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By just two weeks old, puppies are typically happily wrestling with their littermates. While it might just look like fur balls having fun, this early play is critical to a puppy's social development. Dogs playing together from such a young age teaches them communication and self-control. After all, if you bite one of your littermates too hard they won't play with you anymore.
As puppies age and grow, they don't lose their playful spirit. Give your dog the opportunity to make four-legged friends, but be vigilant. It's up to you to supervise and make sure your pup is enjoying good-natured play and isn't getting too aggressive with other dogs.
Ready for Fun
Here are a few signals dogs use to show other pups they're ready to play:
- Dropping into a "play bow": You might see your dog put their front legs on the ground and their back end in the air as they face their pal. Really exuberant dogs might even slap their front legs on the ground to show they're ready to romp.
- Taking turns: Dogs playing together will sometimes play a form of tag, where they take turns chasing each other.
- A smile: You know when your dog is happy. You might actually see them looking as if they’re grinning as they race around a dog park with a friend.
- Exaggerated growling or barking: Puppies "play growl" and your dog might not have outgrown this puppy behaviour. It could sound scary, but if other behaviours show you that your dog and their friend are just having fun then don't be alarmed.
- Play Biting: This is typically one of the hardest signs for pet parents to accept because we associate biting as a negative outside of eating, but this is simply what dogs do. It's not uncommon for one dog to submit and lie on their back, while the other dog nips at their ears or nose. Both dogs may bear their teeth, but as long as there isn't aggressive growling, yelps or whimpers your dogs are probably just engaging in playful behaviour. If you notice one dog isn't feeling it and looks like they’d rather be left alone, it might be best to separate them for a time. This can be common with puppies trying to engage in play with an older dog that just wants to have a nap.
Crossing the Line
When does a line get crossed between play fighting and a dog actually exhibiting aggressive behaviour?
Signs of dog aggression include raised hackles, stiffness, snapping, or lunging. If either dog shows aggression, separate them immediately. But be careful: Never get between two fighting dogs.
Dogs can also become territorial, whether it's toward a place, food, a toy or a person. If you notice one of your dogs becoming territorial over something any time another dog comes around it, it is best to separate them before aggressive behaviours begin. Then, work with an obedience trainer to try and get to the bottom of this behaviour and train it out of them. This can often happen when introducing a new dog into the house with an older one. The older one is not used to having to share his toys or your love, so it might take a little extra training on your end to get them used to the idea of sharing their home.
If you have a dog that is aggressive, it simply might be best for you to avoid situations that may cause your dog to fight. But if you have had a dog that has shown signs of aggression in the past, you should be on alert for his whole life. A relapse can occur at any point. Consult your veterinarian if this behaviour is regular. You might also need to consult a behaviour trainer that can train your dog the right and wrong ways to act if you are struggling to train them to play nice.
Raise a Playful Pup
The most important thing you can do to keep your dog from becoming fearful or aggressive toward other dogs is to start socialisation early. By regularly meeting and interacting with other dogs, you may lessen the chance that they’ll react negatively to other dogs as he ages. Get started by taking an obedience class with your dog, which will give him regular interaction with other puppies. You can also meet new canine pals on walks, by setting up play dates with neighbours, or visiting a dog park. Make sure your dog is comfortable in these situations. You might not be helping your dog become more comfortable around other animals if they’re scared or are bullied by another dog. Keep interactions positive and don't push your dog into a situation that they’re not comfortable.
Take a Break
Sometimes dogs can play too much and get too riled up. When the rough housing gets too intense, separate them so no one gets hurt. Giving them something to chew on can distract the dogs from each other. Also, consider separating them briefly. Put them in "timeout" by ordering them to lay down for a few minutes. If that doesn't work, simply separating the dogs by a door for 10 minutes or so might get them to calm down when they're reunited.
Watching happy dogs at play is a joy and something to be encouraged. Do your best to find ways to let your dog interact with other dogs at least on a weekly basis. Even if they don't engage in play, and just sniff each other, it is helpful for their development and a good way to encourage good behaviour.
Kara Murphy is a freelance writer and pet parent who lives in Erie, Pa. She has a goldendoodle named Maddie.