How Do I Stop My Dog Playing Rough?
Just like people, dogs have different temperaments. Some are naturally calm and laid-back; others are timid and shy. And many dogs are naturally playful, exuberant and outgoing. These dogs do not mean any harm by excitedly play-biting, jumping and scratching people and other dogs. But when these boisterous dogs play too rough, they can accidentally injure their (human or canine) playmates. So, how can we stop our dogs from playing too rough? This article contains easy-to-apply methods on how to ensure playtimes stay safe and fun for everyone involved. But before we dive into that, let us look at some common causes for rough play.
What Causes Rough Play?
Among dogs, a certain amount of rough play is quite natural. But how can we tell apart normal, harmless play, and aggressive behaviour? Seeing the difference can be difficult, especially for first time owners. And it can be downright scary to watch dogs wrestle with one another whilst snarling, growling and barking loudly. But generally, exaggerated noises, air-snapping, play-biting and wrestling are normal components of canine play. There are, however, instances where play escalates into aggressive fighting. This can happen in play sessions between two dogs, but also between dogs and people. Certain types of dogs are more prone to rough play than others. And strong-willed, confident dogs of any breed can take rough play too far for the comfort of their owners.
1. Breed, Age & Temperament
To some extent, the tendency for rough play is breed-related. – at least to a certain extent. Just like every individual dog has their own unique personality, some breeds are more boisterous than others. These include breeds that are generally confident, strong-willed, and exuberant. Terriers, Bulldogs, herding- and working breeds fall into this category. Many Dobermans, Malinois, German Shepherds, Boxers and Bulldogs, for example, love “roughhousing”. They have the tendency to persistently mount other dogs, and wrestle them to the ground. And they also chase and play-bite them more than is usual in canine play. Because of their genetics, bully breeds in particular are prone to latching onto other dogs during play-fights. Hounds, gun dogs and dedicated companion dog breeds, on the other hand, are far gentler in their natural play behaviour.
Generally, puppies and adolescent dogs are more prone to playing rough than adult dogs. Smaller dogs reach adulthood at around 12 months of age, whereas giant breeds take up to 3 years to fully mature. But unless corrected, some dogs continue to play rough well into their adult years.
2. Bad Playing Habits
Whilst some tendencies for rough play are rooted in genetics, a lot has to do with the relationship between dog and owner. Many people enjoy vigorous playtimes with their dogs. And some owners even allow them to bite into their hands, arms and clothing. With large and powerful breeds, however, such behaviours can escalate into aggression. Therefore, it is important to always have an “off-switch”. In other words, to ensure your own safety, and the safety of your family, you must be in control of the dog at all times. There is nothing wrong with roughhousing with them – as long as they stop immediately on your cue. This cue can be a verbal command such as “Leave it!” or “Sit – Stay!”
Dogs are very much creatures of habit, and “bad” playing habits are easily formed. If you take your puppy to the dog park, for example, they can quickly pick up on the rough play behaviour of the other dogs. And before you know it, you have a fully grown Pitbull, Labrador or Mastiff that has not learned to control their impulses. Such a dog can then jump up on every other dog they encounter. As such jumping up and mounting is a dominant gesture, it might provoke a fight.
For these reasons, we recommend letting your puppy play with calm and well-balanced dogs. Such dogs will teach them what is acceptable play behaviour, and what is not. Should your puppy get too rambunctious whilst playing with such a balanced adult dog, they will correct them. In this way, your puppy learns healthy playing habits that will benefit them for life.
3. Lack Of Early Socialisation
Another common cause for playing too aggressively is lack of early socialisation. This often occurs when puppies are placed in their new homes too early. Up to the age of 8 weeks, infant dogs need to learn basic social skills from their canine family – including bite inhibition. Too intense or even aggressive play biting is one of the biggest challenges that novice puppy owners are faced with. If this is your situation right now, teaching your puppy impulse control falls to you. If you have access to a calm, well-balanced adult dog, ask their owners to assist you. This mentor dog can belong to a family member, friend, neighbour, or a local dog trainer: By serving as a role model for your boisterous puppy, such a dog can teach them bite inhibition and impulse control better than any human trainer. If you do not have access to a mentor dog, it is time to take matters into your own hands. After all, overly rough play is just a habit. And habits can be changed. By being your dog’s calm, consistent leader, you will succeed in teaching them new and healthy playing habits. In this way, you ensure that playtimes are safe and fun for everyone.
