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Will Wrestling With My Dog Make Them More Aggressive?

In addition to his veterinary work, Dr. Mark also trains dogs—mostly large breeds and those that suffer from aggression problems.

Camilla about to be "attacked" by my dog, Ajej.

Camilla about to be "attacked" by my dog, Ajej.

Play Fighting With Your Dog

The pit bull ran alone on the beach and stopped when she saw a large piece of driftwood that she could hide behind. As soon as the man got close she leapt out, charging toward him and jumping up at the last minute. She growled fiercely, her mouth wide open, and as she lunged, her teeth clamped down on his arm.

But did she bite?

No, of course not. A dog who learns bite inhibition will not break the skin.

I know this because I wrestle with my dog almost every day. She puts her teeth on my bare flesh frequently but would never bite me.

Some dogs like treats and some like to play ball, but this search-and-rescue dog likes to wrestle as a reward for doing his job.

Some dogs like treats and some like to play ball, but this search-and-rescue dog likes to wrestle as a reward for doing his job.

Does Playing Rough and Wrestling With Your Dog Lead to Aggression?

In one of her books, animal behaviorist Patricia McConnell tells about a case with a large Lab that was in the habit of biting its owner. The dog wrestled each evening with the male owner, a man who weighs over 200 pounds, but during the day was with the small female owner and would bite her when she would not play rough. Dr. McConnell recommended that the male owner stop wrestling with the dog.

But is not wrestling with a dog the solution? Not too many years ago, many trainers claimed you shouldn't play tug of war with your dog since that game was said to be one of the causes of aggression. Tug of war is not the cause of aggression. Tug of war is one of those games that can be used to burn off excess energy and make a dog less aggressive. Now those who recommended no wrestling state “play tug of war instead.”

Teaching a Dog Bite Inhibition

Wrestling will not lead to aggression, but dogs who are going to wrestle with their owners do need to learn bite inhibition. If you teach your dog bite inhibition, your dog may bite if something bad happens to her, but when she does it is not going to cause as much damage as the bite of a dog who does not know how to control herself.

Teaching bite inhibition has nothing to do with a dog's breed. I have worked with many dog breeds, and have yet to come across a dog that was not able to learn to control himself. It does not matter if the dog is small, large, or even giant.

Wrestling with my dog.

Wrestling with my dog.

When Is It Okay to Play-Wrestle With My Dog?

Your dog needs to learn when it is okay to wrestle and when it is not. It is okay when you say it is! It is never okay for the dog to start the wrestling match.

There are some trainers out there who say “never allow your dog to wrestle, since he may end up being aggressive and wrestling with an elderly person or a small child.” This is wrong.

A dog can be taught to understand when he is given the signal to wrestle. I grunt and do a “Frankenstein walk” with my arms held out so that my dog will know it is okay to start wrestling. She also knows it is okay to wrestle with one of the neighbor girls, but would never even try to jump up on kids she is not allowed to play with.

So can you wrestle with your dog? Of course you can. All it takes is a little training time. Your dog is worth the effort.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

Questions & Answers

Question: I cannot get my dog to puppy class. Is it very bad to miss the socialization window for dogs, 12 to 16 weeks?

Answer: It is called the sensitive socialization period because if you miss it there is no way to make it up. After your dog reaches 16 weeks (more or less) he reaches a "behavioral wall" and he cannot deal with new things outside of that wall. So yes, it is bad to miss this period. If you cannot take your dog to puppy class, make sure that he meets other dogs outside of class, and make sure that you take him for walks so that he is not afraid of new things.


Leslie on April 09, 2019:

It is a nightly ritual for our 10 lb female mutt. She gets on the bed and waits for either me or my hubby to start the wrestling match. It only lasts for a few minutes and she contently goes to sleep. She never bites just opens her mouth and huffs and puffs.

Kelsey on July 26, 2018:

I play fight with my dog all the time. I always start it but my dog would never ever play fight with anyone but me. We've even tested it, he mouths my hand but when me and mum swap he'll start licking her hand. If I say 'enough now' he'll instantly stop mouthing me and go get me a ball. He's not a violent dog. The only thing I would say is when he meets new people and he gets too excited he might mouth at that hand but that's simply stopped by saying 'enough'.

Mark dos Anjos DVM (author) from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil on October 04, 2016:

Perhaps. I read recently that Switzerland is discontinuing its mandatory classes for new dog owners. The owners that had taken the classes did not treat their dogs any differently than those who did not take classes.

jtrader on October 04, 2016:

Perhaps it would help if more people did classes before getting a dog.

Max on March 30, 2016:

I used to have a boxer and always wrestled with him since he was very small. When he was tiny any time he but harder than i liked i would say ow, grab his cheeks an pinch them into his teeth a bit to let him know that hurts, then stop a bit and keep playing after some time. He learned very quickly how hard was too hard. By the time he was full grown i could wrestle with him as rough as i wanted, even picking him up and giving him a bit of a toss. He also understood that Im the only one he can wrestle with, i think mostly because of the body language i would use to tell him i wanna wrestle. When it was time to stop i would just stand up and he might mouth me once or twice but i wouldnt respond by playing. Usually id just pat him on the head.

I have a new boxer now and going through the same process and just in the past few days she went from trying to bit hard or tug at fingers, to mouthing hands and arms without putting enough pressure to cause pain (even with her needle like puppy teeth)

I dont see any reason why you shouldnt wrestle with a dog as long as they understand when and when not to play rough.

