Two of my dogs, Keikei and Dozer, constantly play in a way that would likely cause someone who doesn’t know them to assume they’re in an all-out fight. There are growls, yips and direct eye contact as they jockey around for good attacking positions. I know my dogs well enough to understand there is no aggression present in what appears to be aggressive tussling. However, even though I know it’s play, I still keep a sharp eye on them when they’re play fighting to make sure it doesn’t escalate to the next level. There are ways to tell the difference between aggression and play.
Play is an important part of a puppy’s education. They learn about bite inhibition, social skills and boundaries by curbing rough play so it doesn’t escalate into a fight. Dogs enjoy playing, and it’s a fun way to get beneficial exercise and bond with us and other dogs – as long as things don’t get out of hand. Our job is to recognize the warning signs of aggression and slow things down or stop play when necessary. We also need to allow non-aggressive actions to continue and let the dogs involved sort things out on their own.
Everyone has boundaries, including dogs. There are some things we let slide, and some things we just won’t tolerate. We have a line that, if crossed, may trigger a forceful reprimand that could turn into a more aggressive response. Dogs can’t sit down and discuss objections, and their only option to make their desires known is by submitting or lashing out. In my dogs’ case, both of them love a full contact, high-paced game of “attacking” each other. Both have dominant personalities, but they know each other’s breaking point and when it’s time to back off. However, there are times I have to step in to control a situation when their body language indicates one of them has had enough, and the other missed or ignored the signals.