Behavior & Training
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Is Your Dog’s Rough Play Appropriate?
Some like it ruff

We have been videotaping dog-dog play for more than 10 years and, together with our colleagues, have analyzed hundreds of hours of data to test hypotheses about play. We present our results at animal behavior conferences and publish in scientific journals. Here, we focus primarily on dog play that some might consider “inappropriate” or “not safe.”

In the field of animal behavior, researchers often refer to social play as “play fighting” because it includes many of the behaviors seen during real fights. For example, during play, one dog might chase and tackle another, or use a neck bite to force a partner to the ground. Dogs will also hip check or slam, mount, rear up, bite, stand over, sit on, bark, snarl, growl, bare their teeth and do chin-overs (i.e., place the underside of their chin over the neck of their partner). However, despite the overlap in behaviors, some clear differences exist between play fighting and real fighting. When playing, dogs inhibit the force of their bites and sometimes voluntarily give their partner a competitive advantage (self-handicap) by, for example, rolling on their backs or letting themselves be caught during a chase — behaviors that would never happen during real fighting.

In addition to inhibited bites and selfhandicapping, dogs clearly demarcate play by employing signals, such as play bows (i.e., putting the front half of the body on the ground while keeping the rear half up in the air) and exaggerated, bouncy movements. Anthropologist Gregory Bateson called play signals meta-communication, meaning communication about communication. Humans employ meta-communication a lot. For example, when teasing a friend, we may smile or use a certain tone of voice to indicate that we’re just kidding. Similarly, dogs play bow to invite play and to convey playful intentions during play. Marc Bekoff, while at the University of Colorado, did a study1 showing that dogs are most likely to play bow just before or immediately after performing an especially assertive behavior, such as a bite accompanied by a head shake. This pattern suggests that playing dogs recognize moments when their behavior can be misinterpreted as serious aggression and compensate by reminding their partner, “I’m still playing.”

By using meta-communication, social beings can step through a looking glass into a world that operates by different rules. Meta-communication allows humans and dogs to pretend — that is, to perform actions that appear to be one thing but actually mean something completely different. To people unfamiliar with the notion that some nonhuman animals have this ability, play that includes archetypal aggressive behaviors, like snarling and growling, can be quite confusing. Close attention to the context, however, can help us differentiate between play aggression and real aggression.

Even though play fighting is very different from real fighting, people often feel the need to intervene. Sometimes it is obvious at the beginning of a bout that two dogs are playing, but once the dogs start growling or their arousal intensifies, observers may no longer be sure that the dogs are still playing. After all, humans instinctively avoid a dog who is snarling or baring his teeth, and it is natural to think that our dogs should do the same. When people interrupt really rowdy play, they assume that they are “playing it safe,” that is, doing no harm. But what if this assumption is mistaken?

Our research shows that for many dogs, play fighting is the primary method used to negotiate new relationships and develop lasting friendships. Although play is fun, it also offers serious opportunities to communicate with another dog. In this sense, play is a kind of language. Thus, when we regularly break up what we consider “inappropriate” play, are we doing our dogs a service, or confusing them by constantly butting into their private conversations? Most importantly, how can we tell the difference?

First, we need to determine whether both dogs are enjoying themselves and want to continue playing. Look at their postures and facial expressions. Their movements may be light, bouncy and exaggerated and they may have relaxed, open mouths (like those on Bark’s Smiling Dog pages). Watch for play signals, which can often be quite subtle — a quick dip or bounce rather than a full-blown play bow. If you’re not certain that a dog really wants to be playing, try briefly holding that dog back. If she presses her body into yours and avoids looking at the other dog, she’s showing relief at the interruption and you should help her avoid the other dog. If she pulls against your grip in an attempt to interact with the other dog, release her. If she runs toward the other dog or directs a play signal in his direction, then she is saying that she wants to keep playing.

An interaction like the one just described is straightforward and easy to read. However, what about instances that may not be so clear-cut? We encourage you to discard any preconceived notions about what dog play should and should not look like — at least for the time being. For example, are traditional “no-no’s” like neck biting, rearing up, body-slamming and repeated pinning by one dog ever okay when two dogs are playing? It all depends on the individual dogs and the kind of relationship they have with one another.

Consider an example of a close canine friendship founded on unorthodox play. When Sage, a one-year-old German Shepherd, first met Sam, a four-monthold Labradoodle, he was very rough with Sam. He would pin Sam with a neck bite every few seconds. No sooner would Sam stand up than Sage would neckbite him and flip him on his back again. At first, we thought that Sage might be too rough for Sam, so we would intervene by holding one or both of them back. However, each time, Sam would try his hardest to get to Sage, despite the inevitable pinning. As Sam grew larger, eventually matching Sage in weight, Sage added body slams and mounting to their play. With the exception of frequent rear-ups (in which they adopted identical roles, facing one another and boxing with their front paws), Sage usually maintained the more assertive role (neck biting, pinning, slamming and so forth). Yet, because Sam was always an enthusiastic partner, we let them continue to play together.

To this day, their play remains asymmetrical; Sage repeatedly brings down Sam with neck bites and continues to bite Sam’s neck once he is down. Sam wriggles on the ground and flails at Sage with his legs while Sage, growling loudly, keeps biting Sam’s neck. More than once, bystanders have thought the dogs were fighting for real, but Sage’s neck bites never harm Sam, and Sam never stops smiling, even when he’s down. Sometimes, when Sage is done playing but Sam is not, he’ll approach Sage and offer his neck, as though saying, “Here’s my neck; go ahead and pin me.” This move always succeeds; it’s an offer Sage cannot resist.

With Sage and Sam, allowing play to continue was the right decision. Their early play interactions burgeoned into a lifelong friendship. Even today, the two middle-aged boys will sometimes play together for five hours at a stretch, stopping only occasionally for brief rests. When they are finally done, they often lie together, completely relaxed, with their bodies touching. Their faces are loose and smiling, and they seem almost drunk in an endorphin-induced haze.

