Picking a Tug Toy

As promised on Monday, here are some questions that can help you pick a better tug toy for your dog. I don’t think I’m capable of writing the “ultimate guide to tug toys,” but there are definitely some common problems that good toy selection can help you with.

First up, let me say, I am neither teaching you how to play tug with your dog nor debating if you should do so. I’m assuming that you have a dog who is a pretty good candidate and that this is a game you want to play. I strongly recommend that you make some rules to govern tug games at your house, but that’s not the point of this post.

Secondly: I will tell you that Silas thinks every toy ever invented is a tug toy. Feel free to be inventive.

Silas with a Kong Tugga

Question 1:  Does your dog spit out the toy when you ask for it? If not, you need a toy that you can physically control. You will never get a stretchy toy away from a dog who won’t let go on cue. There are lots of tactics for teaching the dog to give back the toy, but for any of the ones I’ve seen you need a toy that you have full control over. Good options will probably seem very boring to you–rope toys, fake sticks, fire hose bumpers, etc–but dogs who won’t let go already have plenty of value for the toy.

Question 2: Does your dog sometimes grab your hand instead of the toy? I said that technique was outside of my range here, but do be careful with how you are presenting the toy. It’s easy to angle the toy so that your hand is more tempting than the toy is. Also, have some rules about this. Your dog will pick it up quickly. Generally, though, you’ll want a bigger, longer toy. Give the dog lots of room to grab as far away from you as possible. Silas loves to play tug with his huge Hol-ee Roller ball, which I think would be great here.

Tug!

Question 3: Does your dog clamp down firmly enough on the toy? Some dogs who aren’t really that excited about tugging will just let go of the toy when you pull. That’s a different problem. But it’s also easy to get a toy that’s just challenging or unpleasant for them to hold. The jute toy that I showed on Monday was a lot more fun for Silas before the jute got prickly. I’ve seen a lot of tug toys lately that are going to be too large for most dogs to get a good grip on. If you aren’t getting a solid bite down, try to find something your dog will enjoy having in his mouth. A softer toy that isn’t overly large will probably serve you better. Which leads to:

Question 4: What size toy do you need? There are several angles to this one. A lot of our favorite tug toys are for smaller dogs, because we just don’t have a lot of space. A four foot fleece rope means that Silas backs into the furniture and scares himself. That said, not all smaller toys can handle the force generated by a larger dog. If you have a small dog, a longer toy is easier on your back and can keep you from looming over the dog while you play. A larger dog may get too much leverage with a long toy. Sometimes you need a toy you can hide in your pocket, while sometimes a big toy can help your dog’s attention.

Question 5: Is your dog going to destroy the toy, or play thirty minutes of keep away, if he gets it away from you? You’ll want to address that behavior no matter what (playing tug on leash is a good place to start), but in the meantime look for a toy with a good handle. You want to keep a good grip on the toy. Also, see question one about picking a boring toy.

Silas playing tug

Most importantly, Question 6: What does your dog love? Toys that you can waggle on the floor for maximum pouncing? Toys that are good for fetch afterwards? Fuzzy things? Are noises awesome, or terrifying? Beyond a certain point, that’s all that matters.

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12 thoughts on “Picking a Tug Toy

    1. Silas’s “give” cue is pretty rock solid these days, but you definitely still have to reach in there, grab hold, and ask for it.

      That said (as I’ve said a lot lately) our fetch is absolutely nonexistent right now, after three years of it being perfectly fine, so all of our balls are in the bottom of the toy box.

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      1. After inconsistent results with “release” and “drop it,” I finally figured out that our general release word “okay” works pretty well, probably because I would use it at the end of tug games to signal cookie time! I have to have hold of it, too – she won’t drop on her own. She’s gotten good with dropping a ball to hand *if* we’ve been playing for a little while – sometimes she nearly throws it to *me*! Games of tug usually transition to games of fetch – she loves for me to throw her tug up on to the sofa. I also utilize her funny move where she plants all four feet on the front of the sofa (exactly like a flyball box turn) to mix up our games. The cue is a kind of swoosh or “schew” sound. We play a lot of tug.

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  1. “Ultimate” or not (and I’ve developed a real aversion to that clickbaity word lately), this is super helpful!

    Oh, dropping the toy! I am not great at teaching this, you guys. Nala does best if I disengage entirely when I want her to drop it, but I struggle with being consistent, I guess.

