Is Rough or Aggressive Puppy Play Normal?

Updated on August 31, 2018
alexadry profile image

Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, behavior consultant, former veterinary hospital assistant, and the author of "Brain Training for Dogs."

Puppy play or aggression? Learn how to read your dog's behavior.
Puppy play or aggression? Learn how to read your dog's behavior. | Source

What Influences a Puppy's Personality?

Puppy play can be cute to watch, but some owners may wonder whether rough or aggressive puppy play is normal. Defining "normal" can be a bit of a challenge because not all puppies behave the same.

There are many variances among dogs, and these variances include breed, age, and temperament (or personality) as described below:

  • Breed: Some breeds may be more persistent and rough in their play style, while others may be gentle.
  • Age: As puppies grow, their play generally becomes more and more intense.
  • Temperament: Even within a litter of puppies of the same breed, you will have a wide variety of energy levels and temperaments.

Why Physical Punishment Is Never Okay

It's important for puppy owners to recognize when puppies are playing versus being aggressive. Misinterpreting normal puppy play may cause owners to punish the puppy, especially when the play-biting is directed towards small children.

Physical punishment like alpha rolls, tapping the puppy on the nose, or holding the puppy's muzzle shut only causes fear and distrust and may lead to defensive aggression. There are several reward-based ways to train puppies to inhibit their biting so that they can redirect on appropriate games and toys.

Old techniques such as grabbing the puppy's muzzle, giving him a shake, yelling "no" or pinning the puppy down have been shown to possibly make matters worse! These types of reprimands can be interpreted as an act of aggression by the puppy. In many cases, reprimands can escalate the problem and turn a normal behavior into an aggressive one.

— Linda White
Puppies tend to play rough with one another.
Puppies tend to play rough with one another.

What Is Normal Play Behavior in Puppies?

Some normal puppy play behavior includes chasing and pouncing on a butterfly or chasing the tail, but puppy play often involves other characteristics that may be perceived as aggressive. Barking, growling, snapping, and biting are all behaviors that puppies may exhibit during normal play.

Identifying Aggression or Play via Meta-Signals

A good way to determine whether or not a puppy is being aggressive or playing is by carefully observing behavior during play.

When puppies and dogs play, they exhibit meta-signals. Meta-signals are employed as a form of meta-communication, a term used by anthropologist Gregory Bateson who referred to it as "communication about communication." It's basically the puppy's or dog's way of informing others that although rough or aggressive looking, they are simply engaging in play.

Meta-Communication in Humans

Humans are quite experienced at using meta-communication. A common example is joking. When joking, we will say a sentence in such a way as to help the receiver understand that what is being said is not to be taken seriously. Perhaps we may use an ironic tone of voice or smile as we make our statement. Should the person on the receiving end still misinterpret things, we can always reassure him or her by saying something like "Hey, I'm just joking!"

The Challenges of Interspecies Communication

In order to prevent miscommunication, humans and dogs must be savvy in social skills. The sender must know how to use meta-communication, and the receiver must know how to interpret it. It is easy to see how things can get blurry when communicating with a different species, which is why puppy owners may end up thinking that their puppy is being aggressive rather than simply playful.

Normal vs. Aggressive Dog Behavior

Normal Play
Aggressive Behavior
Play Face
Direct Stare
High-Pitched Barking
Deep-Toned Barking
High-Pitched Growling
Deep-Toned Growling
Loose Body Posture
Stiff Body Posture
Behavior Evoked by Play
Behavior Evoked by Triggers
Play Bow
Lunging Forward Aggressively

Video: Play Signals in Dogs

What Signals Do Puppies Use to Indicate Play?

  • The Play Bow: The most popular meta-signal universally used among well-socialized puppies and dogs is the "play bow," where the dog lowers the front legs while keeping his rump in the air. In this posture, the tail wags widely side-to-side and the pup may emit a high-pitched bark. Play bows are not always evident; puppies may sometimes briefly dip their bodies down several times in what I like to call "micro play bows."
  • Miscellaneous Behaviors: Other behaviors that are meant to communicate play are high-pitched barks and growls, tail wags (although not all tail wags are friendly), back and forth darting, and the presentation of the side of the body.
  • Play Triggers: Play, of course, presents itself during play-evoking situations. The puppy may start playing when something attracts him through movement (leaves blown by the wind, a ball bounced on the floor, the owner's pant legs or shoelaces, or the owner's hands and feet). Play, too, often takes place after meals; I like to call this display the "postprandial zoomies."

When is play too rough?
When is play too rough?

