Dogs love to play! From the time they’re just two weeks old, puppies are often happily playing and wrestling with their litter. While it may just look like all fun and games, this play is actually critical to a dog’s social development. This activity helps to teach them about self-control, communication and socialisation with other animals and for the most part is completely safe and harmless. However, sometimes this fun can cross the line into something a bit more aggressive, which can put yourself or other animals at risk of being injured. It’s important to be able to identify if this shift in behaviour is happening and what you can do about it to make sure your pup can continue to play with others safely.
Signs of Aggression
When dogs play, oftentimes they will act in ways that we might normally think of as aggressive, including a little growling, barking or even play biting. In mild forms, these behaviours are totally safe and normal. However it’s important to be aware of when things are turning sour. It’s also important to note that just because your dog is showing some aggressive behaviour during play does not mean they should be instantly labelled as an aggressive animal. In some situations, these aggressive displays may be appropriate, such as if your dog is beginning to feel uncomfortable or unsafe in a situation. Even so, it’s never a good idea to leave dogs to try and work things out on their own. Intervening as soon as you see these signs can help keep the other dog and yourself safe.
- Growling - while some dogs will growl when they are playing, it’s important to know the difference between a play growl and a serious growl. If your dog is still quite relaxed in their body movements while growling, this is typically just a playful growl. When getting aggressive, a growl will usually be coupled with snapping or snarling.
- Snarling - if you notice your dog is starting to lift their lips and bare their teeth followed by a growl or bite, this is them snarling and is a sign for play time to be over.
- Staring - if you notice your dog is staring at the other dog without breaking eye contact and seems to be intently following them around, this may be a sign of them stalking, which is not a fun play time activity.
- Freezing - if your dog seems to be quite rigid in their legs and movement this is typically a sign of stress, meaning your dog is no longer having fun. This is a sign that it might be a good idea to put an end to play time before things turn aggressive. They may also tighten the muscles in their face and furrow their brow.
Why Do Dogs Show Aggression While Playing
Dogs aren’t typically born aggressive. There is usually a good reason as to why your dog is showing this aggressive behaviour while playing with others.
If your dog grew up isolated away from other dogs and animals and never got the opportunity to properly socialise when they were young, they may not have learnt what behaviour is too aggressive when playing with others. A lack of socialisation can also leave your dog feeling overly stressed when around others and cause them to act out in response.
It’s possible that at some stage in their early life your dog came across something or someone it was scared off and used their aggressive behaviour to get that thing to go away. This teaches them that if they feel unsafe or uncomfortable, this is the appropriate way to act. If they start to feel this way while playing, instead of walking away from the other dog, they will act out instead.
Stress and Fear
This type of behaviour typically comes out when your dog feels stressed or scared. If they haven’t had the opportunity to socialise or play with other dogs and people before, or the play situation is getting a bit too rowdy for their liking, this can cause them to feel uncomfortable and act out in response.
If your dog is experiencing an elevation in their hormone levels, this can cause them to act out more frequently. Around breeding season, most dogs will be experiencing heightened hormones which can cause this behaviour. If a female dog has a new litter, she may be feeling extra protective and therefore more prone to aggressive behaviour.
If your dog becomes territorial over a certain object, place or person, they may act aggressive towards any dog who comes near them or their prized possession, even if they just want to play. If you notice this type of possessive aggression, it’s important to correct this behaviour as soon as possible to prevent future issues.
How to Prevent Aggressive Play
Preventing a behaviour is always better, and easier, than trying to treat it. There are a few things you can implement while your dog is still a puppy to help prevent them from developing aggressive behaviour while interacting and playing with others.
One of the best ways to prevent your dog from becoming aggressive when they play is to make sure they interact and socialise with other dogs early on in their life. Whether regular taking them to the dog park or scheduling play dates, having them interact and play with other puppies can allow them to learn what is acceptable behaviour. Mingling them with well trained adult dogs can also help them understand what is acceptable and what is not at play time. Just be sure the interactions they have are positive and playful. If other dogs are just making your dog uncomfortable or being overly aggressive towards them, this will just have the opposite effect and leave your dog hesitant and cautious about interacting with others. If you’re setting up a playdate, especially for the first time, be sure to make the meeting location a neutral spot. Having dogs meet in one's backyard or personal space can increase the risk of your dog becoming territorial.
While they’re still young and learning, always remember to keep any training or correction positive. Being physically aggressive or intimidating when trying to correct your dog’s behaviour while they’re still learning can end up having the opposite effect. Remember, bad training creates bad dogs. Rather than focusing on simply punishing them for doing something wrong, shift your focus and make sure to reward them every time they do something right.
Ensuring your dog is desexed at an early age can help to reduce the risk of hormone-induced aggression.
While your dog is still young and learning, or when they are in new environments and interacting with new playmates, make sure to always stay close and keep an eye on them. This not only ensures you're nearby if things start to go wrong, it also allows you to immediately correct any wrong behaviours that start to show.
Treating Play Aggression
Whether your dog has started showing signs of being too aggressive while they play, or you’re looking for some training regimes you can implement early to deter your dog from developing this behaviour, there are a few training methods you can practise with your furry friend that can help keep play time safe and fun.
Distract & Discourage
The first part of this method is distracting. One of the first things you can do when you first start training with your dog is to give them plenty of exercise before play time. With less energy and excitement built up, they will be less inclined to even think about engaging in aggressive play. Secondly, having them trained with basic commands like sit and stay will make it easier for you to get back in control of your dog’s behaviour should things start to get too aggressive.
If you’re playing with your dog and you find they’re getting overly excited and starting to growl or bite more than they should, it’s time to disengage from the situation. Lean away, put your arms behind your back and look away from them to show them this behaviour is making you no longer interested in playing with them. When you are playing with them, it’s important to remain above them. Coming down to their level to play can get them overly excited and can also make them forget that you’re the boss.
Start off by gently playing with your dog, just the two of you. If all seems to be going well, you can bring a toy of theirs into the mix and encourage them to chew and play with it while you hold it. This will deter them from thinking your arms or legs might be fun to play with. Just be sure to keep your hands on the toy and not near their mouth. Here you can introduce games like tug of war - just be sure to let them win every once and a while so they continue to feel excited to play.
If at any point you feel your dog is becoming too aggressive, stop playing and either leave or ignore your dog to give them time to cool down and signal to them you won’t engage with such behaviour. Always be sure to give them praise when they do play well. Giving them treats when they play appropriately will help them associate gentle play with rewards.