Canine Play Styles

Where Does Your Dog Fit?

 Are They Playing or Fighting?


CPT Trainers are often asked, “Is my dog playing or fighting?” Similarly, our Head Trainers conduct behavioral analyses of dogs removed from dog day care because the day care operator and dog owner are uncertain regarding the intent of a dog’s behavior or because the operator claims a dog plays “too rough.”

Therefore, the natural segue leads to several questions:

• How can I tell if my dog is playing or fighting?

• How rough is too rough?

• What criteria should I evaluate when selecting playmates for my dog?

• When and how should I intervene when my dog plays with another dog?

I. How Can I Tell if My Dog is Playing or Fighting?

Before answering the question, let’s discuss the most common purposes of play for domestic dogs. Most frequently, pet dogs use play to establish status hierarchies , release energy, foster intra-species social bonding, or simply have a good time.

Canine Play Styles- Status Hierarchies
Borzois undergoing status establishment. Notice the stiffness of the dogs in comparison to the videos below of dogs engaged in fun play. Source: Wikimedia Commons

When play is used to establish status hierarchies usually both of the dogs are unfamiliar with one another or one of the dogs highly values status, but is insecure about his/her status relative to the other dog or to dogs in general. In such a case,

• The body carriage of the dogs will be stiffer than when play is pure fun,

• One dog may remain in a dominant position, instead of equitably allowing role reversal, and

• There will be more interruptions and less fluidity in the play movements.

Dominant positions may include mounting, placing a chin above the spine of the other dog, pawing atop the neck or back of the other dog, knocking the other dog to the ground and hovering over the dog, mouthing the ventral part of the neck of a supine dog, or laying atop a prone or supine dog while restricting its movement. Usually status-oriented play will convert to fun play once the dogs become comfortable with one another.

When play is principally to release energy and to enjoy the company of the other animal, the behaviors may mimic status establishing behaviors, fights, or predation. However, unlike with actual status conflict, fights, or predatory behavior:

• The body carriage will be loose,

• The dogs will frequently move laterally, bound freely with their front legs, or bow,

• The dogs will often rotate dominant/subordinate positions; if they don’t rotate each dog will be comfortable with its position and there will be fluidity and continuity of movement until one or both dogs becomes bored or tired,

• One or both dogs will have an open mouth (“smile”), and

• The dogs will be considerate of the other dog’s pleasure.

When there is a legitimate conflict or fight at a dog park or day care generally:

Canine play styles- Fighting
In this painting, the aggressor dog is stiff and has a closed mouth as he stares, snarls, and lifts his lips. Although the aggressor dog has not yet inflicted a bite, he may if he lacks inhibitory control and the recipient dog fails to submit. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

• One or both dogs will preen,

• The dogs will move more stiffly than during play,

• One or both dogs will move directly at the other dog, rather than circling, moving laterally, bounding, or bowing,

• One or both dogs will emit a direct stare toward the other dog,

• Lips will be pursed,

• Oral contact will be hard and there may be shaking or tearing movements, versus the light mouthing or nip and release actions of play,

• Oral contact will initially occur mostly to the muzzle, ear, and top of the neck, but may progress to the ventral neck area, torso and extremities as arousal increases, and

• One or both dogs will likely growl or snarl with high volume and tenacity.

Thus, there is a characteristic intensity and directness usually common to a fight that is absent during status-oriented play or “fun play.”

Consequently, the primary observable physical factors determining whether your dog is engaged in status communication that is semi-playful or playful, fun play versus a fight include:

Canine play styles- fighting
In this painting, one of the black and white dogs is inflicting a high-pressure bite about the torso of the brown dog in the center. The black and white dog has reached an arousal state where he is highly aggressive and dangerous. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
  • Stiffness versus looseness of body carriage,
  • Whether positional movement is limited or direct versus whether a dog moves laterally, bounds, or bows,
  • Whether there is staring accompanied by pursed lips and tense body language, versus whether just one of the preceding is observed,
  • Whether the oral position is open or closed,
  • Whether one dog maintains a blatantly dominant position or whether they rotate positions,
  • Whether the movement is short and abrupt versus continuous and fluid,
  • Whether each dog is considerate of communications from the other dog that indicate stress or displeasure,
  • Whether oral contact is mouthy or nippy and brief versus hard with tearing or shaking movements,
  • Whether oral contact is maintained about the head and neck area versus whether it migrates to the torso and extremities, and
  • Whether the activity is accompanied by snarling or deep, loud, intense growling.

