Chasing tails may have provided some form of entertainment, but this game may have gotten old at some point, so why not play a game tug by recycling some remnants of a former meal? Perhaps a piece of hide from an arctic fox or a long piece of bone could have come handy. All that was needed was for a pup to grasp an extremity and the other pup the other, and off they went, tugging and growling to their hearts' content!

Interestingly, many forms of dog play include components of hunting and killing prey. While dogs are not wolves or wild animals, it cannot be totally excluded that they retain certain instincts that date back to their evolutionary past. 

 Dogs chase balls? That's most likely that's because bouncy balls mimic the fast, erratic movements of prey animals. 

Dogs vigorously shake stuffed toys while holding them in their mouth? Most likely, they are mimicking what they would do to break the neck of a small critter they have hunted down.

 And what about when dogs seem to take pleasure in removing all the stuffing from pillows and stuffed toys? In those cases, they are likely 'de-gutting' their prey, pulling the innards out in a fun dissection project!

Tugging to Succeed as Hunters

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Tugging includes components that play a role in a dog's success as a hunter

So what about playing tug? Why do dogs like playing tug of war? In the wild, pups likely played this game with animal hides up until the fur and skin were completely shredded and there no longer were any pieces they could grasp with their developing jaws

What made these youngsters so attracted to playing tug with other dogs back in the days? Most likely, they were attracted to this game, because the game had several components that would have turned helpful in their future as hunters. 

Yes, because while tug of war may seem a form of pure play, when playing tug, pups were practicing behaviors that could have helped promote their ability of becoming successful hunters. After all, in the wild, once pups developed and were just a few months old, they would have been expected to join the other members to start hunting as well.

So most likely, tug of war mimics the evisceration and dissection process involved with tearing fur and skin of recently killed animals so to gain access to the precious meat and organs. But there may be more to that. 

It could also be that items tugged are perceived as parts of "pretend prey," and therefore, entails "play fighting" for these parts of the freshly killed prey. However, there may be chances that there may be less of a competitive edge going on.

Perhaps, playing tug just simply mimics what a dog's ancestors did cooperatively in the wild when bringing down a large animal which granted consumption by the whole family, as outlined in the quote below. 

"Tug of war replicates the act of the cooperative kill. Imagine that you and your dog are part of a wolf pack bringing down a bison; you are a team working together, tugging on the large beast!"~Emily Keegans, The Dog Trainer's Resource: APDT Chronicle of the Dog Collection

A Broader View

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Dogs develop many social and cognitive skills when engaging in play

Canine play though cannot be labeled as having just an evolutionary function with the purpose of succeeding as hunters, there is likely much more going on than that. 

Play overall helps dogs refine social skills and contributes to proper cognitive development. Through play, dogs learn to inhibit their bite, control their emotions, fine tune their communicative skills and develop deeper social bonds. On top of that, play contributes to ameliorating a dog's physical development by improving their motor skills. 

One must also consider that dogs likely play just for the fun of it. The chance of releasing energy and the elements of surprise, makes the game extra rewarding.

 In what direction will the owner or the other dog pull the tug toy? Will the other dog pull with enough force to send the other dog off his legs? Will the other dog run off with the tug toy given the opportunity? A game of tug allows dogs to train for the unexpected, second guessing what the other dogs' or owners' next moves may be and this makes the game intriguing. 

Did you know? Contrary to popular belief, dogs do not play tug for the purpose of competing and winning and establishing "dominance " over the owners. This is an outdated belief that has been debunked over the years.

"Most leading dog trainers and behaviorists now maintain that the dominance argument is based on faulty assumptions and that play between dogs and humans, including tug games, is beneficial to both sides and helps strengthen relationships."~Mechtild Käufe, Canine Play Behavior, The Science Of Dogs At Play

Now That You Know... 

As seen, there are several theories as to why dogs may enjoy playing tug. Dog behavior can be quite complex, and until, dogs can talk, we can only make assumptions as to why they do the things they do. Following are some tips for making the game extra fun.

  • Choose a good tug toy. A good tug toy should be long enough so that there is good distance between one dog and another or between the owner's hands and the dog's mouth. 
  • Watch the texture. On top of being long, the tug toy should be made of a soft texture that is pleasant to grab onto but should also be made of durable material.
  • Try using rabbit fur. Many dogs grow bored of tugging a towel or rope, but will go bonkers if you offer them a rabbit fur woven tug. The scent of the rabbit fur will often bring to life old instincts.
  • When playing tug with your dog, remember to always move the toy sideways, not up and down which risks damaging his neck or spine. 
  • Consider the benefits of playing tug with your dog when played by the rules. Your dog can learn to control his bite during play (stop playing the moment his teeth make contact with your skin), he can learn how to "drop" and "take" and a game of tug can be used to reinforce desirable behaviors.
  • Of course, avoid playing tug if your dog bites hard, or gets too aroused and prone to aggression. In such a case, consult with a dog behavior professional.
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