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Dog Growls When Playing Tug of War: Good or Bad?

First-time dog owners are often caught off-guard by their dog’s growling during play.

But first-timers aren’t the only ones who may be surprised.

Experienced owners might have never encountered a growly dog.

Growling is usually not limited to playing tug-of-war. It also happens when dogs play with each other.

You might’ve heard that growling is a communication tool but it can also be used as a warning.

So let’s figure out how you can differentiate between harmless play growling and the type of growling that serves as a warning.

There are many causes for your dog’s growling and some signs that tell you whether or not you should worry.

If done right, tug of war is the ultimate training tool, it’s not for all dogs though.

Dog Growls When Playing Tug of War

Dogs often growl while playing tug of war to communicate and express excitement. Impulse control, an “Out” command, and short breaks prevent overexcitement.

My Rottweiler growls when playing tug of war and did so from an early age.

My Rottweiler Amalia tugging with a frisbee.
Photo by Pawleaks

She occasionally does it when she’s playing with other dogs too.

It’s always puzzling to witness how many dog owners think that growling is solely a sign of aggression and nothing else.

Growling serves as a way to tell other dogs to back off from their toy, it’s a way to express excitement, and it can also be a warning.

But how do you know if it’s excitement or aggression?

Here are 4 signs to tell if your dog’s growling while playing tug of war is worrisome:

  • Does your dog freely give the toy if you use the Out command?
  • Is your dog running off with the toy after you let go or do they offer it to you?
  • Are there physical signs (tense, hackles, snarling)?
  • Can you spot other signs of possessive behavior?

If your dog doesn’t give you the toy after a verbal command (assuming you’ve trained them), doesn’t engage with you, and isn’t relaxed when playing, then it might be time to put condition a different response.

However, if your dog is just really excited and shows no signs of aggression, it’s most likely not a behavioral issue.

Some breeds are just more growly than others.

Did you know that some dogs actually growl when petted? Similar to this, reasons range from serious behavioral issues to pleasure growling.

Weimaraner waits for a person to throw a green ball.
Photo by Tatiana Rodriguez on Unsplash

What should you do before playing tug of war with your dog?

The single best thing you can do is integrate an “Out” command into your training routine and learn to read your dog’s body language.

Generally, it’s best to teach impulse control and end play sessions on good terms.

Also, avoid playing tug of war with recent rescues as you don’t know how they react and some dogs are extremely driven by games that include chasing or prey in some way, shape, or form.

Seniors and puppies need light pressure. Generally, you should adjust the pressure to your type of dog and avoid extremely sudden up-and-down moves.

If done correctly, tug strengthens your bond, exercises your dog, builds confidence, and can be used to teach impulse control.

Does Tug of War Make Dogs Aggressive?

No, tug of war does not make dogs aggressive, unless aggression is explicitly encouraged and the dog is uncontrollable with verbal commands.

You can play rough with your dog, I do it too.

People often have the misconception that just by playing tug of war, your dog will turn aggressive.

It can happen that these types of games are used to condition undesired behavior but that won’t happen with a plain ol’ game of tug-of-war.

Pushing a dog beyond the limits, rewarding extremely rough play, and not being able to control your dog should be avoided.

Without discussing further details, there are negative methods to utilize harmless games – such as tugging – to foster aggression.

To avoid fostering aggression, teach a proper “Out” command, make bringing the toy to you fun, and end sessions on a good note (e.g. trading treat for toy).

There are actually studies on the links between play and dominance and how it affects temperament.

Should I Let My Dog Win Tug of War?

Yes, it’s important to let your dog win tug of war sometimes to avoid frustration, but make sure you are in control at all times with a solid “Out” command.

I let my Rottweiler win tug of war all the time and she still gives the toy out if I tell her to, no matter how excited she is.

Actually, as you’ll see below, it’s probably best for their teeth and neck if you let go sometimes instead of insisting on winning.

Some dog owners still believe that a dog turns dominant if they always win.

It may be that you’re contributing to already existing issues by letting them win all the time if you have no control over the dog.

However, a healthy and properly trained dog actually needs to win to build confidence.

How Long Should You Play Tug of War with a Dog?

You can play tug of war every other day for 2-3 sessions up to 5-15 minutes, or as long as your dog is interested.

Generally speaking, there’s no time limit on how long you can play tug of war with your dog.

However, it’s best not to strain their neck and teeth too hard. Plus, if you push play sessions beyond the fun limit, it might diminish interest in the game.

Encouraging your dog to go beyond the point of exhaustion is also never a good idea.

Personally, I’m playing tug of war pretty much every day with my Rottweiler and it’s super fun.

Sometimes our play sessions are as short as 3-5 minutes and she goes on chewing on the toy alone.

And other times we’re really into it and play tug of war for 10-15 minutes with some light tugging and some really rough play.

Is Tug of War Bad for a Dog’s Neck or Teeth?

Tug of war is probably not detrimental to a dog’s neck or teeth if played reasonably.

Playing reasonably means no extremely sudden moves where you rip the toy from one side of their mouth to the other.

Also, I’d avoid pulling too hard toward you and instead use your feet and walk toward your dog, that’s also super fun for most dogs.

It’s a bit of a back-and-forth dance and sometimes it’s okay to just let your dog get the toy instead of holding onto it for dear life.

I’ve wondered that myself since our teeth would be trashed, especially if I’d play with my nearly 100-pound Rottweiler.

Up until now, I’ve never witnessed anybody having issues with their dog’s neck or teeth that were determined to have been caused by tug of war.

However, stay safe and don’t go too rough on your dog.

Also, if you have a senior, your dog suffers from a medical condition, or is recovering from an injury or surgery, steer clear from rougher tug of war.

Disclaimer: This blog post does not substitute veterinary attention and does not intend to do so. I am not a veterinarian or pet nutritionist. If your dog shows any sign of illness, call your vet.

About Danielle

Equipped with 5+ years of expertise as a Rottweiler owner, I partner with licensed veterinarians and trainers to share research-backed and actionable advice for you and your furry friend.


Tuesday 2nd of August 2022

Love this article! Fiona (Golden Retrever) cracked me up when as a small puppy she growled during a game of tug with me. Although I didn’t let go when she growled, I couldn’t stop laughing. Now, as an adult, she still growls during tug, and I still laugh. She wags her tail all the more during this activity. Now we’ve added Amy (Dark Golden) and they play the same game with the tugging and the growling. So much fun. And yes, I agree; showing serious effort during tug, I often let Fiona win. Interes, Amy only plays tug with Fiona. What joy these girls bring to my husband and me!


Friday 5th of August 2022

Glad you liked the article! It's super fun for your dog to have multiple play partners, four-legged and two-legged :). Some dogs just love a good game of tug of war, it's certainly one of my dog's favorite games too.

Cheers, Danielle