Nevertheless, when analyzing the intent of the dogs, physical signs are prepotent over vocalizations. Many people incorrectly become concerned when a dog growls or barks during play. Remember, while playing dogs may model agonistic or predatory behaviors. An aroused dog will often growl during a fight for status, territory, or self-preservation or when shaking wounded prey, but so may a playful dog modeling the aforementioned behaviors. Moreover, there usually is a discernible difference in pitch, volume, and duration between a play growl and a serious growl.

Consequently, although a growl shouldn’t be ignored, the growl should be analyzed in combination with the physical signs, not evaluated independently. Most importantly, an owner should consider the history of his/her dog. Ask yourself:

• Does my dog typically growl when playing with familiar dogs?

• Or is growling atypical?

• Does my dog only growl when he/she plays with unfamiliar dogs?

• Is my dog’s growling usually only temporary, whereby it stops once he/she becomes familiar and comfortable with a dog?

• Or does my dog growl more frequently once he/she becomes comfortable and playful with a dog?

• Does my dog only growl when participating in certain play styles (e.g., boxing, chasing, nipping, et al.)?

• Does my dog only growl when packing with a familiar playmate and there is an unfamiliar third dog present?

• In the past, how have other dogs responded to my dog’s growling?

• In the past, in a similar context has my dog engaged in salient conflict immediately after or while growling or snarling?

If your dog typically growls with familiar dogs, when he/she becomes more comfortable with a dog, or when engaged in specific play styles and the growling has not resulted in conflict, then you should not worry.

On the other hand, if growling is atypical for your dog when engaged with another dog, occurs only with unfamiliar dogs, occurs when another dog instigates play styles with which your dog is conspicuously uncomfortable, or occurs when your dog and a playmate are bullying an unfamiliar dog, then you should temporarily or permanently separate the dogs, especially if one or both dogs exhibits a facial countenance or physical body language indicating overt tension or potential aggression. In many cases, given more time to acclimate, the dogs will play amicably. However, in other cases the dogs are incompatible and should be kept separated. Similarly, if growling or snarling has historically indicated a forthcoming conflict, then you should separate the dogs before history has the opportunity to repeat itself.

CPT recently conducted an observation and behavioral analysis of a client dog that behaved inconsistently at the dog park. During the dog park observation, when one-on-one or congregating with groups of unfamiliar dogs the client dog behaved admirably. However, once a buddy arrived, he and his high-energy friend teamed together while growling and bullying multiple dogs, which created overt tension with several humans present, which in turn elevated the verbal and physical arousal of the dogs, and resulted in a potentially dangerous conflict where the CPT Trainer felt it necessary to physically separate the dogs and remove the client dog from the dog park. Although the quarrel did not result in injury to any of the animals, the high arousal level was rightfully concerning to the innocent humans and dogs present. Therefore, since the client can not control when a familiar dog enters the dog park or when her dog will begin packing with a dog with whom he was formerly unfamiliar and since the client dog became too high in arousal with too little inhibitory control and obedience once aroused, CPT advised the client to avoid the dog park and instead schedule one-on-one play sessions within her fenced yard. Since taking CPT’s advice, the client dog has not had another reactive episode. In addition, for extra security, the client enrolled her dog in a CPT board train program, so that we could work on his obedience and inhibitory control amidst groups of dogs.

In addition, consider the other dog’s reaction to the growl or snarl. If the second dog appears unconcerned and clearly perceives the growl as playful, then there likely is no reason to worry.

If the vocalization is not a growl, but a single high-pitched bark, then your dog is likely happy, soliciting a hesitant dog to play, and/or soliciting a bored or tired dog to recommence movement. Yet, if the high-pitched bark is contained within a series of rapid barks, then your dog may be stressed, frustrated, or inconsiderate to a dog that does not wish to interact. In such a case, either provide your dog more time to acclimate, find your dog a more suitable playmate, or remove your dog from the surroundings.

One last thing to consider is that in many cases the most serious dog fights, where the intention of one or both dogs is to injure or kill, rather than to prompt the other party to retreat or submit, are quiet. Consequently, as stated above, evaluate physical body language more highly than you evaluate vocalizations when determining the intent and emotional state of a dog.

II. How Rough is Too Rough?

Canine play styles- fun play
Dogs engaged in fun play.  Source:  Wikimedia Commons.