This relationship shows that play does not necessarily have to be fair or balanced in order for two dogs to want to play with one another. Years ago, scientists proposed a 50/50 rule: for two individuals to engage in play, they must take turns being in the more assertive role. Scientists thought that if one individual was too rough or forceful (e.g., pinning her partner much more often than she was being pinned), the other dog would not want to play. Until our research, this proposition was never empirically tested.

Over a 10-year period, we studied pair-wise play between adult dogs, between adult dogs and adolescents, and between puppy littermates. Our findings showed that the 50/50 rule simply did not apply. Dogs do not need to take turns being assertive in order for play to take place. However, this doesn’t mean that dogs never role-reverse during play, because they often do2 (e.g., Sage is in the top-dog position most of the time, but sometimes Sam gets to be top dog too). It just means that role reversals usually aren’t equally balanced.

Surprisingly, in some of the relationships we studied, individuals initiated play and preferred to play with others who were consistently assertive with them. For example, in a litter of mixedbreed puppies, one female, Pink, initiated play with a female littermate, Blue, more than twice as often as she initiated play with any of her other littermates (including another sister), even though Blue adopted the assertive role during play 100 percent of the time. Similarly, in our study of adult dogs, when the female German Shepherd, Safi, was playing, she was virtually always in the top-dog role. Despite this imbalance, other dogs sought Safi’s company and often invited her to play.

Sometimes people interrupt these interactions because they fear that rough play will escalate into an allout dogfight. However, in hundreds of hours of observations of play fighting between two dogs with established relationships, we have never witnessed a single escalation to real fighting. One of the authors hosted six to eight neighborhood dogs in her backyard every day for nine years, including two female German Shepherds, a male Husky, a male Husky mix and three mixed-breeds. Their play included all of the traditional “no-no’s” mentioned previously, but no dog ever received so much as a scratch. Other scientists report similar findings. The Hungarian ethologist Vilmos Csányi writes, “In some Hungarian animal rescue organizations, more than a hundred dogs … coexist peacefully.3

Some people have the notion that rough play is practice for real fighting (or even killing). If this were the case, the dogs mentioned in this article did a great deal of practicing for fights that never occurred. Scientists originally hypothesized that animals play fight in order to enhance their combat skills, but recent research doesn’t support this assertion. Although we still do not completely understand why animals engage in social play, research suggests that animals play to help form social bonds, enhance cognitive development, exercise and/or practice coping skills for life’s unexpected situations. All of these benefits, if real, are important to our dogs.

Lately, there has been a lot of attention paid to the question: what is “safe” dog play? Although we recommend carefully monitoring play between dogs who are significantly different in size or age, or who do not know each other well, our studies have shown that dogs are very good at figuring out which dogs they want to play with and how to play well with their friends. Presumably, dogs are better than humans at speaking and understanding dog language. Perhaps it is time to humble ourselves and listen to them.

Safi, a female German Shepherd, and Osa, a male Golden Retriever mix, were best friends for many years. When they played, they snarled a lot, lips curled and teeth exposed. The snarls looked fierce, but they often preceded silly behaviors, like flopping on the ground. Also, when something in the environment suddenly interrupted their play, the dogs’ faces would instantly shift into neutral, alert expressions while they focused on whatever had stolen their attention. Then, as though on cue, Safi and Osa would put their scary faces back on, almost as if they were Halloween masks, and turn toward one another. Their expressions were so exaggerated and obviously fake that they always made us laugh. Some dogs can even be trained to show a snarl on command in a context that is otherwise perfectly friendly. These observations show that dogs can exhibit nasty faces voluntarily, just as we do when we are only pretending to be mean.

Growling, like snarling, is a seemingly aggressive behavior that means something different during play than it does in other contexts. We have often videotaped play between another female Shepherd, Zelda, and a male mixed-breed, Bentley. When watching these tapes, we noticed that, following brief pauses in play, Zelda often stared at Bentley and growled fiercely. Whenever she did this, Bentley leaped toward her and the chase was on. Bentley moved toward rather than away from Zelda because he knew her growl was not real.

This phenomenon was also noted by other researchers, who recorded growls from dogs in three different contexts, including play4. Play growls have different acoustical properties than growls given as threats, and when researchers played the growls back, dogs distinguished between play growls and growls given in agonistic (i.e., conflicting) contexts. If dogs can distinguish between types of growls in the absence of contextual cues (such as another playing dog), surely they know when a play partner’s growl is just pretend.


1 M . Bekoff. 1995. Play signals as punctuation: the structure of social play in canids. Behaviour 132(5–6):419–429.

2 E . B. Bauer. 2007. Cooperation and competition during dyadic play in domestic dogs, Canis familiaris. Animal Behaviour 73:489–499; C . Ward, E . B. Bauer, B. B. S muts. 2008. Partner preferences and asymmetries in social play among domestic dog, Canis lupus familiaris, littermates. Animal Behaviour 76:1187–1199.

3 V. C sányi. 2000. If Dogs Could Talk: Exploring the Canine Mind. New York: N orth Point P ress.

4 T . Faragó, P . Pongrácz, F. R ange, Z. Virányi, A. M iklósi. 2010. ‘The bone is mine’: affective and referential aspects of dog growls. Animal Behaviour 79:917–925

This article first appeared in The Bark,
Issue 65: Jun/Aug 2011

Barbara Smuts, PhD holds an undergraduate degree in anthropology and a doctorate in behavioral biology from Stanford Medical School. A professor of psychology, she teaches courses in animal behavior at the University of Michigan. She has studied social behavior in several wild animals, including olive baboons and chimpanzees (East Africa) and bottlenose dolphins (coastal Western Australia). More recently, she has been studying social relationships among domestic dogs and is working on a book on this subject.


