Playing tug with a strong dog

Playing with a strong dog is a matter of leverage, not strength.  I can usually play with a dog that is up to half of my weight - more than that and I will suffer.  The trick is one of technique....the attached video will illustrate a few points.

This is Cisu; she's about 55 pounds.  When she plays tug she uses her entire body.  She tries to pull me backwards and she thrashes her head back and forth.  She's powerful for her size - I'm grateful that she's no bigger.  In this video she's 9.5 years old; imagine what playing with her was like in her prime!

Here's what you may notice when I play with Cisu:

My body is absolutely straight.  Do not let the dog pull you over or you'll end up with a back injury.

My arms are close to my body and my hands move rather little.  My feet do most of the moving and my arms act as shock absorbers.

I keep her front feet off the ground and I discourage her from putting her front feet up on me by moving when she attempts to do this.

With this dog, I either use a jute ball on a stiff rope or a two handled tug.  As a rule I do not like two handled tugs, because they take your arms too far from your body.  It works here because the toy is short, so keep that in mind if you prefer two handled toys.

When I ask for an out, I put my hands on the toy in order to hold it still.  If I held it by the handles when I asked for an out, she would be able to move the toy, and therefore would be unlikely to release cleanly.

Tug toys are presented horizontally so she won't target my hands.  When you hold a tug toy vertically, you are asking for trouble because dogs have trouble turning their heads and targeting a vertical toy unless you've specifically trained for this skill.

Balls on ropes can be presented vertically, but it takes some practice to learn how to do this so the dog targets the ball and not the rope or your hands.  The trick is keeping the ball portion over their heads, which is why I like toys with a stiff handle when I play tug with a ball.  In this video, you'll notice that she misses the toy.  This is not intentional; I simply forgot that Cisu has a hard time using her rear end to propel her upwards.  As I said earlier, she's getting older.  When I realized she was missing the toy, I adjusted my expectations.

There will be plenty of trial and error, and likely a few bruises as you figure it out.  Try videotaping and compare what you are doing to what I am doing.

Go practice.  Good luck!


Kristin Alexandra Muntz

Playing tug with my 6-month Malinois X this last couple of weeks has my neck/back rather jacked up – also been finding that floppy or ‘loose’ toys lead to morning mishaps as Duke needs some bitework on the last leg of our walk or he gets frustrated. It’s been a bit painful since his favorite piece of bamboo started to break and I had to swap back to one handed tug. Reading this made me realize the floppy toys are probably too hard for him to concentrate on when he’s that tired.

Kristen Nelson

Thank you so much for this post! I have a lovely little groenendael girlie that hits her tug toy like a bull shark hitting chum. When she was a baby I didn’t think I’d ever have good tugging with her, now she’d rather tug than eat. I am so grateful to have this as a reference to remind myself on proper form so I can enjoy playing with my dogs safely.


Thanks for posting this. I’ve been having increasing difficulties playing tug with my Belgian Shepherd as he has matured and gotten stronger; he’s now about 70lbs I think at 15.5 months old. However, one thing that has really helped me is knowing how to properly lift heavy weights: I’m talking the standard “Olympic lifts” (clean and jerk, snatch) as well as deadlift. Knowing how to engage core muscles and keep your spine in a neutral position to prevent back injuries helps with many activities, including playing tug with your dog :) I would really recommend that people who are interested in doing these lifts work with a qualified coach to learn correct technique though.


I’ve found that it is important to keep your knees bent slightly. This helps me keep my balance.


Excellent post! Thank you!
I have been following your blog for some time as I have been working with my 14 month old Doberman on increasing drive and motivation for toy/tug rewards. I picked up one of those jute balls on a short rope as that seems to be your “go to” toy in your videos. My girl loves it, and it quickly became her highest value toy. Slightly off topic, but can you speak to how long these jute balls have lasted for you? I’m also considering a two handled tug to better present horizontally because, well, this is new to my dobe and she’s still a bit clumsy (read: ouch!)!

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