Can Playing Tug Build a Dog’s Confidence?

During a recent presentation at a conference, we were discussing myths surrounding playing tug of war with dogs.  We were explaining that tug-of-war is a cooperative game, not a competitive interaction over which individual is going to control the toy.  Several people in the audience mentioned they had heard playing tug-of-war is a good way to build a dog’s “confidence.”  What exactly does this mean? One person described that he had been told to play tug to build the dog’s confidence in order to decrease his puppy’s submissive urination when people would try to pet her during greetings.  If she was more confident, she would be less likely to submissively urinate.  So, rather than having visitors reach out to pet the puppy, the owner instructed them to pick up a toy and play tug with her. 

 Not surprisingly, this was quite effective in stopping the submissive urination.  The technique was effective because it changed the way visitors behaved toward the puppy.  Rather than reaching out to pet her, and showing all those behaviors people think are friendly, but are often quite threatening to dogs, (making eye contact, facing them while leaning over them and reaching over their heads to pet them) visitors instead stimulated an alternative behavior – play – that was incompatible with submissive urination. 

The dog owner, quite astutely, then commented that the technique worked, but NOT for the reasons he had been told it would work.  He was exactly right.  The simplest explanation for the effectiveness of the technique is that it removed the events that triggered the behavior (trying to pet the pup) and also engaged the dog in an incompatible behavior (it’s hard to urinate when you’re happily engaged in a game of tug). 

Attributing the effectiveness of the procedure to building the dog’s “confidence” is a much more complicated explanation.  What does “confidence” mean in terms of dog behavior? Why invoke a more complicated description of personality when a simpler explanation will do?

Using the simplest explanation to explain observations is called parsimony, and is an important, basic principle in the study of animal behavior.  Also known as Occum’s Razor, parsimony dictates that it is not only unnecessary, but also inappropriate to choose a complicated explanation to explain observations of behavior, when a simpler one will do.

A number of years ago, Suzanne was a guest on the popular television series “Unsolved Mysteries”. This particular episode was all about animals and why they sometimes displayed “heroic” behavior and saved the lives of their owners or others.  One example was a Newfoundland that saved a person from drowning whose boat had overturned in a river.  The question put to Suzanne was how did the dog know that the person was drowning and needed saving?  Her answer was – he didn’t.

The Newfie’s owner routinely took the dog to the river to swim and play, and the dog was in the habit of retrieving large logs that often floated down the river.  In Suzanne’s view, at a distance, the drowning person resembled the large logs the dog had retrieved many, many times.  So, the most parsimonious explanation for the dog’s behavior was that he was doing what he had always done – retrieve floating logs.

When we choose the simplest explanation for an animal’s behavior, not only are we more likely to be correct, it’s also more likely that we can take the appropriate steps to modify the animal’s behavior, should that be necessary.

By the way, if you’d like to discover more about what science has to say about the "whys" of dog behavior, check out our webinar course "Shining the Light of Science on Canine Behavior" at Pet

1 Comment

  • This is a very nice article. I like how it points out to look for underlying behaviors and to not forget basic principles like Occam’s Razor.

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