Photograph by Amanda Jones

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Submitted by TrueDogLuva | April 16 2012 |

Wow I found this extremely interesting and love to see smart people put stuff like this into actual words. I am serious, I love it! I would just like to add that multi-dog play fighting is not always a bad thing. Each dog takes turns playing the "victim," although I am not sure why and I am no expert (just someone who lives with a lot of dogs), but I would be eager to read the "why" others may perceive and I must get this magazine!! Here is a video of a lot of the play maneuvers mentioned in this article. Here are actual PitBulls@Play: http://youtu.be/HxtJWy9UQNM

Submitted by Barry | July 17 2012 |

Is there anytime when one should intervene? Say when one dog is, assuming, 'playfully' and happily body pinning while over exuberant mouthing of fore-limbs and ignoring communicative signals of 'play' that is getting too rough by the pinned. Your article is interesting but seems to imply that overly rough play is benign and we can do more harm intervening and simply allow predominant one sided roughness to course out. I have and will always intervene when it's blatant bullying that going on. Bullying by 100% forceful body pinning or neck pinning/holding, tactfully biting hard on lower fore-limbs and ignoring whines/yelps of the pinned. To say this doesn't happen or is not the case is contrary to my experiences..is it play?..perhaps..is it acceptable play..definitely not. When the pinned get up and walk with noticeable lameness is the benchmark that 'play' was allowed to escalate beyond good intention. I believe play can transform into blind prey mode..that must be addressed. All the show - real play is all much show and exaggeration - of growls and exposed teeth and false attacks, rolling, side slamming and such notwithstanding.

Submitted by viv | August 2 2012 |

I was glad to read your view on the acceptable/unacceptable aspects of play-fighting. I have been searching for sites to address my current dilemma. I have been a Bullmastiff owner (in pairs, male & female) for over 20 years. They have always enjoyed play-wrestling, and always known when to stop. Resident dog has always kept incoming dog in place.
However, I have just taken a 13-month rescue male Bullmastiff with a normally lovely and docile nature, to live alongside my 5-year old bitch, since her partner died in January. Trouble is, the newcomer is a big dog and he is a dominant play bully. She has too kind in nature to turn on him to stop. He heads her off when she wants to come in from the garden, pushes her to the ground (with great force), chews her legs, etc.. On Sunday evening she came in lame after I rescued the situation. On Monday morning I had to take her to the vet with a badly sprained right shoulder and have kept them apart since.
I am at a loss as to what to do to stop this manic bullying play behaviour. I live in Wales where training collars are banned.
Please help me with suggestions.

Submitted by Jen Brighton | August 8 2012 |

Hi Viv, I'm not a trainer but am very involved with my dogs, one being a therapy dog. We experienced a similar situation when we first adopted our male dog (pit-pointer mix) from the shelter. At 1 yr. old he had never learned how to play with other dogs. He was a bull in a china shop! He didn't know how to go around people on trails, he'd go right through me, with me ending up on the ground, or would slam into other dogs until he learned that was rude.

The shelter thought our female (pit-Lab) would put him in his place, but she was too kind and we thought way too tolerant of his shenanigans. Having said that, even from the beginning he never harmed her. With lots of work and showing Dom what our expectations were and stepping in often to tone down his play (he did make her squeal in the beginning because his neck bites were too hard and to this day he bites her legs but now she bites his), he has become an awesome dog who now gets it.

Your description reminds me exactly of how Domino acted the first few months. Inca was so tolerant. She's my love! We would watch her closely and if it looked like he was bugging her, we would separate them or have a time out 'til he calmed down and could play more gently. Hopefully with lots of work, your 13-mo-old dog will start to understand what pleases you and figure out that it's a lot more fun to have a playmate than one who runs away and avoids him.

The good thing about Dom is he was never aggressive in any manner, just out of control because he had no training other than the little the shelter had given him. He's a wonderful 3+ now and it's so fun to watch my two dogs enjoy each other's company. He also goes out 3 times a week with a company called Trail Dogs that takes up to 10 dogs in a van to legal off leash hiking areas, so he's very socialized. His sister goes other days to give them a break from each other. He is not dog park material, though. The one think lacking is his understanding of very submissive dogs. He's a rambunctious player and it's best for him to have rambuctious friends at this point in his life. His play manner can intimidate shy dogs, which is not appropriate. And I never allow him off leash around small dogs. I fear he will step on them.

Submitted by Tammy | July 27 2013 |

Your resident dog should take priority and if I were in your situation, if this aggressive behaviour lasted more then a week I'd rehome the new dog. Causing actual body harm to the point you've had to take her to a vet is totally unacceptable.
I have a Boxer/Bulldog cross and Border Collie and the cross is my baby who came first, if a new dog hurt him, I'd realise just like people, some dogs just don't get on no matter how much you try.

Submitted by GEORGE MCGINN | November 30 2013 |

Most of the time, the first time a dog or puppy play fights is with you, its owner, I have a Australian Shepherd (Black Tri-Colored) and she can get pretty rough. But if you want to see how your dog really plays with another dog, rough play with your dog.

You will find out that those bites, bearing teeth and wild-looking eyes, are light and mostly the dog mouths you.

When people get hurt, it is usually their fault. You will bleed every time you try and pull your hand out of a dog's mouth, even if its just mouthing you. Resist the urge to pull your hand out of the dog's mouth. It will hurt less and no blood will be drawn.

Also, my dog hip checks me, does body slams, and she hits with enough force to let you know she hit you, but not hard enough to break legs or bloody another dog's face. A dog may also wrap its paws around your hand or arms.

But two things will occur if you rough house with your dog. You will see and know how dogs in general play with each other, and the bonding process with your dog will develop quicker if you never play the games she or he likes to play.

Play fighting with your dog also helps teach them inhibited behavior, especially when your dog is just a puppy. If you feel your dog is really biting hard, or draws blood with its teeth or paws, don't hesitate to yell "Ouch" or mimmick a yelp. Then immediately afterwards, break the engagement with your dog to give it time to process what just happened. You do not need to add any more discipline, as your behavior will tell the dog its playing with you too roughly.