How to Discourage Rough Puppy Play

Puppy play can get quite rough and intense at times. It's important to realize that pups do not realize the strength of their jaws and how much those needle-like teeth hurt. Some cases can be particularly challenging to tackle. Puppies sometimes have a hard time learning when to stop and will continue to nip and bite. It's important to tackle rough play correctly without resorting to punishment-based techniques (which will only build distrust and fear and can lead to further problems). Here are several tips to tackle rough puppy play:

1. Train Them to Bite Softly

It's important not to eliminate biting completely because puppy owners need to teach puppies basic bite inhibition. This way, should the dog ever decide to bite, he will apply light pressure. Most owners will have ample opportunities to teach bite inhibition because puppies tend to be persistent biters.

If your puppy starts biting hard when you are playing, it's important to teach them that this is not the way you want them to interact with you. You can do so by following these steps:

  1. Freeze. Right when you feel the pressure of his teeth, freeze and stop in your tracks.
  2. Yelp. You may or may not decide to emit a verbal marker such as a high-pitched yelp-like sound or an "ouch" the moment you feel the pressure of the teeth. Not all puppies will respond well to yelping, and in some cases, the yelping may arouse the puppy even more.
  3. Disengage. Turn around and give your back to your pup with your hands folded under your arms in order to discourage any further play. This is meant to inform the puppy that he is biting too hard and that you are withdrawing from play.

Was the Outcome Positive or Negative?

  • For Positive Interactions: If the puppy seems to respond well and engages in more gentle mouthing/licking, it's good to provide encouraging feedback with a verbal marker like "yes!" and more play.
  • For Negative Interactions: If the puppy keeps on biting and doesn't respond well to the "ouch," then simply leave the room (some dog owners add a verbal marker like "too bad") and shut the door behind you. Leave the pup alone for a few seconds to "reflect." Then, once back, try playing again and praise the pup for a soft mouth; repeat leaving the room as necessary.
  • Alternate Response for Negative Interactions: Alternatively, the puppy can be escorted into a time-out zone such as inside a crate, X-Pen, or behind a baby gate to calm down. These time-out zones are not for punishment and should be pleasant areas for the pup to relax with a chew toy and nap.

Important Note: Grasping the puppy by the collar to take him to a time-out zone versus using the leash tab may encourage puppies to become reactive to collar grabs (unless puppy owners are diligent about working on giving a treat every time they grab on the collar to create a positive association).

Training Tip

Puppies should wear a collar with a leash tab or wear a mini leash. For safety, the collar and leash should always be removed before a pup is crated.

2. Reduce the Frequency of Biting

As your puppy learns some bite inhibition, it's time to reduce the frequency of biting. This is best done by preventing the rehearsal of problematic biting and redirection and by training alternate behaviors. Remember: All the interactions between you and your puppy (and between the pup and other family members) are opportunities for learning. To make the most of your training, it's a good idea to keep a full treat bag attached to your waist (you can use a portion of your puppy's kibble for training) and a few toys in your pocket so that you are never caught unprepared.

When time is lacking or you are not in the mood for training, keep your puppy in a crate, X-Pen, or behind a baby gate with a safe chew toy to prevent the rehearsal of problematic behaviors. If you do not wish to use these suggestions, make sure your puppy has access to interactive toys so that he makes good choices instead of using your body and clothes as tug toys.

3. Redirect the Biting

The more your puppy bites you and enjoys this way of interacting with you, the more he will seek out biting opportunities. Again, don't let your puppy view you as his favorite tug toy. The best way to tackle rough biting is by preventing biting opportunities from occurring in the first place.

Techniques for Discouraging Biting in Puppies

Technique
Circumstance
Be Boring
If you are walking and your puppy tries to bite your ankles, feet, or pant legs, immediately turn into a lamppost. Puppies are attracted to movement and lampposts are boring, which is why you never see puppies interacting with them.
Offer Alternate Behaviors
Provide your puppy with an alternate behavior to focus on so that you won't be walking and dragging them while they are latched onto your pants. You have plenty of choices here.
Make Them Work
Ask your puppy to perform obedience exercises ("sit" or "down"), praise lavishly, and reward by tossing a piece of kibble across the room at a distance.
Give Them a "Time Out"
Have a helper call your puppy and give your puppy an interactive toy to play with (stuffed Kong, Kong Wobbler) inside a crate for a pleasant "time out." Many pups who persist in biting are often cranky and just need some downtime or a nap.
Distract
If your puppy hasn't mastered fluent obedience skills, redirect your puppy's attention by tossing a bouncing ball across the room or by offering an interactive toy (stuffed Kong, Kong Wobbler filled with kibble).
Use Props
Teach your puppy to have fun tearing up paper towels, toilet paper rolls, or shredding empty tissue boxes versus biting you. When your puppy is about to bite, offer him these things to tear apart and give praise. Use caution and avoid this game with puppies that tend to ingest stuff.
Use a Decoy
Use a flirt pole (or a stuffed toy tied onto a rope) and let your puppy play with that, then start walking and reward your puppy with treats every time he mouths the toy rather than your legs.
Teach Bite Inhibition
Play some fun bite-inhibition puppy games that keep the pup's focus off of biting hands. Tug is a great game for this.
Offer Variety
Games shouldn't be so long that the pup gets overly excited, frustrated, or tired. It's best to alternate games with some obedience exercises to keep from going overboard.
Do Not Punish
Avoid any punishment-based techniques as they can potentially cause distrust and fear in some pups or even aggression. Loud noises such as using an air horn or shaking a can with coins may scare a pup and pave the path towards noise phobias in sensitive dogs.
Offer Relief
Provide a frozen and wet, knotted washcloth to help teething puppies.

