Tug games with your dog can be one of the most rewarding games for dogs, most just love it! It’s a great way to reward after a job well done, as many working and agility handlers do, or to use as a distraction in an exciting situation.
However, I do have concerns on teaching it to the very young puppy who is still learning what is know as bite inhibition — the ability to control the pressure of their bite. This crucial skill must be learned before they are 4 months of age, because it is nearly impossible to learn after that time. The best way is through socializing with other pups, as in a Puppy Kindergarten. There they learn that if in play they bite down too hard — the other pup squeals and won’t play any longer. Humans can provide the exact same feedback — high pitched “ouch!” when the pup mouths your inappropriately and on a second occurrence, you stop playing and leave.
Many young pups that engage in tug with rope or cloth toys have a problem distinguishing this joy of the hard grab and bite in the tug game, from doing the same to your shirt or pants. I only teach tug after I have a totally solid “out” command with any type of toy and when I’m certain that my pup has enough self control to listen when he’s all revved up. This is a great way to teach self control — but they need to demonstrate the “out” with toys first, before I introduce tug.
This is specially true when there are children in the household. I want to be absolutely sure that the puppy understands the rules, because a puppy playing tug with a child’s pant leg can be a very frightening thing! Because of children’s quicker movements, higher voices and general proximity — pups often feel that they are just another playmate for them and might engage too enthusiastically for a small child to be comfortable with. Those very sharp teeth can be unintentionally dangerous!
Tug is a great game and wonderful skill to teach — but be sure to introduce it properly, so that it doesn’t lead to behavioral issues down the road!