People can call me opinionated, but I am not close-minded.
A little more than a year ago I published a post about the popular, and controversial, dog-human activity tug. I am against tugging, and the reasons why I explained then, and again today. Said that I, well, let’s say broadened my mind a bit on that topic. The “no tug ever” changed to “no tug, but”, and that was catalyzed by discussions I had with sublime local trainer Adina MacRae and video clips Rob Van Tassel, another superb local trainer, made and generously forwarded.
So, here is the revised post against tug, which will be followed with a pro-tug with rules post I’ll publish in a week or so.
There are two chief reasons why frustrated, sometimes desperate, dog owners ask for my help. Anxiety/fear is one, and aggression the other. The latter is typically owner-diagnosed, spoken in the same sentence as dominance, and solely based on popular media information. Thus, I always take a layperson’s behavior evaluation with a grain of salt. Reality is that most dogs aren’t hostile and ambitious challengers for the pack’s head honcho position, but misbehave because they are pumped and outta control. Both can involve the inappropriate and hurtful use of teeth, but the motivation is different. Compared to the truly aggressive dog who aims to change a situation: wants distance to or get rid of a real or perceived threat, the boisterous pooch misbehaves because he is emotionally over-aroused. Contrary to needing more space, or eliminating an opponent, he’s seeking interaction.
Whenever I meet a dog with behavioral issues, I investigate where his humans blundered. With out-of-control ones, I found a common denominator: the dog playing tug-of-war, and other contact sports, with his humans.
Many dog pros of all fields of thought and method: compulsion, positive reinforcement, and trainers that straddle the middle, warn against it. Interestingly, it is the opposite with the public. Especially male owners love rough physical contests with their dog, and sometimes it is the primary way they entertain him. Some quit when the juvenile becomes more and more brutish and unruly, but others don’t see the correlation between training the mouth and the dog using it, and are perplexed when I point it out.
Dogs love mouth games. Holding on and pulling with teeth is how a pup interacts with his littermates and buddies. It is inherent, programmed into the beast, fun. When a person initiates tug, he is teaching the pup that such peer games are okay to play with humans also. Because it is so natural, the dog learns that eagerly and quickly, and henceforth instigates it whenever he is bored, with whoever is nearest. After all, that is how he’d relate with a canine friend.
And it doesn’t have to be a rope or appropriate toy, either. He’ll tug with whatever is available: a stick he finds and shoves against a person’s legs, the ball or Frisbee he doesn’t let go of during fetch, pants, a sleeve or flowing coat, and especially the leash will do nicely. Furthermore, any person will do. Particularly the ones closest to his size, children, are targets. Children are especially rewarding for another reason: they become very animated when a dog’s teeth latch onto them, make high-pitched sounds, resist, maybe run, or flail their arms, all of which is a lot of fun for the dog and charges him up more.
The man of the house might be able to physically overpower rowdy Rover, but his child, or female partner can’t, and so Rover treats them like he would another dog of same, or weaker, size and strength. On walks, he grabs the leash and happily play-growling pulls back, which puts the person in a dilemma cause she can’t just let go of it, but when she holds on there is automatically resistance, and that’s a tug game, and that reinforces the leash grabbing. The leash, like a rope or tug toy, can become a cue that turns the dog on the moment he sees it. Eventually he is labeled bad, hyper, disobedient, aggressive and dominant - unjustly so cause often he’s none of it. He’s a dog playing fun dog games with people who invited him to do so at one point.
Said that, ongoing physical contests train and foster competitiveness, and there is a risk that some dogs, indeed, become aggressive.
Play is injury free practice for real life. Humans play sports to test their strength, and to gain or establish superiority over other humans, at least for the moment. Dogs play with other dogs to test and boost their strength and agility to increase the chance that they, if there is a dispute over a resource, come out on top. Even a dog who self-handicaps when he interacts with a physically weaker friend, might do so to practice in a safe context how to get out of a future compromising situation.
The relationship your dog has with you, and all humans in your family, should be cooperative, never competitive with daily battles to determine who is the strongest. With each physical game, your dog becomes brawnier and mouthier, and possibly permanently pumped and ready for action. Like chronically adrenalized humans, they too have the tendency to be aggressive outside of play.
In addition to aggression, tug can train inattentiveness. When the person has had enough and disengages, he leaves the dog physiologically aroused with no release. The still pumped pooch will scan the environment for another outlet and if he finds it, maybe in form of another dog, he learns that the environment fulfills his needs, and that tuning the owner out is rewarding. Roughhousing with another dog is hard to top with pretty much anything a person can offer, and next time when both are out and about, the dog’s focus is not with his human, but his surroundings. If he finds entertainment there again, owner inattention and independence quickly become a habit. Plus he always anticipates canine playtime, which not only raises arousal even more, but if it doesn’t manifest leads to frustration with barking and lunging on the leash, or the pestering of every dog in the park, oblivious to its back off signals.
One of my early teachers said something that is still stuck in my mind: “Don’t teach what you don’t want in any other context.” A tugging dog practices the use of mouth and teeth in a competitive way. Practices holding on to something that wriggles in his mouth. Is building jaw strength by not letting go. Skills he might need to survive amongst dogs, and that is debatable, but certainly not for a life in the midst of humans.
Stay tuned to Part Two, when I’ll discuss how you can not only enjoy tugging with your dog, but when it can actually be beneficial.