“I don’t understand why my dog is so aggressive toward other dogs when she’s on leash. When she’s off leash, she’s great with other dogs!” my client said.
“When does she get to interact with other dogs off leash?” I asked.
“We go to the dog park at least four times a week,” the client replied. “She plays with all the other dogs, all sizes. There are never any fights; she loves all dogs.”
My client showed me a video. My client saw her Husky mix happily romping through the park, big smile on her face, having the time of her life. What did I see? The Husky mix merrily trouncing dog after dog, squashing them like bugs, paws stomping on shoulders as they hit the dirt.
“This is NOT playing,” I explained. “Well, YOUR dog is playing. The other dogs are not.” My client was shocked.
Dogs Playing with Dogs: What’s Normal?
In appropriate dog play, all dogs are having a great time. One dog may be on top of another dog for a while, but they will usually switch positions. There is give and take. All dogs want to be in the game, and all enjoy the interaction. No one is cowering or trying to escape. No one is getting angry and snapping. When it’s one-sided, that’s a problem. No one wants their dog to be the victim of inappropriate play. You shouldn’t want your dog to be potentially traumatizing other dogs, either.
Here are some typical dog games you may see when dogs are playing:
- Jaw Sparring – This looks scary, but no one is getting hurt. Dogs will clash their open mouths against each other. No one bleeds, but they do exchange a lot of slobber! The casual term for this is “bitey face.”
- Chase – One dog will run after another dog. Sometimes, more than one dog gets in on the game. If the dog being chased doesn’t look frightened (tail tucked, worried expression, trying to hide) then it’s okay. If there is a pack of dogs targeting another dog and chasing him down, this calls for immediate intervention. Most times, it looks like a game of Tag. One dog runs for a while with another in hot pursuit, then they switch. This is a very popular game with herding breeds.
- Wrestling – Dogs will body slam each other and roll on the ground. You may also see jaw sparring during this game. It’s best if dogs are of equal size, otherwise the wrestling match can cause injury. How can you tell if both dogs are enjoying the game? Call the top one off and see what the bottom dog does. Does he flee? He wasn’t playing. Does he try to stay in the game? He was fine.
- Tug – Two or more dogs will grab a toy or other object and pull. Some dogs absolutely love this game and will run around with a toy in their mouths, offering it to other dogs to engage.
If dogs have different play styles, it can lead to misunderstandings and even fights. For example, if you have a Border Collie who is staring at a Boxer, wanting to chase him, this might be frightening for the Boxer. If the Boxer wants to body slam the Border Collie, the Border Collie may be offended and snap.
Why Do Some Dogs Pick on Others?
Dogs who appropriately play with other dogs care about how their partners in play feel about the situation. If one dog plays too rough and his play partner yips, the correct response is to back off. Some dogs, however, don’t know any better. They may not have been properly socialized as puppies and never developed good canine play skills.
Turning Your Roughhouser Into a Real Friend
If you think your dog may be playing too rough, don’t allow him to intimidate other dogs. Find a Fear Free certified trainer who can evaluate your dog’s social skills, and help you teach him proper play manners.
This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.
Teoti Anderson, CPDT-KA, KPA-CTP, is the vice president of A Dog’s Best Friend, located in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. A professional dog trainer for more than 23 years, she is the author of The Dog Behavior Problem Solver, Dog Fancy Ultimate Guide to Dog Training, Animal Planet Dogs 101 Dog Training, Puppy Care and Training, The Super Simple Guide to Housetraining, Quick & Easy Crate Training, and Your Outta Control Puppy. A popular conference speaker, she has given presentations to pet owners, humane organizations, and fellow trainers across the United States and internationally.
Published September 12, 2022