The answer depends upon the compatibility of the dogs. Rough play is not inherently bad. If both dogs enjoy vigorous body slamming, wrestling, tackling, nipping, or boxing, then the “rough” interaction is probably OK. However, if one dog starts to stiffen or becomes conspicuously submissive or frightened and the other dog remains inconsiderate by refusing to take a break or to change his/her roughness or play style, then the dogs likely should be separated temporarily or permanently. In such a case, separating the dogs may prevent conflict and concomitant injury or may simply be for humane reasons by preventing an inconsiderate or bullying dog from intimidating a less physical or confident dog.

I know a German Shepherd who loves body slamming with other large dogs that are similarly exuberant. They run directly toward one another at high-velocity and then suddenly move in a perpendicular direction and slam hips as if they are checking somebody into the boards during an NHL playoff game. Each dog has a blast, especially because few dogs possess both the size and energy to participate in their favorite play activity. Thus, they relish their time together.

 Yet, I have seen dogs that behaved similarly, regardless of whether the other dog shared a preference for vigorous play. In such a case, the lack of consideration by the rough dog may cause the other dog to become frightened or aggressive. Even worse, the anxiety of the second dog may further arouse the rough dog, whereby the rough dog begins to aggressively bully the frightened dog.

Therefore, the answer as to whether play is “too rough” rests more with the compatibility of the animals’ play styles, comfort levels, and size than it does with the vigor of the play.

III. What Criteria Should I Evaluate When Selecting Playmates for My Dog?

Although most day cares and dog parks use size as the primary criteria when grouping dogs, size is only a secondary criteria, as many small dogs can play well with a majority of large dogs and vice versa. Rather, the primary criteria are:

• The compatibility of play styles,

• The gender and sexual status of each dog,

• Whether certain stimuli can provoke a participating dog,

• The dominance status of each dog,

• Each dog’s valuation of status, and

• A dog’s history congregating with dogs of specific play style, energy level, age, gender, sexual status, dominance status, size, and breed.

1. Play Styles

There are a number of common play styles, including:

• Chasing,

• Wrestling,

• Nipping,

• Tugging,

• Boxing,

• Body slamming, and

• Mounting.

Some dogs like being chased. Some dogs like chasing. Others will rotate roles. Chasing is usually a fun and harmless game enjoyed by both participants. However, when a dog with high predatory drive is the chaser and the chased dog is very dominant, a conflict may ensue if upon catching the chased dog the chaser is too rough, knocks the dog to the ground, nips hocks, or climbs the back of the dog. Chasing may also be inappropriate if a chasing dog with high predatory drive tends to bully submissive or fearful chased dogs or chases a dog that prefers not to be chased. In addition, chasing may be injurious if a chasing dog with high predatory drive recklessly pounces on a much smaller dog or nips hocks with a lack of bite inhibition.

Angie (Boxer) and Argus (Doberman) playing chase.  Angie encourages the game and Argus eagerly and near tirelessly obliges.  Angie prefers to be the chased, whereas Argus prefers to be the chaser.  The relationship works well because each dog is comfortable with the position.

Wrestling is a fun game when both dogs exchange dominant/subordinate roles. Wrestling is also an appropriate game when each dog maintains either the top or bottom position, each dog is comfortable in its position, and the top/dominant dog does not bully the bottom/subordinate dog and remains considerate of the bottom dog’s communications. Wrestling may include pawing, pushing, jumping, pinning, mouthing, and nipping about the face or neck. However, wrestling may become inappropriate when a top dog excessively bullies a bottom dog, the bottom dog does not wish to wrestle, the bottom dog communicates a clear desire for the top dog to stop and the top dog is inconsiderate of the communication, and/or when either dog fails to exercise bite inhibition.

In the above video, Fezzik (Great Dane) and Kody (Samoyed) demonstrate wrestling, mouthing, and single-bark vocalizations to initiate movement.  Surprisingly, Fezzik was removed from day care for playing “too rough.”  The video was taken during a private behavioral analysis.

When performed playfully, nipping is safe and conducted with bite inhibition, even though to an uninformed observer the dogs may look like they are fighting. Nipping dogs may purse lips or move ears forward or back and still be playing. They may even growl. The histrionics may be part of a game in which they are imitating actual conflict. The key factors to evaluate are the looseness versus stiffness of the dogs’ body carriage and the force of the bites. While playing with littermates during puppyhood stable dogs learn to inhibit their bite force so they will not cause discomfort to playmates, as a bite that is too hard will often end the game or may cause sibling retaliation. In addition, pups learn bite inhibition when feeding from the mother, who does not appreciate a pup munching too hard on a nipple, whereby mom may retaliate with an uncomfortable nip of her own to instruct the pup to inhibit oral force. Although many dogs relish a nipping play style, nipping may become inappropriate when one of the dogs does not enjoy the play style, there is a status conflict between the dogs, or one dog becomes too aroused and causes pain to the recipient dog.

