Animal Behaviorist – When Dogs Play, How Rough is Too Rough?

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Meet Mary Burch, American Kennel Club Canine Good Citizen Director who answers the questions.
I have two mixed-breed puppies, a female and a male. They’re 7-month-old siblings and have been with me since they were 5 weeks old.

The dogs are very active and play a lot, but my concern is that they play very rough. Neither has been hurt so far, but I’m worried that this playing will turn into fighting as they get older. How rough is too rough? How can I tell?

When healthy, active dogs play, it can sometimes seem very alarming. The noise and the intensity of the interaction can make you feel as if you should either run for cover or drag the two dogs apart. Here are a few questions to ask to help you evaluate the situation.

Are both dogs happy or is one or both being hostile?
To help figure out if the dogs are having fun or actually fighting, first look at each individual dog’s body language and behavior. Signs of playing include:

— A lowering of the front of the body with the rear end up. This “play bow” is an invitation to play.
— A relaxed mouth
— A desire to continue interacting with the other dog
— No show of teeth or actual biting (though controlled mouthing is fine)
— A relaxed posture with the hackles (hair on the back of the neck and shoulders) down

Signs that things are not going so well are when one dog tries to dominate the other by jumping on it, pinning it down so it can’t move for an extended period of time, or biting the other dog and causing pain. You should definitely interrupt the game if you see these signs that indicate one dog might not be playing. You may also want to get a book on dog body language so you can better understand what your dogs are communicating.

Could the dogs get hurt even if they’re just playing happily?
Sometimes there are situations when both dogs are clearly having fun but you still need to step in to prevent serious injuries. This can be true, for example, if two large dogs are playing roughly (perhaps one dog body slams the other) but is also true if there is a difference in size and strength between the dogs. When you do need to intervene, try redirecting your dogs to another activity. You may need to separate them for a short time or change the setting.

You were smart to wonder if your two puppies were behaving in safe, healthy ways or setting the stage for more dangerous roughhousing later. For now, continue to monitor their play, take into consideration what you’ve read here and step in when things are getting too rough. Your involvement and direction can also help them learn their own boundaries when playing with each other which will help their behavior later.

Training is also an important tool for managing dogs, especially in a multiple-dog household so consider taking classes with a dog trainer near you. The AKC’s Canine Good Citizen Program is a great starting point, and as of April 1, 2014, by enrolling in the AKC Canine Partners Program, mixed-breed dogs can compete in AKC activities including rally, obedience, and agility. Agility would be a particularly beneficial activity for helping your two canine athletes use their energy appropriately.