Remember, by play fighting with your dog, you are bonding and teaching it how to play. And that is the best lesson it can receive. When they meet your neighbor's dog for the first time, when you see them play, you will have a better understanding of what you are seeing.

Like the article says, the dog will tell you or tell the other dog if it does not want to play (it does this by turning its back to the other dog and ignores its advances). You also need to do the same way.

Now you are speaking and communicating in a language that your dog understands.

George McGinn
Former Combat Military Policeman & Civilian Police Officer
Trained to train War Dogs and Service Dogs by the military

Submitted by Nadia Schuman | August 3 2014 |

Mr. McGinn,

I really appreciate your comment. I have recently begun doing this with my 14 month old PitBull, whom I acquired six weeks ago. It is interesting to see. I am a bit upset that her rough and "bullyish" play style is beginning to lead into fighting at dog parks. Do you have any recommendations? Lastly, I adopted a seven month old PitBull today and notice her doing a lot of bullying in the home. They play well together most of the time but sometimes it sounds a bit too aggressive. I am attempting not to intervene, but is it only play or are they establishing a hierarchical relationship? Do I allow the relationship to take its course as they work it out? Finally, I noticed that if my elder puppy notices the younger seemingly being bullied, she aggresses against the "aggressor". What do I do to curb that?

Submitted by S | August 17 2013 |

I think your concerns about bullying were addressed when the author(s) wrote " First we must determine if both dogs want to play". As far as I can tell, working at a playcare facility for a few years there aren't too many sadomasochist dogs out there who love pain...if they don't like what the other dog is doing , and you understand dogs at all, there will be clear signs - though sometimes subtle - that they do not want to play or engage with the so called bully.

Submitted by Hank | July 15 2014 |

Please don't bring your dog(s) to any dog parks.

Submitted by DB | July 20 2012 |

I would be interested to know if the dogs who played one-sided games with a mate, played the same way with other dogs. If so, did aggression ever result? IOW were they practising 'anti-social' behaviour with a partner that didn't mind, therefore learning poor skills with others?

Submitted by jackie | June 24 2013 |

I have this same question. My 1-year old lab plays extremely rough with my neighbors border collie/pit mix but it is definitely playing. But very rough. He is now getting into scuffles with other dogs and I'm not sure if this rough play with the neighbor, which he loves, is exacerbating the situation with strange dogs. Should I cool the rough play with the neighbor's dog? Because I want to be able to take him to the beach and other places and not worry about this. The neighbor dog can't really go anywhere ... she is out of control rough and scares everyone.

Submitted by Anonymous | August 3 2012 |

Thank you so much for this insightful and well-researched article. It has put my mind to ease, after having other dog owners insist that my dog was playing too roughly and teaching their dog bad behaviours when obviously their dog was still desperate to play. It seems logical to me that dogs need to work out their own levels of appropriate play and most dogs are quite verbal when that level has been reached.

Submitted by TDF | August 3 2012 |

Great help! I have two "St. Pyrenees" so I want to know what to expect as they geet larger. My big fear is if they get tangled in leashes or ropes. Will they know enough to recognize something is wrong and stop playing, or will they start to think the other is a real threat and escalate into fighting. The thought of stepping between two 130 pound fighting dogs to untangle leashes isn't good. I try to keep them tied far enough apart to eliminate the possibility but I still worry.


Submitted by Big Sister | August 6 2012 |

We had a little three pack of dogs. One was a bully breed/boxer mix and she was the most alpha dog I have ever seen. She could just walk around the dog park and other dogs would get out of her way. The other two were GSD/Doberman and boxer/rottie.

However, when the three played, the alpha dog was always "it". The GSD X would grab her by the scruff, and the boxer/rottie would gnaw on a hind leg, and she was dragged and thrown and chewed on and she always came back for more.

People would walk by, and they'd be horrified, because we were laughing our heads off. Such cruelty!

We had to explain that 1) the one who appears to be getting beaten up has a huge smile on her face and 2) she's the alpha dog.

They are all gone now, but we got countless hours of entertainment from them.

Submitted by Frances | August 7 2012 |

Very interesting article. I have two toy dogs, both bitches. I had read so much about the problems that can arise if two females take against each other, that I monitored them closely when they were young, and intervened if play inside the house seemed to be heading towards bullying or getting over excited. The end result is that they play very well together - noisily and with lots of play fighting outside, very quietly and with lots of mouth wrestling inside. I am more experienced now, and would probably let things run on a bit longer, but it seems my anxious intervention made little difference except to teach them that if play got too noisy "Mum" might stop the fun, so it was better to play quietly! (There is a very quiet game of Keep Away involving a knitted Christmas Pudding going on as I type...)

Submitted by Jen Brighton | August 8 2012 |

What an excellent article! Having two pit mixes that fit the "sound like they are killing each other" category when they play, I have noticed that in 100s of bouts of play only once did my female get a scrape on her face. I'm still not sure whether it was a branch from the bush they were tussling under or my other dog's tooth or nail. I know I've been the recipient of very leery looks when they play like that with each other at legal off-leash areas or on trails, so I try to discourage that sort of play outside the home so people don't freak out, especially other dog owners whose dogs do not play in that manner. I've also noticed that neither dog plays that intensely with other dogs, only each other.

This article makes me feel good about my dogs' play with each other. Thank you.

Submitted by Persis | August 21 2012 |

Excellent article. I have two females who I adopted from a shelter together at roughly one year of age. They did not know each other before that. When they play they sound ferocious: they snarl, they show their teeth, snap their teeth and they mount each other constantly. In fact the signal to start play is often one dog growling at the other or snapping their teeth. I have had these dogs for over 4 years now and their play has never turned into a real fight. I know a couple of people in the dog park think I let them go too far -- one man even tried to separate them knowing they were both my charges. I know my dogs -- they love to play like this; it makes them happy. Why should I deprive them of doing what they love?