At What Age Should Rough Play Stop?

Ideally, you want your puppy to learn to be more gentle with his mouth before he is five months old. At this time, your puppy will have a much stronger jaw, and with doggy adolescence right around the corner, you will want to resolve this issue. However, it is essential to continue bite-inhibition exercises throughout your dog's life. Keep training your dog to take treats gently and keep brushing your dog's teeth. Otherwise, with lack of maintenance exercises, your dog's bite-inhibition training will begin to drift as he grows older.

Play-biting is very frequently misinterpreted by owners, especially those with small children. They fail to understand the communication that is going on around play and assume that the biting is an act of aggression.

— Jon Bowen, Sarah Heath
Continue to teach bite inhibition throughout your dog's lifetime.
Continue to teach bite inhibition throughout your dog's lifetime.

What Causes a Puppy to Be Aggressive?

Although pups love to play and interact with their owners and other dogs, there may be times when a puppy is not really playing but actually engaging in aggressive behavior. Although the occurrence of serious aggression problems in young puppies is rare (most problems are seen when dogs approach the adolescent stage and adulthood), it's best to nip any potential problems in the bud.

Most aggressive behavior is provoked by specific circumstances or exposure to certain triggers. The most common reasons why puppies engage in aggressive behaviors is because they are either resource guarding an object, reacting out of fear, defending themselves, or responding to pain.

Resource Guarding

If the puppy emits a deep, guttural growl with a fixed stare as you approach him when he has a toy, food, bone, or other item he perceives to be valuable, chances are he may be resource guarding. Nipping this behavior in the bud is important to prevent rehearsal and to prevent the behavior from persisting into adulthood.

Fear or Self-Defense

Many puppies that are labeled as aggressive bullies are really just fearful pups. Some puppies become aggressive to get themselves out of a sticky situation they perceive as frightening or threatening. For instance, a puppy may bite if cornered and wishes not to be picked up by a child. Puppies punished for biting due to rough play may also switch from playing to defensive aggression.

Incorrect Handling

Puppies may also bite when they are not comfortable in certain situations such as having their feet handled or when they are restrained. Exposing puppies to grooming and handling routines and pairing them with positive happenings can help prevent the onset of fear-related aggression.

When to See a Professional

Anytime a puppy reacts aggressively, it's a good idea to have the puppy seen by a vet to make sure that the puppy is not in pain. If the puppy is found to be healthy, a referral to a credentialed professional such as a veterinary behaviorist or a dog behavior consultant (specializing in positive behavior modification methods) may be necessary.

References

  • Behaviour Problems in Small Animals: Practical Advice for the Veterinary Team by Jon Bowen, Sarah Heath
  • First Steps with Puppies and Kittens: A Practice-Team Approach to Behavior by Linda White (Author), Lisa Radosta DVM DACVB (Editor)
  • Akc Star Puppy by Mary Burch, PhD

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

    © 2018 Adrienne Janet Farricelli

    Comments

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      • Guckenberger profile image

        Alexander James Guckenberger 

        2 months ago from Maryland, United States of America

        I hear ya.

      • Peggy W profile image

        Peggy Woods 

        2 months ago from Houston, Texas

        This is really important information for all puppy owners to know. Thanks for writing this. It has been a long time since we have had a puppy. I do remember the feel of those sharp puppy teeth when they are playing. Will be very happy to share this information with others who are dealing with puppies. Good behavior must be reinforced early because puppies grow up fast.

      • alexadry profile imageAUTHOR

        Adrienne Janet Farricelli 

        2 months ago from USA

        I certainly agree Alexander. With positive reinforcement you get solid results without all the "side effects" associated with punishment-based techniques.

      • Guckenberger profile image

        Alexander James Guckenberger 

        2 months ago from Maryland, United States of America

        Positive reinforcement seems to work better than punishment in my experience.

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