WillStarr from Phoenix, Arizona on October 26, 2014:

We finally gave up on keeping our Chihuahua out of our bed at night, and as a goodnight gesture, she gently bites my hand for a few minutes and then drifts off to sleep. It's has become ritual that both of us love. She does not do this with my wife.

Cynthia on October 26, 2014:

I'm a 130 lb woman & I wrestle with my 90 lb Great Dane/Pitbull mix almost every day. She bitesme, but very softly (would never break skin) & knows that when I say "sit" that the game is over. I can't say wrestling is right for every dog, but it's pretty fun for us!

Suhail Zubaid aka Clark Kent from Mississauga, ON on May 23, 2013:

People who argue against wrestling with dogs are usually those who belong to the school of though that believes in wolf / dog domination theory. They also advise letting the dog lead you on a walk.

I let my dog lead me all the time. He leads and all I have to do is to let him know which way to go if he is indecisive or heads in a wrong direction. Many times, I ask him to pull me, especially under knee deep snow conditions or when I am tired and we have to climb an ascent.

Mark dos Anjos DVM (author) from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil on May 23, 2013:

That seems like a long time but at least it wasn't IVDD,which often does not do better no matter how hard you try. Good to hear he is now doing better!!!

Mary Craig from New York on May 23, 2013:

My MinPin didn't have IVDD, it turned out to be an infection in his spinal fluid. He's been on medication for a year...actually took the last pill last week.

Bob Bamberg on May 21, 2013:

I think it is. When talking with someone with a new dog and small kids, I'll tell them I know a vet who says that, but in reality it happens all the time. I'm sure vets and pediatricians have some horror stories to tell, but as a percentage of teeth/skin contact episodes, they're probably pretty low. It's good CYA rhetoric, though.

I'd guess that normal cautions would suffice. With a puppy or a rescue, you make sure the dog understands the rules of human/dog play.

If the dog just doesn't get it, then you just don't roughhouse with him. But if he's good with roughhousing, I should think it's a play that he would very much identify with and enjoy.

Mark dos Anjos DVM (author) from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil on May 21, 2013:

I´ve read that "never, ever" comment before, and I think it is unrealistic. All it takes is a little education and training.

Does this sound like another case of MAAN?

Bob Bamberg on May 21, 2013:

Had a hard time getting beyond the visual of a grunting DrMark1961 doing the Frankenstein walk. lol!! There's still time to edit the hub and add the video. Bet it would go viral.

There's a vet who does a call-in show in RI who is fond of saying, "A dog's teeth should never, ever touch human skin." He usually uses it in the context of training a puppy or when adopting a dog. Maybe a bit extreme.

No statistics, but I think it's a safe bet that most dog owners roughhouse or wrestle with their dogs without ever having taught bite inhibition.

When dogs (and cats, too for that matter) play with each other, it often looks pretty violent, yet they never draw blood. Is it realistic to think that dogs are simply able to discriminate between play and real aggression, whatever species they're engaged with?

Another valuable hub...voted up, useful and interesting.

Mark dos Anjos DVM (author) from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil on May 20, 2013:

Hi Suhail this is so short because I just wrote it as a reply to a "do not wrestle with your dog' suggestion. I had to go out and take a picture of my dog "attacking" my arm, and it was cloudy so it is kind of dark.

I don't think your dog would like the heat here, but I would sure enjoy wrestling with him!

Mark dos Anjos DVM (author) from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil on May 20, 2013:

Hey Kashmir56 thanks for reading and commenting! I always enjoy your reading list (the articles you share) and appreciate your participation.

Suhail Zubaid aka Clark Kent from Mississauga, ON on May 20, 2013:

I don't wrestle with my 110 pound Kuvasz, but I am close to doing it. I play quite a rough form of tug of war with his two favorite tough toys. Of course, he understands the limitations and has bite control.

In real life wrestling situation, I don't think anyone stands a chance against him lol.

Great hub! Short, sweet and confirming my belief :-)

Thomas Silvia from Massachusetts on May 20, 2013:

Great informative and interesting article with useful information on wrestling with your dog, how to do it right and why it is good to do it with your dog. When my dog was alive she would always love to wrestle with me and never once bit me . Well done !

Vote up and more !!!

Mark dos Anjos DVM (author) from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil on May 19, 2013:

Thats really great that your Chihuahua is into wrestling! I used to try to play like that with my Maltese, and he would look at me like "Are you serious?Give me some space here!"

WillStarr from Phoenix, Arizona on May 19, 2013:

I've always play-wrestled with my dogs. It's a fun communication that they understand, and we always ended it with mutual displays of affection (like the girl in the video).

Even my tiny Chihuahua loves to play fight, although she just attacks my hand. Her tiny little growls just crack us up!

Mark dos Anjos DVM (author) from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil on May 19, 2013:

I have this great visual now of wretling with a MinPin! Does he still have problems with IVDD?

Dogs are so funny. My dog loves to wrestle but could care less about balls and doesn't like tug of war. Oh well!

Mary Craig from New York on May 19, 2013:

This is very informational Dr. Mark. There is so much controversy about tug of war and wrestling with dogs it is hard to know what is right. Everything you've said makes sense. Obviously I don't wrestle with my MiPn, but I do play tug of war with him. He has put his mouth around my hand or arm many times but never bites down...I didn't specifically teach him bite inhibition but did go through "no bite" training.

Voted up, useful, and interesting.