Submitted by wendy | October 24 2012 |

I have 2 bulldogs one from a puppy and another adopted. My puppy Mia (almost 2 now) loves to play and is almost always the one who invites it by bowing, barking and tag! (runs by and nudges). Jersey is adopted. The 2 were best friends right from the start. The share toys, bones, food etc...my question is Jersey does not temper her bite during play and after a year Mia now has several scars on her neck and shoulders. They have never fought and Mia never gets angry and always go back for more.
Is there something I can do to help her play nicer?
I have worked with Jersey intensively since were adopted her but she was abused very badly and is terrified of men. Other dogs want to attack her during play so Mia is all she has. Any help would be greatly appreciated.

Submitted by Carol | January 8 2013 |

I just found this article by coincidence but it's was just the thing I was looking for!
My family and I recently got a new puppy, she was 6 weeks old when we got her now she is a playful little 15 week old and at first we were worried that our older dogs might not take to her. They didn't. Our oldest dog who is outside is 9 year old, and our second oldest dog who is inside is 2 years and four months. Our 2 year old Shih Tzu would do everything in his power to avoid interacting with the puppy the first couple of weeks. It worried us. Then on the third week he finally came around and started mouthing our female puppy and they would chase each other around for a little while until one was tired and then they would both knock out.
As our puppy got older her playing got a little more aggressive as she is now almost half the size of our 2 year old. I had never had more then one dog inside at a time so the whole play fighting thing was all new to me and I was always unsure if their playing was too rough or not. Now I know, thanks to this very helpful article. Everything said here is exactly what my two dogs do. So it really helped give me peace of mind and I can now feel a little more comfortable letting them play with each other rather then worrying if I should stop them or not.
Thank you very much for taking time out to read this.


Submitted by Jolene | January 10 2013 |

We have a 9 month old Cavalier King Charles Spaniel (female) and just got a new 11 month old Cavalier (also female). The 9 month old is a bit bigger than the 11 month old (who is smaller and has a more delicate tempermant). The 9 month old always wants to play - she exhibits a strong "herding" aggressive like behavior. Wrestles with her, but while doing so, tugs on the 11 month old's ears and tries to grab (bite) her legs. The 11 month old likes to play if it is more gentle, but lately the 9 month old is playing rough all the time - to the point that our 9 month girl runs to us with this "save me" look. She pesters the 9 month old when going down steps, which makes her too scared to continue down the steps. How can we get the "bully-herder" Cavalier to play more gently?

Submitted by Wendy | January 18 2013 |

I have been walking my my 18-month Cocker Spaniel with my friends 2 Tibetans. They are brother and sister and four months younger. Recently my dog is totally dominating the female with rough play to the extent that she is hurting her and cornering her. I feel compelled to intervene and my dog completely ignores me while I am trying to get her back on the lead. My dog is always good when we out with other dogs, however, she is too excited when we meet up with these. I almost wish her dog would go for her so that we can all enjoy the walk together. Any ideas please?

Submitted by jade | February 13 2013 |

I have recently got a 6 week old bitch staffy, I already have a 4 year old bitch staffy. They play constantly. The puppy is very full on with bites where as the oonejust knocks her or pins her down. I'm worried if allow this the pup will grow up aggressive or my older dog wil snap one day. Any advice

Submitted by Anonymous | March 27 2013 |

Despite the article promoting friendly play I would intervene when any biting is full on. I have the same situation and my puppy is in the hospital today with its front top lateral incisors nearly broken off by the older dog who bit him on the upper jaw putting puncture marks on the nose and nearly biting out his incisors. I would be happy to send you a picture of where our allowed play fighting led. Not pretty--For the record my puppy was smiling again shortly after the incident but he will have gapped teeth for life and I have a $400.00 bill. ( I know the article also mentions not allowing play with Toys present but they wont know the difference if you are out of the room. This was with a toy while I was away and they had never done this before. Better safe than sorry.

Submitted by Lloyd | September 11 2013 |

Ummmm....there was a toy and they were unsupervised? I think it's fair to say that this more than likely was NOT rough play but rather a full-on fight over that toy.

Submitted by Anonymous | March 17 2013 |

What a great article! It's nice to read one that's research based yet written in an accessible style, and it gave me heart to know that you've not seen play fighting turn into real fighting between dogs with established relationships. We have two young female Siberian Husky rescues (16 months and 14 months). They're both well socialized with other dogs, but definitely sound like real "haters" when they play and are alarming to those who aren't used to that sort of play style, but they appear to love it! One is 25% heavier, uses that weigh differential to her advantage, and seems to always feel she's got to assert dominance. The other is dainty, but incredibly fast and agile, and though she can hold her own pretty well, she doesn't seem to mind being the submissive one as long as she can entice the other (or us) to play. They play to exhaustion, then often lay down by each other, happy and relaxed. We do notice that our bigger girl will gang up on our daintier one in multi-dog situations (like at dog parks) or really seem to bully her in an unwelcome way once she gets home if she's been in a multi-dog situation that day where she's had to submit to other dogs a lot (as if she's got to reassert her role as top dog). That does concern us, as we don't want their relationship to sour or a problem to escalate... and though working on recall training, as with a lot of huskies, it's a big challenge, so we aren't always able to intervene as effectively as we'd like. I'll look for your other article mentioned, as it sounds like it might be helpful and shed more light on those situations. Thanks again for writing this. Very interesting stuff!

Submitted by Anonymous | April 16 2013 |

THis sounds exactly like our dogs. We have a 6 month old and a 5 month old. Both pit bulls who we rescued at the same time. They get really rough and it makes me worry sometimes but this article and your comment sound pretty similar to my dogs, however, both of my dogs have scratches all over them and I'm not really ok with that.

