3-Way Tug

Most of us probably think of “playing tug” as a one-person, one-dog game. Or a two-dog game. Or a two-team game: Those tug-o-war contests in management courses that intend to build teamwork feature two teams — two teams that are pitted against one another. It’s a reasonable understanding. The players are tugging at opposite ends of a rope, after all. There are only two ends.

But what happens when there are three dogs?

Option 1, one dog gets left out, is unacceptable.

Option 1a, the left-out dog has to play with Mom, is even worse.

Option 2, the third dog hassles the other two and badgers them into giving up their game, ends up making everyone miserable.

Enterprising dogs come up with Option 3, a solution that is better in so many ways.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Option 3 is three-way tug. All three dogs get to engage, play, tug on the rope. No one wins. No one loses. No one is left out. Instead of tug being a zero-sum game, tug becomes an enjoyable, collaborative activity. The goal is having fun. And the more fun each dog has, the more fun they all have. Everyone wins. But Mom/auntie gets left out.

Actually, that is not true either. Mom gets to sit on the sidelines and take photos and enjoy the dogs enjoying themselves.

Truly, everyone wins.

So, what did I learn from watching Cali and her cousins invent and play three-way tug?

  • There are many ways to solve a problem.
  • It’s possible to find a solution that benefits everyone.
  • Collaboration is rewarding and, in some cases, a lot of fun.
  • Rather than sulking over being left out or bullying your friends, it’s possible to change the dynamic to something more positive.
  • Having fun until you’re too tired to stand, then taking a nice nap, is a better way to spend the afternoon than arguing or feeling resentful.
  • Dogs are smarter than people.

OK, I already knew that last one.

Dogs are great problem-solvers. They live in the moment and want to be part of whatever fun thing is happening. Maybe the solution was obvious; it didn’t take long for these three doggy friends to come up with it.

But if it’s so obvious, how come none of us ever thought of three-way tug?




Cali lost her head over Thanksgiving. We spent the week at her Favorite Place in the World, also known as Deni’s Lolo, Mont., house. We were sharing the holiday with Alberta and Mack, two lovely dogs who live there.

Well, the most important thing to know about Deni’s Lolo house is that it has a lot of land and is surrounded by even more open, unfenced land and national forest.

The first day, we set out for a walk around the property and, well, Cali lost her head. She took off running and she ran and ran in giant loops around the meadow, up and down hills, in and out between trees, around and around and around, for several minutes.

Cali, wearing a cowboy hat, smiles broadlyThe first time Cali spent a summer in Montana, I decided that “Don’t Fence Me In” should be her theme song. When we returned last summer, we stopped at Packer Meadow, which is at Lolo Pass, right on the Idaho — Montana border, about a 30-minute drive from Lolo. Koala was with us, and the two dogs did the same sort of “lost-our-heads, can’t-stop-running” exuberant celebration (see the video for a tiny sliver of their romp).

There is nothing more joyful than watching a dog run free. And dogs seem to know when they are truly free, versus in a large, open, off-leash, but fenced area.

Cali has a good life. Every day, wherever we’ve lived, I’ve taken her someplace that she can play ball and run around off leash. But it’s nearly always a yard or park that is a contained, fenced play area. She loves it, but she knows the difference.