Tug of War – Not Worth it with Your Hunting Dog

It is natural for dogs to want to play tug of war. But is this a good or bad game to play with your hunting dog? This is a long-contested question among dog owners, especially those with dogs intended for hunting.

The short answer is you should avoid playing tug of war with your hunting dog. The game is counter-productive with hunting dogs and can lead to bad habits, such as refusal to retrieve, refusal let go of the retrieved game, chewing up game while retrieving, or avoiding the retrieve all together.  Not every dog that plays tug of war as a puppy will develop one or any of these problems, but it is a gamble not worth taking.  These problems are destructive and hard to fix, and worst of all can lead to wasting game.  Tug of war is best avoided with your hunting dog.

Debate Over Tug of War

It’s probably important to get some perspective on this argument before getting too far down any one path. Let’s explore a few overarching ideas that typically come up in this discussion:

  • Dogs Will be Dogs
    One common argument is that dogs have a natural desire to pull on objects. Even as puppies, they will grab onto a stick or another object and end up playing a game of tug of war with their littermates. So, it has to be okay since they come by it naturally. Right? Well, let’s keep reading.
  • Dogs Can be Trained
    Another often discussed point is that owners just need to train their dogs when it’s appropriate to play tug of war, and when it’s off-limits. Surely, this seems reasonable. Dogs are intelligent and, for the most part, highly trainable. However, you want to be clear on specifically what you are training your dog to do, or not to do, and being certain there aren’t any mixed messages. There is more to consider on this topic. 
  • Games Foster Trust and Loyalty
    This argument goes something like this, “I play tug of war with my dog because it helps us build a stronger bond.” Absolutely, there is truth in the idea that playful activities will strengthen the dog-owner relationship. Perhaps there are other games that can be played.

Risks with Tug of War

  • It Can Develop and Reinforce Bad Habits:
    Throughout history, humans have used dogs for a variety of jobs. Some dogs were bred to herd domestic livestock. Some breeds were developed as guard dogs. And yet others were bred to be hunting dogs.

    One of the greatest risks for hunting dogs that play tug of war is that when they return game to their owner, they can easily slip into the notion that when you reach for the bird in their mouth that they think you are ready to play tug of war. This could be devastating. The retrieved game could be damaged or, worse yet, destroyed. As the hunter, when you are in the field you are all about business. You need your dog to be in the same state of mind.
  • Training is Best When it is Consistent:
    This is the point at which the topic of training usually comes up. Just train your dog that they shouldn’t play tug of war when you are hunting. It seems reasonable, right? This is a possibility, but requires an awareness of numerous factors related to your dog:

    • Age
      When you think about training your hunting dog, you must consider their age and what specifically you want them to learn. If you are training them to be a hunting dog that will not damage or destroy the game they are expected to retrieve during a hunt, then the focus will undoubtedly be on the dog maintaining a soft mouth. To play tug of war with your hunting dog in one situation, and then expect them to not do so in another situation may be an unfair expectation, especially for a young dog. In any training scenario, consistency is critical for success. So, focus on your end goals.
    • Temperament
      The game of tug of war can lead to another risk. Some dogs become more aggressive as a result of this game. You never want to play any games that could lead to aggressive behaviors.
    • Playfulness
      The exuberance exhibited in most hunting dogs tells us that we need ways to help them burn off excess energy. Though tug of war can definitely help reduce that pent up energy, it can lead to other unintentional game playing. A game of tug of war can quickly evolve into a game of keep away. Though strictly from an energy management perspective, these seem fine. But not really.

      Consider this. You are out in the field hunting with some buddies when you’ve just made a beautiful shot. Your dog marks the down bird and takes off after it. You are beaming with pride over your shot and your dog. Then as your dog returns, it clamps down on the bird, and dances in front of you teasing you to get the bird away from it. How embarrassing would this be? 

Other Games to Play in Place of Tug of War

Playing games with your hunting dog is not completely off-limits. You want to build a strong connection with your dog, and games are a great way to foster that relationship. Because hunting dogs typically have a lot of energy, they need an outlet to release it. So, having some games to play is helpful for keeping your dog well exercised and happy.

Below are some productive game alternatives to tug of war that actually promote the desired behaviors you want to see in your hunting dog:

  • Fetch
    By playing fetch with your hunting dog, you are actually helping to reinforce the behaviors you expect from your dog in the field. They get to practice tracking and marking the object, while retrieving it with a soft mouth. 
  • Running
    This is great for expending lots of energy. Running can be a stand-alone activity, or it can be in conjunction with fetch. This activity simulates the same kind of behavior that your dog will need to accomplish on a hunting trip.
  • Swimming
    Like running, swimming burns energy. It is recommended that swimming be paired with fetch. This offers another opportunity to simulate the conditions of a hunting experience.

Avoid Tug of War, Try this with your Puppy Instead!

Here are some quick tips to help get your puppy retrieving and building good retrieving habits.

  • Use soft toys to train the retrieve.  You don’t want your dog soured to retrieving because what they practice retrieving with hurts their mouth.  You don’t have to go crazy, a rag tied in a knot works great.
  • Practice retrieving down a hallway, so pup has only one way to go and that is back to you.  This is a great way to start a puppy retrieving as it increases the odds of success for your pup. If you have a dead-end hallway in your house, close all the doors, stand or kneel at the hallway entrance and throw the object down the hall. This way when the pup goes and gets it, she only has one way to go, back to you.  You will graduate from this after a while, but it is a good place to start.  Nothing worse then chasing the pup to get the object back.  Chase is a great game to the pup; one they will happily play instead of retrieving.
  • Get the dog excited about what it is retrieving.  Tease the dog a bit by playing with the object in front of the pup to get them excited about it before making the throw. 
  • Quite early while the dog’s excitement level is still high.  You don’t want to throw to the point where your dog is bored with the game of retrieving.  Get the pup excited, throw a few easy retrieves, put away the object and come back to the game later.  The pup will have a great time and start associating that great time with the retrieving game.  By building on this over time and keeping the pup engaged you will build a great natural retriever.

Should I let My Dogs Play Tug of War with Each Other?

If you have multiple dogs, I would discourage them from playing tug of war with each other.  I have seen dogs get competitive with each other in the field and pull game apart trying to each make the retrieve.  Letting your dogs play tug of war with each other would certainly not help this competitive nature and could lead to wasted game.

Maintain Your Focus

If you own a hunting dog because you primarily want the dog to join you on hunting excursions, then keep all their training and pleasure time activities focused on the outcome of appropriate hunting behaviors. Doing so will allow you, and your dog, to avoid the risks and embarrassments that come from confusing practices like the game of tug of war. Your dog is your hunting companion, and as such, it deserves consistency. So, maintain your hunting focus, get out into the fields, and enjoy your hunting dog!

Scott Phelan

I came from a non-hunting family, in my teens I got interested in hunting and taught myself to hunt. I got my first hunting dog after college and became obsessed with all things hunting dog and hunting dog training. I have spent the last 10 years training and hunting with dogs. My dogs and I have hunted quail, chukar, huns, pheasants, grouse, woodcock, ducks, and geese all over the USA and Canada. Hunting dogs are my passion.

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