Submitted by anotherme | March 31 2013 |

My dogs fight play like this. I try to keep in mind that if no one is yelping, it's OK. They do enjoy a nice play fight with soft neck bites. A rough real fight between them is obvious (loud, stressful, and out of control) and I break them up. The real fights seem to be slowly coming less and less often. Good. My concern is taking the new dog to the dog park while he is still exhibiting these behaviors. If he is even fake-biting a strange dog, either the dog or the owner may take it wrong. How can I be sure he will know this behavior is OK with his housemate, but not with other dogs?

Submitted by Ms. Jones | May 13 2013 |

I was so glad to see your page on dog behavior when it comes to play because I got my dog from a shelter I've had him for 4 weeks now and for the last two weeks I've been taking him to dog parks. He is 2 yrs. old and at first I adopted him and his brother but his brother was very aggressive and dominating over him and dominating over me. His brother also ate his food so he was the smallest of the two; therefore, I returned his brother to the shelter and kept him. His personality started coming out, he gets along well with children, people in general, and other dogs. The only thing that would get him to fight is when a dog try and mount him like his brother constantly done, and they would constantly fight because he wasn't going to let his brother dominate him. For two weeks at the dog parks meeting different dogs he has never been aggressive; however, today at the dog park he ways playing with a dog larger than him but way younger than him the dog was only 8 months old and he is 2 yrs. old, he played with the 8 month old as he usually did with older dogs but I did notice one difference and that was he kept jumping on the dog then he would bark to be chased and when the dog chased him they were having a lot of fun then they stopped and my dog who is 2 yrs. old kept barking as he normally does when he plays with the older dogs but this seemed to turn into a fight that took me and the other owner time to stop they both were grawling and barking and biting at one another and when we finally where able to pull them apart they settled but it seemed like they wanted each other again. The only problem with it is that it looked too much like a fight to me and the owner and my dog initiated it by barking. For now I'm afraid to take him back to dog parks even though they have been good for him but he doesn't come to me when I call him so that's not good. I still don't know what to do but at least by reading your page I see that my dog still may be OK. Thank you.

Submitted by Anonymous | May 22 2013 |

My 11 week old akta pup is bigger than my neighbors King Charles spaniel. He plays pretty rough with him even the the kcs isn't crying, pup is biting/holding on to his ear and lip. As he gets even bigger this seems like it could cause a lot of tension among the two.

Submitted by Gabbi | June 26 2013 |

I have two male King Charles Cavaliers who are 17 months old and the best of friends. They are not from the same litter but they both snuggle, are kind to each other and play fight a lot! I would like to know how to get them to play fight outside rather than bumping into furniture, using the couch as a spring board and playing on our bed! I don't mind them having fun, but they get so boisterous in the house I end up having to stop them playing. Your help would be appreciated.

Submitted by sam | July 22 2013 |

i have two chihuahuas who love to play fight very vigorously there anre a lot of scuffles and they are about equally as dominant in their own ways. i also have a chocolate lab who would love to play but has a habit of treading on them. in response the the small ones playing, he often becomes anxious and attempts to interject himself into the play to break them up. i try to get him to leave the other two alone but he becomes quite worried. sometimes he will try to 'mount' the chihuahuas even though he stands a foot taller than them. is this normal and is there a way to ease his concerns with the play fighting?

Submitted by Snicky | August 17 2013 |

I think a lot of you would be less confused if you had read more closely. The authors of this article are not advocating that dogs be allowed to pick on or bully other dogs ...or even for them to work it out themselves. Hence " First, we need to determine whether both dogs are enjoying themselves and want to continue playing ", the very first line of the 2nd page. There is a time and a place for intervention, hopefully positive, it might just not be when you think it is.

Submitted by Terra | August 20 2013 |

Great article! It's really helpful to know that my dogs' rough play is just play. However, I have a 9-yr old Rottweiler mix and a Boxer mix puppy. They seem to have a lot of fun together, but the puppy comes in with scratches, sometimes pretty deep. We have been breaking up their play to prevent scratches, and I wonder what we can do to encourage their friendship but protect her. Even when she gets older, she will have a thinner coat than the Rottie. Any advice? Beyond having the Boxer wear armor?

Submitted by margaret | August 23 2013 |

This is a great read. I have a question about my dog, any advice would be appreciated. Me and my patter take our 17month old dog on a daily walk around a local woods. Most days we can go with no incident but on a rare occasion he will mount a male dog and growls, this isn't a problem if the other dog is submissive but if the other dog is quite confident that's when they start fighting. This is something that doesn't happen very often but when it does its quite unnerving as I have no idea how bad it could get or when I should intervene. We have always pulled our dog away before it goes any further, bit that isn't always possible. Thanks

Submitted by Chris M. | September 11 2013 |

Video of my Boxer playing with the neighbor's dog. What do you think? Too rough? I think it's great and they are having fun. Even though the other dog bares her teeth and neck bites they seem to love each other. Her tail is wagging the whole time.