Lulu (Pug Mix) and Zoey (Golden Retriever) demonstrate that dogs can play well together despite a wide size disparity, provided the play style is compatible for the dogs’ preferences and size difference and provided each dog is considerate of the other’s communications.  Lulu and Zoey prefer wrestling and mouthing/nipping, where each dog equitably exchanges roles.  Also, please note that despite Zoey’s lifted lip that bares teeth, her mouth is open, which communicates she is playing, not threatening conflict.

canine play styles- Puppies learn bite inhibition, play styles, and proper play behavior while interacting with their littermates during the first 8 weeks of life. Therefore, a puppy from a large litter has a higher probability of exhibiting proper social behavior in comparison to a "singleton," a pup from a very small litter, or a pup separated very early from its mother and litter.
Puppies learn bite inhibition, play styles, and proper play behavior while interacting with their littermates during the first 8 weeks of life. Therefore, a puppy from a large litter has a higher probability of exhibiting proper social behavior in comparison to a “singleton,” a pup from a very small litter, or a pup separated very early from its mother and litter.














Mutually tugging a stick or a toy can be a fun game for two dogs, provided they are comfortable with one another and not possessive of the object. However, tug is rarely an appropriate game for a dog with a history of possessive aggression, unless the dogs are very comfortable with one another. In addition, some dogs may be fine tugging with other dogs provided humans are not proximal, but may become aggressive when a human engages in the game, possibly to resource guard the human, because the human raised the perceived value of the object, or because the possessive or dominant dog would rather play with the human and the second dog becomes the “odd man out.”

Canine play styles- Argus and Angie play tug.
Argus and Angie play tug.

One day while hiking with some friends and dogs a German Shepherd and an Akita Mix began tugging with a stick. They had gotten along well during the entire sylvan hike and seemed to enjoy their tugging game. Then, the owner of the Akita Mix grabbed a large stick to throw it into the lake for the dogs. The athletic German Shepherd retrieved the stick and brought it back to the Akita Mix’s owner. The Akita Mix innocently wanted to continue the former tugging game, whereby the German Shepherd angrily growled, snarled, pinned him to the ground and bit his ear until the Akita Mix blatantly submitted. It took about 10 minutes for the dogs to again comfortably congregate with one another. Yet, without human inclusion in the game the dogs likely would have never experienced conflict.

Angie (Boxer) and Argus (Doberman) play tug and keep away.  The play style works for these playmates because neither is possessive aggressive with the toy, even when a human becomes involved in the game.  However, notice how Angie controls the game by electing when to convert the game from tug to keep-away.

Boxing occurs when two dogs raise their front legs, balance on their rear legs, and paw one another around the upper torso and/or face. Boxing is one of the safer dog-dog interactions and rarely causes problems, unless sharp nails scratch or cut the recipient dog or a dominant insecure dog takes umbrage to the appearance that the boxing dog is trying to climb atop him/her. Although dogs of any breed may perform boxing behavior, the Boxer breed is most frequently associated with this play style, which some believe is how the breed earned its name.

Angie (Boxer) and Argus (Doberman) demonstrate boxing behavior.  Some persons believe the Boxer breed’s tendency to apply this play style is how the breed received its name.  As you can see, Angie has more of an affinity for boxing than does Argus, although both dogs are comfortable with the style.

Canine play styles- Body Slamming
The black dog is body slamming the Golden Mix. Source: Wikimedia Commons; Vince Pahkala

Body slamming is a highly physical play style that occurs when two dogs run directly at one another or one dog runs at a stationary dog and one or both dogs suddenly turn perpendicular and hip check the other dog with great vigor and power. Body slammers usually love playing with other body slammers, especially if the dogs are of comparable size. However, body slamming can incite conflict if the recipient dog does not enjoy the activity and the slammer remains inconsiderate of the recipient dog or if the slammer hip checks with excessive velocity, whereby the recipient dog suffers physical pain.

