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When a dog growls when playing tug-of-war, especially when it happens the very first time, dog owners may feel a chill down their spine. Is friendly Rover turning into Cujo? Is this the reason why some folks discourage playing this game with dogs? What's really going on in Rover's mind?

To fully understand the behavior of a dog growling when playing tug-of-war, it would firstly be important observing the dog's accompanying body language and the context in which the growling exactly occurs. Does it happen when the dog is tugging? Or when you try to approach his toy? 

Another important factor would be knowing more about the dog's history. In other words, has the dog ever growled over food, bones or other valuables in the past? Resource guarding is the term used to depict dogs who tend to guard valuable items (like food bowls, bones, toys etc.). Resource guarding dogs will growl when they are afraid of losing access to the item. 

So let's take a look a several factors to consider and let's discover why dogs may growl when playing tug-of-war. 

The Onset of an Early Behavior  

The behavior of "tugging" ultimately starts early in a dog's life. In order to nurse, pups must pull with their mouths to allow milk to flow. 

Then, fast-forward just a few weeks later, and you'll see the puppies become more mobile. Amongst the first wrestling behaviors, you'll notice how the pups will start playing tug with their littermate's tails and floppy ears. 

Then fast-forward a few extra weeks when puppies are welcomed to their new owner's homes. Almost immediately, to their new owners' dismay, pups will start playing tug with their owner's shoe laces and sleeves.

Whether your pup plays tug with your curtains or your pant legs, the goal is always the same: tugging at something that offers "resistance." The more resistance, the more fun and rewarding the game becomes. 

A Game of a Dog's Ancestral Past 

The behavior of playing tug-of-war is ultimately reminiscent of a dog's ancestral past. Back in those olden days, "dogs" didn't have access to all the fancy toys we have available to offer them today.

 Deprived from colorful bouncing balls, squeaky toys and tug toys, youngsters had to therefore come up with their own forms of entertainment.

Chasing tails may have provided some form of entertainment, but this game may have gotten old at some point, so why not play a game of tug by recycling some remnants of a former meal? Perhaps a sturdy piece of hide from an arctic fox or a long piece of bone could have come handy. 

All the game required was one pup grasping an extremity, while the other pup grasped the other. The rest is history as a new game was born. 

Growling when playing tug is a normal behavior. 

Growling when playing tug is a normal behavior. 

Possible Functions of Playing Tug 

Of course, one of the first reasons that comes to mind when we ask ourselves why dogs like to play tug of war, is that it is fun. 

However, there is likely more to it. Perhaps, the game of tug offered several components that would have turned helpful in a dog's past as a hunter.

Yes, because while tug-of-war may seem like a form of pure play, the pulling could have certainly helped dogs develop more strength, confidence and skill.  

On top of this, a game of tug mimics the grabbing of the prey animal, and the evisceration and dissection process which involved tearing the fur and skin off recently killed animals. 

It could also be that items tugged are perceived as parts of "pretend prey," and therefore, it evokes a desire to "play fight" for the parts of the freshly killed prey. 

So most likely, tug playing just simply mimics what a dog's ancestors did cooperatively in the wild when bringing down a large animal which granted consumption by the whole family, as outlined in the quote below.  

"Tug of war replicates the act of the cooperative kill. Imagine that you and your dog are part of a wolf pack bringing down a bison; you are a team working together, tugging on the large beast!"~Emily Keegans, The Dog Trainer's Resource: APDT Chronicle of the Dog Collection.

Discovering the "Play Growl" in Dogs 

Yes, there are growls and growls in the dog world and not all growls are bad! Introducing the play growl, a growl that you'll often notice when dogs play with other dogs and the dogs are having fun despite all the growly noises and the flashy display of teeth!

Typically, when play growling, dogs will display metasignals (like the play bow) meant to inform their play partners that the growling is nonthreatening, explains board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr.  Lore I. Haug, in an article for Clinicians' Brief. 

On top of this, other body signals that are typically associated with threat or defense will be absent during this form of growling.

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Many dog owners will discover the very first play growl when interacting with their puppies in a play of tug. Whether your puppy is playing tug with you using a rope toy or he has attached to your pant legs or sleeves, the growly noise is unmistakable. 

Typically, the play growling occurs as the puppy has the tug material in his mouth and he pulls back, perhaps even shaking his head. The sound of the growl is described by Meyer (2004)  as being a “tonal vibrato growling" while Ludwig (1965) describes it as brighter than the deeper, longer growling used outside the context of play, when describing it upon observing boxer dogs playing. 