Submitted by Tamara Robinson | September 13 2013 |

Too funny reading all the replies. Everyone has their own idea of what is right. I like having several dogs at a time and have had small packs for the last 20 years. My original pack, I collected fairly rapidly, a year apart, each one a puppy. No clue why but they all loved each other and worried when one wasn't feeling good, the cat included, but they did. As they got older and I met my husband, we starting gathering more but adults this time. The most we got to was 6, which was too many dogs, I have to admit. We are recently back at 4. Hopefully, we can hold back for a few years, until someone goes to doggy heaven. I agree that some dogs are just not going to like other dogs. One thing we have done for years is take the other dogs with us to adopt the next dog. Any of the humane societies and rescues we've adopted from have agreed this was a good idea. We did take in a senior great dane, in need of immediate shelter, and just hoped for the best. Great Danes are super adaptable though so it all worked out. This guy was so grateful for a soft place to lay his head, a big yard, a warm bath with nail clippings, and another great dane to play with, he just fit right in. Now the last dog we adopted, about 5 months ago, is a female boxer mix. We only took our american bulldog mix to meet her because our other two dogs are very agreeable and older and would have been stressed in the shelter environment. Also, if a dog does not work out with our pack, we would not be afraid to take it back to the rescue, humane society, etc. That has never happened though because we generally take the most dominant dog, at least, if not everyone, with us to meet the potential adoptee. If they are civil and can be given treats together, home we go. Our american bulldog mix very much dislikes strangers and dogs she doesn't know. She will warm up, but just like some people, she finds it highly offensive when people run up and baby talk her. She hates that. So, although she doesn't care to go unfamiliar places, we knew if we were going to bring the boxer mix home, we had to make sure the bulldog would accept her. The boxer felt terrible that day. She had just been spayed, probably while she was pregnant, but at least fully in heat. Her family had dumped her off a week before. I'm sure she was mourning, even though it seemed she was completely neglected. Nonetheless, it was what she knew and she was suddenly in a strange place with a ton of other animals. So, we didn't get to see them play but our bulldog showed no signs of stress or disappointment and the boxer did not appear to feel scared or threatened, so home we come. The bulldog took the boxer under her leg, wrapped her paws around her and loves, loves, loves her. However, as mentioned in another post, the bulldog likes to make noises while she plays. Clearly the boxer had not been socialized and the little growls scared her terrible. They got into three "big" fights, with high pitched squealing noises and the whole nine. The first one scared me to death. I made enough racket to distract them and checked everybody out. Not a single scratch. I couldn't believe it with all that noise. The bulldog kept trying and one day I saw them playing like a couple of puppies out under these trees that all dogs love to lounge under. I know she was proud of herself and I let her know what a good hostess/big sister she was being. They are the best of friends, with the boxer clearly the bottom of the pack but healthily. A pack is going to have a pack order and the best set up is for the human to be the pack leader. You cannot prevent from the "pecking" order, if you want a healthy pack at least. Just make sure no one is getting bullied. The trick to that is that you are the pack leader and you say when too much is too much, period. If you want a healthy, balanced pack, you must be the pack leader and you must exercise your dogs, especially while they are teenagers and young adults. They have so much energy to use up. Plus, getting them out of the house is great for their psyche, for their whole life. You wouldn't be very pleasant either if you were only allowed to stay in a house even with a yard. This is how prisoners are treated. Certainly we think more highly of our animals. Balanced animals are happy animals and are much more pleasant to us and those around them. Now, naturally old people tend to want to stay close to home. This is the natural cycle of life so as they get real old and don't really want to go riding anymore, and their little joints ache and they don't feel like walking far, I let them have it their way. Dogs are not humans but they do progress through life, changing likes and dislikes in a manner somewhat similar to humans. Again, they are not humans and should not be treated like humans. They are dogs and their instincts should be respected. Doesn't mean not to treat them every bit as well as you would treat your Mom or Dad or Grandparents or kids, but recognize they are dogs. They need a pack leader, whereas we do not. If they do not have a pack leader, especially until they are very old and just don't care anymore, they will not be happy. Balanced dogs don't have to worry about leading the pack, their human is in control. They can relax. If you make them make all their own decisions, they have to be the pack leader, meaning you are not and that is very stressful. They feel like they have to keep you in line but they can't because you wander off in a car and leave them behind all the time. It is simply very stressful for them. I thought it so funny, the person who replied with the three dog pack who played and had a pecking order but they couldn't really let them play like that in public because people didn't understand. You also learn your animals and know what they are really doing. We have a wonderful cat who plays with the dogs all the time. He recently lost the old cat that showed him to ropes when he came here and he has really clung to the dogs since she died. The youngest dog always wants to torture the poor guy, or so we think. Every time we try to correct the dogs, the cat looks sad because the dog left and will run up to it and ask for more. Now, come on, that cat was playing with the dogs! Well, I could ramble on about my pack all day. I love, love, love them!!! Tamara

Submitted by Tina | September 18 2013 |

I have a 16 week old american bulldog puppy and a 2 year old american bulldog as well, since our puppy was brought home at 7 weeks she has been biting out older american bulldog during play, the older one doesnt seem to mind but the puppy sometimes makes her bleed a little on her hanging sides of mouth skin, and the loose skin on neck. I'm confused on this artical saying biting is ok? but how hard? and how would I get my puppy to stop, she stops when I tell her no bite. they both cry to play and its makes me sad that i cant let them cause she makes her bleed sometimes, she doesnt yelp cry or growl when she gets bitten so does it not hurt her? What exactly is ok play fighting? She used to bite hands a lot now shes starting to stop.

Submitted by Tina | September 18 2013 |

I have a 16 week old american bulldog puppy and a 2 year old american bulldog as well, since our puppy was brought home at 7 weeks she has been biting out older american bulldog during play, the older one doesnt seem to mind but the puppy sometimes makes her bleed a little on her hanging sides of mouth skin, and the loose skin on neck. I'm confused on this artical saying biting is ok? but how hard? and how would I get my puppy to stop, she stops when I tell her no bite. they both cry to play and its makes me sad that i cant let them cause she makes her bleed sometimes, she doesnt yelp cry or growl when she gets bitten so does it not hurt her? What exactly is ok play fighting? She used to bite hands a lot now shes starting to stop.

Submitted by Janine Boyce | October 28 2013 |

Hi, I have come across this thread and it has been very interseting however i still have some queries/concerns if anyone can help.