Mounting is more frequently a status or play communication than it is a sexual communication. Most frequently, playful mounting occurs to facilitate the communication of status. Therefore, one dog will remain in the top/mounting position. However, with familiar dogs comfortable with one another they may reverse roles. Although many people are embarrassed when observing mounting behavior, mounting is an acceptable play mode provided the top dog is not too rough, the bottom dog accepts the position and doesn’t become overly frightened, and/or they switch roles. However, mounting can provoke severe conflict when unfamiliar dogs of similar status initiate mounting, especially when the dogs are of the same gender, when the mounted dog feels very vulnerable or frightened, or when the mounter becomes angry that the mounted dog does not easily submit. Consequently, I usually interrupt mounting solicitations unless the dogs are familiar with one another and have previously played comfortably, I have great trust in the behavior of the mounter, or the mounted dog saliently appears calm and accepting.

My German Shepherd, Topper, implemented many different play styles, depending upon who was his playmate. With his friend Piper he liked to chase. With Knuckles he liked to wrestle. And with Samson he liked to mount. He would often mount Samson for over an hour until both were exhausted and Samson’s neck was covered in drool. Samson never minded. They would lie down next to each other afterward until the activity started again. Topper always enjoyed hanging with Samson. Likewise, Samson always appeared happy to interact with Topper, although Samson’s owner sometimes felt uncomfortable that Topper was apparently emasculating her dog.

 On the other hand, I remember when a Boxer, Zeke, attempted to mount my dog Marlo. A fight ensued. The difference was that Marlo and Zeke were similar in status, whereas Topper was very much dominant over Samson. In addition, Marlo was a very high-arousal dog and was at an age where he wasn’t secure regarding his general status, as well as his status relative to Zeke.

Mounting can be a fun play behavior if dogs are paired properly.  In the video, Fezzik tries to mount Kody, but is repelled.  Kody then tries to mount Fezzik and is successful.  However, when Fezzik communicates dissatisfaction, Kody is considerate, whereby he ceases mounting and converts the game to wrestling and then chase.

2. Gender and Sexual Status

Although the temperament of each individual dog is typically more relevant than is the gender or sexual status, in general male-female interactions are less likely to cause conflict.  In contrast, two intact males are more likely to engage in conflict than if both dogs are neutered or if the intact male interacts with a female.  Intact male dogs are more likely to inadvertently become engaged in conflict- since other dogs, especially other male dogs, tend to become more anxious and insecure around intact males.  Moreover, the presence of a female in estrus may raise the probability of both male and female intragender conflict.

3. Environmental Stimuli

Certain environmental stimuli can convert play to aggression. The most common provocative stimuli are the presence of food, the presence of a toy, jealousy over attention from a human (especially an owner), or a tight leash. In addition, if an anxious or fearful dog becomes nervous due to a loud noise, a human yelling or shouting, a thunderstorm, the actions of another dog, or the feeling of being enclosed or trapped, then the dog may respond aggressively. Similarly, an unruly tandem or larger group of dogs may pick on a saliently anxious dog. In a worst-case scenario, the pack may become aggressive to the dog, especially if the anxious dog conspicuously cowers or yelps, which may increase the arousal level of the pack. Likewise, an unruly or inconsiderate tandem or pack of dogs may provoke aggression from an anxious dog feeling a need to exhibit a defensive response behavior.

Therefore, you should know what provokes your dog and either prevent exposure to a provocative stimulus or remove your dog from the environment upon the presence of a provocative stimulus or situation. Similarly, remove your dog from an environment if it appears a stimulus is potentially provoking a playmate or proximal off-leash dogs.

4. Dominance

Although dominance has become a controversial topic, the issue can be relevant when selecting playmates. A confident, dominant dog can likely play with anybody, but may have issue with another highly dominant dog. An insecure dominant dog, what I call an “aspirant” – a dog that aspires to a dominant pinnacle position, but is unsure he/she belongs there- will play best with highly dominant dogs and moderately subordinate dogs, but may have problems with dogs of similar status and highly subordinate dogs, whom he/she is likely to inappropriately bully. Most middle status dogs can play with anybody, but may have issue initially with dogs of similar status. Mildly subordinate dogs can usually play with anybody, but if insecure may bully highly subordinate dogs. Highly subordinate dogs often do not enjoy dog parks and will do better in controlled play groups amongst middle of the road and confident, dominant dogs that are stable, mature, and considerate.

5. Valuation of Status

A dog’s valuation of status may be more important than his/her status level when determining optimal playmates. Dogs confident about their status or who don’t pay high regard to status issues are very safe from this standpoint and can likely play well with the majority of dogs. However, dogs who are very concerned about their status relative to other dogs are more likely to engage in conflict with dogs of similar status and are more likely to bully highly subordinate dogs. Dogs most concerned about their status are usually generally insecure dogs and are most frequently dogs undergoing social maturity, between the ages of 12 to 36 months.

