On the other side of the debate are people who say that tug-o-war is just a game, and a good game to really unwind and let off some pent-up energy. Play serves a very important role in animal behavior, even for wild animals. The great thing about play is that all normal rules are off and normal roles are often reversed. The bigger puppy turns down his strength so that the littler puppy can wrestle with him. Motions are exaggerated, and normally stealthy animals become rambunctious and noisy. Current thinking about the reason that animals play is to put their body into positions and situations that they wouldn't normally be in. This allows them to learn how to react to the unexpected (like getting knocked off their feet by a predator). The bigger puppy learns how it feels when he's the weaker one, and the littler puppy learns what he needs to do when he's winning the wrestling match.
Behaviorist Patricia McConnell writes about tug in her book The Other End of The Leash. She sides with the people who say it's just a game, and not about a fight for dominance. Tug, like any other form of play, is about letting animals experience roles they might not otherwise have. When Winnie and I play tug, it's a time for her to growl, show her teeth, and refuse to let go of a toy- behaviors that, outside of tug, we wouldn't tolerate. McConnell believes that dogs who have a playful outlet for normally unacceptable behaviors are less likely to exhibit those behaviors in an inappropriate setting. She also cites a study about dogs who were allowed to play tug- half of the dogs never got to win, and half got to win some matches and lose others. The dogs who never got to win simply quit playing, because who likes to lose all the time? It's not a game anymore if you never win.
Obviously I lie in the pro-tug camp. I tend not to buy into dominance-style thinking anyway, but I also have played tug with enough dogs to know that dogs know the difference between play and normal life. However, there are a few important points about safe tug-o-war:
- any contact between skin and teeth immediately ends the game, accidental or not. Dogs are very aware of where their teeth are, and need to know that they have to have complete control even during play. It's especially effective if you let out a loud YIP! and walk away looking extremely offended.
- You get to call off the game whenever you want. Before playing tug, dogs should know what "drop it" means, and should follow that command even in the middle of the game. If they don't drop when you tell them to, game over. Dogs hate when the game ends early.
- If you're working on specific behavior issues like resource guarding, tug probably isn't the best game to play.
These points aren't about maintaining 'alpha dog' position, but about dogs being polite and knowing that there are some boundaries that can't be crossed, even during play.