We humans have bypassed hundreds of years of evolution and turned scary wolves into the cuddly creatures we now know as dogs. No amount of selective breeding has been able to erase all of our dogs' wild animal instincts. Even some of what we consider play is really just primal behavior finding a way to shine through.
Sometimes, the adorable games our dogs love to play have obvious ties back to their undomesticated past. Dogs love to chase us when we run, which makes sense; in the wild, they would have to chase their prey. Dogs also love to chew apart squeaky toys. They would have to devour any small (probably squeaky) animals they caught for dinner.
But what about tug of war? Most dogs love it, but why? Let's dig in.
Why do dogs play tug of war with each other?
Put two dogs alone with a rope or a long, skinny chew toy and a game of tug of war is bound to ensue. Playing tug of war does several things for dogs. First, it's a great way for them to get to know each other and, yeah, to an extent, to suss out their place in the pack. This is why you'll sometimes notice dogs getting very competitive when they play tug together — even if the competition stays friendly and never veers toward the dreaded "aggressive" territory. They're showing off among friends, and they generally want to win and show what they can do.
Playing tug of war is also a way for dogs to build trust with each other. It doesn't seem like it, but it's a way of sharing and playing in a cooperative way.
Why do dogs like tug of war with humans?
The reasons dogs love playing tug with their owners are, in many ways, similar to the reasons they love playing with other dogs. It's a great way to build trust and bond. While experts are split on the issue of letting your dog win during a game, some do believe that it's a great way to foster trust with your dog and to build their confidence.
Playing tug with a human has another great benefit for dogs: Exercise. Especially for dogs living in apartments or who don't have regular access to a big yard to run around in, tug can be a great way to burn tons of pent up energy in a small space.
Where does tug of war behavior come from?
So what primal itch does tug of war scratch for dogs? There are a few possibilities. First, as anyone who's spent much time playing tug of war with a dog knows, it brings out their desire to shake a toy almost violently from side to side. In real world terms, this mimics the way a wild dog would shake (and kill) its prey.
Another theory holds that wild dogs in the old days commonly hunted small animals that hid in burrows. Extracting them from those hiding spots required some of the same skills that dogs practice with tug of war today.