My dog Topper, an intact male German Shepherd who was an innately highly dominant dog, interacted very well with all dogs while he was a puppy and an adult. Although he was very selective in acquiring playmates, he was very tolerant of all dogs and remained very safe. However, there was a period during his adolescence where he was insecure about his status and where status was very important to him, which prompted him to provoke other dogs. When Topper was about 18-months of age, when he was mixed with a group of dogs he suddenly started knocking the formerly dominant dog to the ground, hovering over the dog menacingly, and emitting a protracted growl. The first time it took me by surprise. When it happened a second time I intervened. I was subsequently prepared and prevented a third occurrence. Nevertheless, Topper remained edgy around dogs for around 6 months, whereby afterward he was confident regarding his status, sure of himself, and very safe with all dogs.

6. Behavioral History

A dog’s behavioral history may be the most reliable factor when determining optimal playmates or when deciding to keep a dog apart from another dog. Pertinent factors include play style, energy level, age, gender, sexual status, dominance status, size, and breed.

As discussed above, dogs will play best with dogs that have similar play style preferences. Yet, some dogs are adaptable and can assimilate into any play style. However, other dogs will become tense and potentially aggressive if confronted by an inconsiderate dog that fails to acknowledge communication his/her play style is unacceptable.

Some dogs prefer very high-energy games and partners, whereas other dogs are more lethargic and may become tense around exorbitantly high-energy dogs.

Puppies tend to be very direct, impulsive, and intrusive and have different social protocols than do adult dogs. Senior dogs tend to be highly demure. Therefore, puppies may unintentionally provoke adult or senior dogs unaccustomed to puppies or who disfavor normal puppy behavior. Thus, be careful when pairing puppies with adult or senior dogs. Make sure the adult or senior has a history of appropriate behavior when interacting with puppies. If such is the case, then the interaction with the senior can be beneficial, as the senior will safely instruct the puppy regarding superior impulse control, consideration, and social communication when interacting with adult dogs.

The analogy I often use is Chucky Cheese. At Chucky Cheese young kids jump in the bounce house, see someone they find intriguing, run at them, tackle them, and they become friends. That works for a 5-year old. However, if you went to an adult party in your neighborhood and someone you didn’t know dove on you, my guess is you would not become fast friends, although the technique probably would have worked when you were 5. Likewise, puppies are “Chucky Cheese dogs,” whereas older dogs have moved beyond Chucky Cheese.

Generally, the temperament of each dog is more relevant than is the gender. Nevertheless, certain dogs will play much better with dogs of the opposite gender or may have a history of aggressive interaction with dogs of like gender.

Sexual status can be an issue. Research shows that intact male dogs are more likely to concern other dogs of either gender, but especially other intact male dogs, which means intact male dogs may have a harder time finding suitable playmates. Likewise, intact female dogs may cause conflict with other females or with lascivious males when they are approaching estrus, in estrus, or experiencing a pseudopregnancy. Therefore, if you own an intact male dog or a female in estrus you will need to be very astute when selecting playmates. Similarly, if you have a neutered or spayed dog and your dog has a history of conflict with intact dogs, then you should be similarly selective by considering sexual status when determining playmates.

Dominance status can be relevant in selecting playmates when a dog has a history of conflict with dogs of like status, anxiety around highly dominant dogs, or bullying behavior with highly subordinate dogs.

Size may be a consideration. Although in many cases small dogs can play safely and pleasantly with large dogs and vice versa, there are small dogs that are intimidated, anxious, and/or aggressive around larger animals. Yet, there are cases where small dogs play better with larger animals. Likewise, there are large dogs who exhibit potentially dangerous predatory or bullying behavior around small dogs or who don’t know how to safely manage their weight and size when interacting with small dogs. However, there are also insecure large dogs that play better with small dogs and large dogs that grew up with small dogs and who remain more comfortable interacting with small dogs.