Keeping Dog Play From Getting Too Rough
1. Building Leadership
To modify your dog’s rough playing habits, you need to step up your leadership. And setting rules, boundaries and expectations for your dog is one of the best ways to do this. Then, you (and everyone in your household) has to reinforce them with militant consistency. Let us give an example of what these rules, boundaries and expectations could look like:
Rule: “Play is only allowed outside”
Boundary: “Fido is not allowed to play-bite people”
Expectation: “Fido drops his toy when asked to do so”
2. Redirecting Play Behaviour
Puppies and adolescent dogs are blessed with an unstoppable zest for life: Full of energy and enthusiasm, they are eager to explore the world around them. And as they do not have hands, they rely on their mouths to gather information about their environment.
So, to a certain extent, it is normal for young dogs to take everything into their little mouths – including our fingers. And depending on our rules, boundaries and expectations, we can allow our puppy to gently take our fingers into their mouths. We can also insist that they never touch us with their teeth. Nevertheless, having realistic expectations is important. And young puppies will need some time to understand that nibbling and mouthing humans is not acceptable. Redirecting play-biting and chewing to suitable toys is one good way to counteract these behaviours.
We achieve this by applying the 3-step formula of correct – redirect – reinforce: Basically, we verbally correct any unwanted play behaviour. Then, we redirect our puppy’s attention to a toy. And once they start engaging with the toy, we praise them. In this way, our dogs learn to channel their energy into playing with their toys.
This method is very effective, and it prevents play from escalating into painful nipping, jumping and mounting. At the same time, we want to ensure our dogs get plenty of exercise. As we like to say here at Fenrir: Tired dogs are good dogs. And tired dogs are also happy dogs. Exercise and mental stimulation such as obedience drills, interactive play and walks are excellent ways to drain a dog’s surplus energy.
3. Monitoring Play With Other Dogs
Taking our dogs for walks has many benefits. For example, it provides valuable opportunities for socialising them. Well-socialised puppies usually mature into dog-friendly individuals that love to play. Having canine playmates is wonderful for any dog, and for several reasons: It fulfils their natural desire to play chase and wrestle with others of their kind. At the same time, they get plenty of exercise and mental stimulation. Play fighting also hones their body awareness, and their ability to defend themselves, should the need ever occur.
So, you want to encourage your dog playing with other friendly canines. But what if your dog’s overly rough play is intimidating their playmates? The speed, strength and motor skills of a Pitbulls or a Belgian Malinois, for example, makes them “win” every play-fight with ease. But these breeds’ typically rough play behaviour is too much for most other canines. After all, no dog likes being mounted, knocked over or pinned to the ground all of the time. Balanced play requires that the participants take turns. This applies for all components of canine play, such as chasing and being chased, wrestling the other dog to the ground, and being on the ground themselves.
If your dog routinely plays too rough, the other dog will not want to continue playing. Rude play behaviour can also provoke fights. The best measure you can take to avoid this is by stepping in as your dog’s leader – and by correcting inappropriate play behaviours when they occur.
To illustrate how this could look like, let us assume that you own a boisterous 12-months-old German Shepherd called “Hawk”. Whenever Hawk meets another dog, he puts his front leg on their back, and then pushes down hard. This is unpleasant for other dogs, and it can even injure smaller canines. But equipped with the right tools, you can easily correct Hawk’s bad playing habit. For this, we recommend using the Ragnar Training Leash in combination with the Ragnar Harness. The adjustable, military-grade leash allows Hawk to play with another dog - but without getting too far away from you. In combination with the comfortable, padded harness, the training leash is ideal for controlling your German Shepherd, whilst he is learning better playing habits.
One way to use this harness & leash combo is by stopping the play whenever your dog gets carried away. In Hawk’s case, you could mark him putting his leg on top of the other dog with a stern “Ah-ah-ah!” or “Leave it!”. Then, you step right in front of your dog, and ask him to perform a “Sit & Stay”. If Hawk fails to comply, use the traffic handle on the Ragnar Harness to keep him from returning to the other dog. Insist on him sitting down, and staying sat down. In this way, you communicate to Hawk that his rude play behaviour is unacceptable. At the same time, you assert your calm, consistent leadership - by literally stepping in and taking control of the situation.
Once your exuberant German Shepherd has calmed down, and is looking up to you for guidance and direction, instantly mark this desirable behaviour with a “Yes!” Then, you reward him by releasing him from his position, and going back to playing. If you repeat this often enough, Hawk will learn that playing nicely with other dogs, and being respectful, works out to his advantage.
And this brings us to the end of our discussion on rough canine play. If your dog is “only” overly enthusiastic, but generally friendly to people and dogs, the methods described here should suffice. However, if you have reason to believe that your dog’s rough play is rooted in aggression, we advise consulting a balanced trainer or behaviourist in your area. In any case, you are not alone with your exuberant dog. Here at Fenrir, we are committed to helping responsible dog owners just like yourself.