    Nala agrees that most toys are tug toys, with the exception of a Kyjen squeaky snake that I was sure would be a hit (and which is long enough that I knew my hands would be safe). Alas, something about the sound or texture of the squeaker makes her not want to chomp it with my hands nearby. Maybe she worries that she’s hurting me? I think I’ll be able to make some better choices now, though.

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    1. I found it a really difficult thing to teach, and we’re still not consistent with it by any means. Ruby delights in keepaway nearly as much as tugging! I had some luck with treat-trading for low-value treats like kibble. Anything yummier would make her lose interest in tugging.

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      1. Definitely so on that last one. Trading between tug and food is hard. Silas can do it if he’s not very hungry, but he started out as being much more toy-motivated.

        We had a manageable/cute level of keep away for a long time, but I’ve had to draw a line in the sand. Silas has gotten really bad. I’m blaming my husband for it, but I really don’t know what the deal is. I think I’m going to have to start playing tug with his toy on a leash. (I can’t put Silas on a leash indoors; it terrifies him.)

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    2. I don’t know if you read Jen at the Elka Almanac, but Elka also had a “squeaky toy=human in pain” association for a while.

      The out cue will come with some time and, yes, consistency. Smart dogs learn that giving up the toy means getting the toy back.

      What I did for Silas was to only play tug with one toy as I taught the cue. He had a long, skinny rope toy, and as I said “give” I would pull the rope up against my leg. He basically had no room to hold it anymore and *had* to spit it out. But if you’ve got a teeth issue that might be a no-go. The other tried-and-true is to just stop tugging back. This apparently encourages some dogs to let go. (My experience says that those dogs are not terriers.) When you can predict that the dog is about to let go, you can add the cue.

      You’ll also get a better out if you don’t tug for too long before you ask.

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      1. This is similar to what I’ve been doing–grasping the toy close to her mouth, holding it still, and removing my attention. The last part seems like the most important bit–of I keep looking at her, Nala seems to be able to tell how amused I am by her tugging face. 🙂 I’ve yet to add a verbal cue, though–still picking one.

        Nala is very careful with her teeth placement once she has the toy, and has wonderful bite inhibition. We really only have a problem when she goes to grab her Bumi–I didn’t realize I had bought the smaller one until it was too late, and I was desperate for a stick-replacement for our yard, so when she enthusiastically misses she (lightly) mouths my hand. We may need to retire it from tugging until she’s better at mouth placement when taking the toy.

        Nala’s level of keep-away is very cute with rubbery toys, but with plushes she wants to settle in and lick them; groom them; gently flea bite them; less gently flea bite–oh, oops, now it’s gutted.

        And yeah, we’re not great at switching between food and play, so I’ve been hoping to teach this without it.

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  2. Nothing demonstrated the famous “soft mouth” of a golden retriever better than playing tug with a ball. We worked so hard on bite inhibition that we can even play tug with a tennis ball without getting hurt.

    And having been bitten accidentally a few times by overexcited, playing pups, I’m very grateful.

    You make some excellent points–especially that the toy has to feel good to your dog. Lots of things that are hard or heavy don’t seem to be a good fit for Honey. I’ve made a few tug toys by braiding strips of old jeans or leftover fleece. I tie it into a loop so it’s not so long and it’s easier to grab.

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    1. Braided fabric toys are perfect for a lot of dogs, for exactly the reasons you mention. Also, so cheap! I bought fleece yardage to make ours, for about $10, and I could still be making toys off of it.

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  3. We love fetch (and yes, a little keep away, though it’s mostly a 15 second victory chew before bringing it back) but tug happens a little less often, since her favorite tug toys are stretchy. Do you know what the most stretchy thing is? Stolen underwear. It’s mortifying when your dog trots up to a visitor and asks oh-so-politely to play tug with a pair of stolen underwear that she’s hidden under the bed. Beyond that, we LOVE the West Paw Bumi! She’s so cute carrying the middle of it around so that it wraps around her muzzle! And man does it STRETCH for a good game of tug!

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    1. Our laundry hamper was Fort Knox when Silas was a puppy, so he never got the habit of taking clothes. Thank goodness, because I don’t think I could handle it.

      I have never been as thankful in my life as I was the day Silas got too big to fit under the bed.

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