CPT performed a consulting session at a local day care, where a small client dog was periodically starting conflicts with other members of the “small dog group.” The day care stated that if CPT could not fix the problem it would disallow the dog from future playgroup participation. When observing the playgroup and the caretaker’s interactions with the dogs, we determined the caretaker either created or exacerbated the problem by breaking up play as soon as it became vigorous. Hence, many of the dogs became hesitant to play, due to apprehension about receiving human discipline, and the very active and dominant client dog became highly frustrated, which prompted him to exhibit bullying and rough nipping behavior with the most subordinate members of his group. We also observed the caretaker of the “large dog group.” He was calm and tacitly authoritative. He also allowed the dogs to play more vigorously while rarely interrupting their interactions. Partially due to his supervision and partially due to him having a well-tempered, stable group of dogs, his playgroup played safely and equitably, despite some playing with more energy and/or more roughly than was allowed in the small dog group. We asked if any of the large dogs had a history of small dog aggression. Once finding out the answer was “No,” we advised the clients and the day care to place the client dog in the large dog group. Once within the large dog group the client dog had more fun, became more relaxed, and never caused a problem, because his play needs were met more effectively and because he was more respectful of the larger dogs and lacked the temerity to initiate bullying behavior.

Breed is usually an issue only when a dog has had either a very good or very bad history with a specific breed. If a dog grew up with a dog of a specific breed, then the dog may remain more comfortable with dogs of similar appearance. On the other hand, if a dog was attacked by another dog, in the future, the victim dog may generalize the anxiety to all members of the aggressor dog’s breed.

IV. When and How Should I Intervene When My Dog Plays With Another Dog?

The majority of dogs interact well with the vast majority of other dogs. Therefore, in most cases, we recommend you let the dogs determine their relationship and play actions and do not intervene, as your verbal and/or physical interference is more likely to prompt additional stress than to create comfort. Furthermore, if the dogs initially meet on-leash, be sure to keep leashes loose, since a tight leash can exacerbate stress, irritability, barrier frustration, and opposition reflexes that provoke aggressive behavior. In contrast, with a loose leash dogs are more likely to commence a relaxed greeting process that spawns a cordial play relationship.

Most stable dogs who received productive early socialization are adept at expressive and receptive dog-dog communication skills and are considerate regarding the wishes of the other dog. Thus, the majority of dogs will usually quickly resolve momentary discord and determine themselves how to peacefully or playfully get along.

In addition, when multiple dog playmates are available, stable dogs generally peacefully locate a suitable playmate. Consequently, conflict is most likely to occur with unstable dogs that are high arousal or that have been denied productive socialization during early developmental periods. Such dogs may lack the social acumen to pick appropriate play partners, while ignoring others. Moreover, conflicts are more likely when introductions are one-on-one and there isn’t a choice regarding playmate selection.

Nevertheless, regardless of the environment, if you observe prolonged tension, conspicuous bullying, imminent conflict, or overt hostility, then you should intervene for reasons of safety and/or humaneness. If you intercede early, before bullying becomes severe or tension erupts into actual conflict, then I prefer three techniques.

The first technique is called splitting, where you physically walk between the dogs while maintaining a full-frontal shoulder position and direct eye contact aimed toward the more aggressive, dominant, and/or provocative dog. If done early and correctly, splitting creates a timeout situation, whereby perhaps the dogs can be reintegrated once the provocative dog becomes less aroused and more considerate. If done too late or if the provocative dog tries to move around the split, then use the split to foster the second technique or attach a leash to the provocative dog and walk him/her away from the calmer, more subordinate, or bullied dog. Distance will normally foster relaxation.

The second technique is calling the more aggressive, dominant, and/or provocative dog to “Come.” Place some food in your hand, extend your hand toward the more provocative dog, say “Come” in a cheery voice, run backward, and lead the dog away from the calmer, more subordinate, or bullied dog. In most cases, only the provocative dog will follow the food, as the other dog will seek distance from the offensive dog more than it will desire the food on page. Only feed the provocative dog if the second dog does not follow. Then, attach a leash to maintain distance and only reacquaint the dogs if and when you believe a second introduction will be calmer and more successful.

The third technique uses a neuroscience phenomenon called braking. A brake is a stimulus that interrupts impulsive and/or emotional behavior, whereby inhibitory control centers of the brain take precedence. To create braking, start a split, provide shoulder and eye contact toward the provocative dog, and then sternly and loudly command, “Sit.” The strategy should interrupt the provocative dog’s focus on the other dog and instead direct visual orientation toward you, provide a specific action to perform in lieu of physically bullying or confronting the other dog, and encourage the provocative dog to become respectful and deferent toward you, whereby you can better manage the dog’s behavior. Once the provocative dog is sitting, either keep it there until it relaxes or attach a leash and take the dog away from the other dog.

