They Ain’t Playin’: How to Tell Play from Aggression

Several years ago, I got a call from an owner who started the conversation by saying, "You've got to help me -- my dogs are going to kill each other!" The owner went on to describe how sometimes the more dominant dog will "go for the throat."

I told the owner to keep the dogs apart until I could see them. When I saw the dogs, the plan was to meet them one at a time. I was ready with all of the safety precautions for the dogs, the owners, and me.

The dogs turned out to be two mixed breed puppies who were seven months old. "Going for the throat" turned out to be the noisy, barking, growly play behavior where one pup is on his back. There was no contact with the throat, but as the rowdy play took place, the owner repeatedly shrieked, "They're going to kill each other!"

The primary intervention turned out to be providing lessons on canine body language to the dramatic owner who yelled more than once, "They ain't playin'!" as the puppies in front of him had a grand time.

Signs of Play

  • relaxed mouth
  • both dogs wanting to continue the game
  • no attempts at hard biting; controlled mouthing
  • relaxed body posture, play bow, etc.

They Ain’t Playin': This is Not Healthy Play

  • one dog tries to dominate another, jumps on it, pins it down for extended periods of time
  • biting, causing pain

Sometimes, due to the size, strength, and muscularity of the dogs, even with healthy play, someone can get hurt if the activity becomes too rowdy (e.g., body slams). When this happens, you need to change activities.

Training on behaviors such as come, stay, sit, and down, all Canine Good Citizen skills, provides you with tools that can be used to manage your dog.

How do you handle rowdy play?