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Thursday, November 11, 2010

Normal Play?

Yesterday I had a client that was worried about her seven month old puppy being aggressive.  In the exam room the dog was energetic and sweet with no signs of behavioral problems.  As I questioned the owner and delved into the behaviors I realized that the owner was describing normal play behaviors.  It's actually not uncommon for an average pet owner to be confused, as some play behaviors in dogs can appear aggressive.  And since animal behavior is a strong interest of mine, that's today's blog topic.

Here is a recent picture of my two dogs:  Inara on the left and Yvaine on the right.

Looks pretty fearsome, right?  That's actually them just playing around and neither one is aggressive.  In animals, play behavior is often practice for life as an adult.  Carnivores will practice stalking and hunting.  Social animals will practice behaviors that will determine social hierarchies.  It's just like human children playing "house" or pretending to have jobs.  Childhood is a good time for any animal to start learning and honing skills they will need to be successful later in life.  So in pets you will see behaviors that may seem like hunting, aggression, and so on.

So what indicates play?  There are some key behaviors and body languages you can look for.
1.  The most common and universal behavior is the "play bow".  In dog language this is an invitation to play.  The front end will be down and the hind end raised.  Whenever you see this the dog is in play mode, even if there are seemingly aggressive vocalizations.

2.  Another common behavior is a "play face".  This is universal across animal species.  The eyes are wide, the mouth somewhat open, ears normally erect and alert, and the face relaxed.  Like the play bow, this is a sign of playfulness.

3.  Wagging tails are also a good sign.  However, some dogs will wag when they're nervous or uncertain.  If a wagging tail is seen with the above behaviors it's play.  If there are raised hackles, fierce barking, or bite attempts, it's a sign that the dog is uncertain how to react to the situation.
4.  Many dogs will bounce from side to side or forwards and backwards when they are wanting play.  Like the play bow this is an invitation behavior.  Basically the dog is saying "Hey, come get me!  Play with me!"
5.  Barking and even growling, when combined with the above behaviors, is merely an indication of play.  It's like kids yelling and shouting at each other during wrestling or a ball game.
6. Dogs don't have hands and fingers to manipulate their environment.  Instead they use their mouths and teeth to interact and grab things.  So biting or grabbing during play is common and normal.  It may not be desired, and should be discouraged and trained out of the dog.  However, it's not a sign of aggression.

Looking for these behaviors should tell you when a dog is playing.  If you're worried about aggression here are some signs to look for.
1. Raised hair on the back and neck (though Inara will do this during play sometimes, so with her I've had to look at the other behaviors).
2.  Tail straight or lowered and not wagging.
3.  Ears back or down.
4.  Persistent growling for several seconds or minutes and not just for brief spurts.
5.  Lunging with fierce barking.

Dog's don't commonly show all of the signs at once for any behavior, so look for some of the signs and use your best judgment. If you don't know the dog and there are any signs of aggression, please do not interact with that dog!  If you're worried about your own dog's behaviors, find a vet who is skilled with animal behavior and have him or her evaluated.


  1. I do not allow any dogs to playfight, especially puppies with dogs they live with. While for many dogs this is okay, there are some who use play as training and will use their new techniques against other dogs in an aggressive manner. I have seen it more than once, including in one of my own dogs. There isn't an easy way for the average pet owner to tell which way dogs will go.

    Also puppies learn that other dogs are great fun and they can rag on their faces and bite their ears. They go outside and think every dog is such fun and run up to each and every dog expecting to play in this fashion, and end up either getting hurt, being on the bad end of another owner's temper, or get a game that is such fun they lose any desire to return to their owner. After a few goes at this then end up either on their lead all the time, or a menace to other dog owners if their owner sees nothing wrong with this behaviour. Then what happens is dogs like mine who don't want puppies in their face and can be very vocal and I'm told I shouldn't be out with 'aggressive' dogs.

    I hope you cleared up that her dog was playing but warned her of the pitfalls as well as any benefits.

  2. I meant to add when I look after puppies as they approach an age they can join my group walks I take them out with dogs that are not interested in playing with other dogs. That why they repeatedly get the message it's not appropriate to push yourself at other dogs within a a safe group of dogs. When they are mature, occasional play sometimes break out among dogs, otherwise, they spend their walk playing with me or doing other doggy stuff.

  3. Linda, I find it rather strange that you don't allow dogs to playfight. Dog interaction, ESPECIALLY as puppies, including play, is vital to their social development and is inherently natural. All dogs are capable of being aggressive, whether they have playfought or not. There are many solitary dogs that have little interaction with dogs that can be sweet as can be OR aggressive. Aggressiveness is determined by a wide variety of factors, and playfighting is at the bottom of the list. Similarly, the playfighting you saw in your dog that turned into aggressiveness was not necessarily related to the initial playfighting for this reason. All dogs have certain behaviors they can tap into, whether they playfight or not. Those behaviors will manifest themselves in different ways. Stopping a dog from playfighting won't stop potential dog aggression. In fact, if they are socialized well enough, many times a dog will not be aggressive at all. That is why puppy socialization is of upmost importance. Also, as an owner, becoming acquainted with good and bad playfighting is key to sidestepping aggression.

    As for your comment on puppies, puppies are just that - puppies. They are learning about the world just like human children and they make mistakes and learn from them. Not only is it normal for a puppy to not pay attention to its owner especially when caught up in play (due to either the puppy age and/or personality) it's normal for a puppy to romp up to other dogs. They will, in most cases, learn in time.

    Once the puppy matures, if you trust your dog and know your dog, you should be able to let it off the lead. Some dogs won't ever be able to be off their lead and that is just fine.

  4. Linda and JF, you both have good points. Play fighting is normal in dogs, and doesn't automatically lead to aggression or inappropriate interactions. If a dog doesn't learn proper interaction with strange dogs, the problem is due to improper socialization when young, not rough play. So in general, as a veterinarian and someone with a lot of training in animal behavior (I have a Master's in behavior and it's a strong interest of mine), I don't think there is a problem with play fighting or rough play in most puppies.

    That being said, there are certainly some breeds and individuals where this should be discouraged or fully prevented. Dogs that have dominance or aggression tendencies shouldn't be allowed to play like this. Owners of these dogs should also avoid competitive games such as tug-of-war. Puppies and dogs like this need to be treated and trained differently.

    Rough play or play fighting will not make an aggressive dog, and will not create inappropriate social interactions. However, such play can worsen or encourage aggression in dogs ALREADY prone to it. Also, such play can lead to poor socialization if the owner doesn't train properly in other ways.

    Know your dog and know how to train properly. When in doubt, talk to a vet who is skilled with behavioral situations (not all are).

  5. Maybe it's because he's blind and relies more on his other senses than your typical dog, but my mini dachshund does actually use his paws to manipulate the environment (to some extent). He'll roll over on his back and hold a toy in his front paws, or bat it around (his toys squeek or rattle when moved). Hubby says he thinks he's a cat.


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