The splitting technique works well if you intervene very early, the arousal level has not reached a high level, and the provocative dog is respectful of human leadership. The come technique works well if the provocative dog is highly food motivated and/or is obedience trained and has a reliable recall. The braking/sit technique works well if the dog is more highly aroused by the dog than by food, but is obedient to the sit command and respectful to humans or subordinated by a stern voice. Typically, since I like to keep situations calm, I only use the third technique after the first two techniques have failed. However, if the provocative dog has reached a high arousal level, is much more motivated by the other dog than by food, is generally disrespectful, and/or is generally disobedient, then there is a risk that any of the three listed techniques may exacerbate the situation by adding stress and furthering arousal.

If you believe an actual conflict is imminent or if the dogs are engaged in a veritable fight, then you should quickly, calmly, and safely separate the dogs. When separating the dogs, do not place your hands near the head, neck, or torso of the dogs, as you will place yourself at risk for severe injury. Instead, throw a pail of water on the dogs; blast the dogs with a high-powered hose; make an extremely loud, startling noise, such as blasting an air horn; throw a jacket or dry blanket on the dogs or at least the chief provocateur, or for greatest impact throw a wet blanket on the dogs or on just the primary aggressor. Alternatively, if a second person is there to help, when the dogs are facing one another, each human should simultaneously “wheelbarrow” the dogs, by going to the rear of the dogs, grabbing and lifting the rear legs, and moving the dogs backwards so that they move apart from one another. Once separating the dogs, keep them separated, as reintroduction while one or both is still aroused is likely to provoke a second conflict.

I know a professional trainer who while breaking up a fight between her personal dogs had a finger amputated. Instead of using the techniques recommended above, she grabbed the more aggressive dog by the collar, then attempted to pull the two dogs apart. However, her involvement further agitated both dogs. Consequently, the highly aroused loose dog lunged to bite the restricted dog about the neck. Unfortunately, in the process he completely severed the trainer’s ring finger. To her credit, the trainer was indomitable. Despite bleeding profusely, she finally separated and crated the dogs. Next, once the dogs were confined, she placed her detached finger in the refrigerator, applied direct pressure to the open wound, and sought the aid of a neighbor to drive her to the hospital. Regrettably, unlike with a clean knife wound, the jagged dog bite excessively damaged muscles and nerves. Therefore, microsurgeons were unsuccessful in their efforts to reattach the digit. Moral of the story: Never place your hands in the middle of battling dogs. A bite that may cause minor injury to a dog may cause major injury to a human hand.

Wet blankets have been used for years to calm furious, out of control human patients in mental hospitals. We have also employed the technique at CPT. Several years ago, a large Rottweiler visited us for intraspecies aggression modification. We tried the scaffolding, counterconditioning, systematic desensitization, and positive reinforcement techniques that typically provide quick progress with the majority of reactive dogs. However, this Rottweiler failed to improve. To make matters worse, he became more agitated during each successive trial repetition, whereby we were concerned he may escape the handler and seriously injure our volunteer dog. To provide added safety we double-collared the subject dog. Yet, we still needed an avant-garde method that would relax the Rottweiler, as we had reached the limits of our abilities with our standard methods. At the maximum distance of our building and at just the slightest visual exposure to our volunteer Samoyed the Rotty was still extremely high arousal and potentially dangerous. Therefore, I said, “It is time to step outside the box.” Subsequently, we soaked a blanket in cold water and threw it over the Rottweiler during the next trial repetition. The wet, shrouded Rottweiler immediately converted into a calm emotional state. The startling temperature and tactile sensations provided by the wet blanket created a powerful impulse control brake. Moreover, the interruption of visual stimulation helped to relax the Rottweiler and to redirect him from the target stimulus. Once the brake was in place the treatment plan progressed surprisingly well. Within 10 minutes of using the wet blanket we could calmly bring the Rottweiler within 7-feet of the Samoyed, whereas previously we had no control at 70 feet.


The majority of dogs get along well with most other dogs and will fare better if you let them establish their relationships without human interference. Yet, you can maximize the probability of safe social play by astutely pairing playmates based on a history that considers play style, energy level, age, gender, sexual status, dominance status, and size.

If you believe bullying is occurring or that conflict may ensue, consider the criteria mentioned within the article to more accurately evaluate whether you are observing status-oriented play, fun play, or a potential conflict. If you are observing play or if the probability is high the dogs will safely settle their discord, then do not intervene. On the other hand, if you sapiently assess you are observing inconsiderate bullying or imminent conflict, then safely and effectively interrupt the provocateur in accordance with the techniques mentioned in Section IV.



© Copyright Mark Spivak and Comprehensive Pet Therapy, Inc., June 2016. Revised July 2016.  All rights reserved.

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