My 2 year old mastiff cross plays really nicely with some dogs, luckily I have lots of friends with dogs and they all play nicely. But if he meets a dog he doesnt know, usually medium- large male, but has been females and puppies, he start by going up with waggy tail, then hackles go up but not always, he tries putting his chin over their scruff, rearing up/standing over them. He them will chase if they run, or if they dont run he will tackle and slam them, start neck biting with lots of growling. He never bares his teeth, or actully bites, its mostly mouthing and I see him doing this when he is playing nicely with his friends, but I am concerned when the other dog obviously does not want to play or be dominated and he doesn't read the signals. Saying that if a dog stands up to him, tells him off or snaps at him he stops and comes back to me and leaves it alone, it seems to be the nervous ones or ones that aren't interested that he wont leave alone.
He does not have any recall when in the act, when I pull him off he sits nicely and does not try to go back, that tells me its not aggression.

Luckily he does not do it to little dogs just med-large breed unless puppies then he will do it (under 7/8 months)

He was a rescue dog, we got him at 9 months and he was already castrated. He has only been doing this the last few month.

We take him to obedience classes and practice lots of recall in different areas on his own and with dogs a good distance away.

One person mentioned this "I believe play can transform into blind prey mode..that must be addressed" and I am worried is this what he is doing? What should i do?

I keep him on the lead until I know the person/dog and then when I know he's ok let him off, but if another dog comes along it can happen then.

Its not all dogs, as I say but i need to be able to stop him.

I have tried pet corrector spray and this definitly stops him for a moment but must admit not tried it much as I am nervous to let him off now for fear of it happening, but I know I have to let him off so I can correct him when it does happen.

He has never hurt anything and the dog trainers say he is not aggressive, and I know he never takes it any further but to some people it looks scary and unacceptable and get very cross but other people say don't worry they'll sort it out themselves!

I don’t know what to do, is it his age, will he grow out of it, should I be doing more?

Would appreciate your comments



Submitted by Candice | January 17 2014 |

Thank you for your research and insight. I just left the park upset and angry because other dog owners said my dog was playing "aggressively." He was exhibiting exactly the type of play mentioned above. Champ has never hurt another dog or human. He's extremely social.

Submitted by Lyndsay | February 7 2014 |

We have a Bichon Frise, she is almost 2 yrs old and we just added a new member to the family, a male 4 month old English/BullMastiff, he likes to play rough a lot and he goes straight for my Bichon's neck hurting her every time. She does not want to play with him like that and she prefers lying next to him napping on my lap. I pull him away every time and tell him no with an authoritative tone, but he continues to go for her neck and doesn't stop. Telling him "no" is not working nor is pulling him away. What do I do now?

Submitted by Billie | May 30 2014 |

I have a Heeler x Kelpie(Willson) who is BFF with a Maremma x Golden retriever(Bear). Willson was 2 when he met Bear, Bear was only 10 weeks old. Bear is now 1 and they are both complete males they play rough and chasey, etc outside but when I let them inside Willson is quite aggressive towards Bear, doesnt hurt him but tells him off constantly. Bear is not allowed in Lounge at all. They get on well in all other areas Willson is always the dominant one though.Is there anyway I can help to curb this response from Willson.

Submitted by kevin dethklok | July 6 2014 |

I love dogs...this was very informative and something I didn't know

Submitted by Peggy | July 16 2014 |

We have a puppy and a 2 yr old, both Yorkies. Older dog tried domination early on but basically the puppy is the aggressor and their play is rather rough. The puppy bites on the beard and on the hind quarters. They seem to revel in the play but is it too aggressive. Puppy is almost always up for such play while the older dog occasionally has no interest.

Submitted by Amy T | August 4 2014 |

We've had lots of dogs over the years, and have always enjoyed their rough play with eachother. However, we recently adopted a lab mix puppy who is fairly submissive. A friend who had a month older pup came to visit this last weekend, and her dog (who is a bully breed mix) would pin her by the throat and not let her up, even when our dog cried. For most the weekend we allowed them to sort out these interactions on their own (since our puppy seemed to always come back for more), but towards the end she started to cough, and act as though her throat was sore. When our friends' dog grabbed her by the throat during one particularly hard play session, she clamped on, wouldn't let go, and my pup's breathing began to get hoarse and strained. At this point in the night, our puppy had been ready to quit playing for the previous hour (laying down, whining, using her people as a shield) but the other dog wouldn't let up. When we yelled at her to release our pup, she didn't budge--I had to physically pull her off to get her to release our dog. At this point my friend and her dog have gone home, but I'd love to get advice on how to handle these situations in the future. Is there any way to redirect play like that into something that won't lead to throat holding? Should we let them play together in the future?

Submitted by lucy love | September 8 2014 |

This does not appear to be a very successful forum! Everyone is talking about their own dog and asking questions but nobody is answering the questions, just banging on about their own experiences. It reminds me of people at a dinner party who never listen to anyone else, they just wait impatiently for their turn to speak!!

Submitted by Tami | September 11 2014 |

I have read this article in it's entirety and found it very helpful, but what began my search, this evening, was to find information to help the harmony in my household. Early June, my family brought in a two year old bulldog mix. She is extremely friendly, but is young and over 50lbs. There is also a 1.5 male cat (who might as well be a dog-he's the most awesome cat ever), a 12 year old, male rat terrier (he's getting ornery in his old age), and a very young acting, 9 year old male Yorkie-Pomeranian. None of the animals would be considered much of an alpha or dominant, but they will warn and voice their frustrations. My concern is the younger, much heavier dog wants to play with the "old-men" and they don't seem to have the playful response as described in the above article. I really don't think the younger dog gives them much warning. She will hop over to them and starts rolling the Yorkie-Pomeranian instantly. My rat-terrier will not allow her to roll him. Instead, he jumps up and barks/snarls at her. I have been separating them, in fear, because I don't 'feel' as though the little old men want to play. I have noticed the bulldog mix and rat terrier cuddled up together (he will lay on her rump on my couch), as well as cuddle time between her and the cat, but distance is always kept, even if it's only a few feet or my leg separating the bull dog mix and Yorkie-Pom. I am more than willing to read more articles, should they exist, but really want to ensure everyone's safety.

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