The puppy's or dog's accompanying body language should be loose, wiggly and playful and you should see tail wags. The puppy or dog will try to get you to re-engage in the game rather than leaving and is usually willing to release the toy when asked (make sure your pup knows how to "drop it").

'Played with rules, tug is a tremendous predatory energy burner and good exercise for both dog and owner. The owner becomes the source of a potent reinforcing activity and there is payoff in terms of lower incidence of behavior problems due to understimulation. "~Jean Donaldson, 

More Serious Forms of Growling 

While tug can be a fun game that helps expend a dog's excess energy, there are certain circumstances in which extra caution is needed. 

For example, if your dog has a history of growling when he is in possession of food, bones, toys, resting places or other things, then the game of tug may not be a good game to play. 

These dogs may take these tug games too seriously and may growl because they want to keep the resource. These dogs will therefore growl because they are tense since they feel compelled to guard the tug toy from you. 

In these cases, the growl sounds much more serious that the play growl. The body language is tense rather than loose. You may notice that your dog's body is stiff and he may display a hard stare. He will typically leave with the toy and will be  reluctant to give it back.

If your dog escalates to serious growling and snarling, and/or has a history or resource guarding, skip this game and consult with a dog behavior professional.

Dogs may resource guard their tug toys from other dogs or their owners. These growls are distance-increasing rather than playful .

Dogs may resource guard their tug toys from other dogs or their owners. These growls are distance-increasing rather than playful .

Is a Dog Growling When Tugging a Sign of Dominance?

Contrary to popular belief, dogs do not play tug for the purpose of competing and winning and establishing "dominance " over the owners. This is an outdated belief that has been debunked over the years.

"The implication is that dogs or wolves ascertain rank by grabbing the ends of an object and tugging to see who “wins.” If anything, the best description of tug is that it is cooperative behavior. It’s not you vs. the dog, it’s you and the dog vs. the tug of war toy," points out Jean Donaldson in her book: "Culture Clash."

According to studies (Rooney & Bradshaw, 2002, Goodloe and Borchelt 1988) games of tug generally do not generate aggression. 

Now That You Know...

As seen, growling during tug in most cases is nothing to worry about as long as it's carried out as play along with loose, playful body language. 

Tug can help build confidence in dogs and helps them use up excess energy. It also can help grow a pup's confidence level.  However, it's important to teach your dog how to play tug so that you can make the most of this game without incurring into major problems. 

How to Play Tug With Your Dog 

Following are several tips on how you can play tug with your dog in a safe and generally healthy way. If you own a puppy, make sure to start early on teaching these skills.

Train Your Dog to Take and Drop. These skills are important because they help training good impulse control. Tell your dog to "take" when you show the toy and when you want the game to end, don't just grab the toy from your dog, but rather ask him to drop it and reward him by tossing a treat or another toy you have kept in your pocket. Here is video demo on training it: how to train a dog to drop it. 

Start and End the Game. It is a good idea for you to decide when you start and end the game. This is not about proving that you are in control, but more about creating good habits. For example, invite your dog to play tug and after tugging for some time, stop the game before your dog becomes too over stimulated. It's good to keep tug games brief and and allow some cool down breaks.

Allow some victories! Should you let your dog win at tug of war? Yes! If your dog loses all the time it can get frustrating. Letting your dog win every now and then can help raise his confidence and keeps the game fun. Just make sure to train a good drop in case he decides to take off with the toy and destroy it. 

Gentle with Dog's Mouths! Young puppies have baby teeth and their jaws are still developing so it's important to gently tug and keep tugging sessions short. Avoid lifting a dog up by its teeth during tug of war. 

Provide a consequence for accidental nips. Eventually, as you play tug, you'll notice how sometimes your dog may accidentally make contact with your hand. Take advantage of this and make it a teaching moment. Screech “OUCH!” (even if it didn’t hurt) and end the game in its tracks. This can help greatly in bite inhibition as you remind your pup of the hypersensitivity of human skin.

Choose good tug toys. A good tug toy should be long enough so that there is good distance between one dog and another or between the owner's hands and the dog's mouth. 

References:

  • Rooney, Nicola & Bradshaw, John. (2003). Links Between Play and Dominance and Attachment Dimensions of Dog-Human Relationships. Journal of applied animal welfare science.
  • Canine Play Behavior, The Science Of Dogs At Play, by  Mechtild Käufe
  • The Culture Clash, by  Jean Donaldson

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