Play fighting with puppy
January 3, 2012 8:14 PM   Subscribe

Is it okay to play fight with your dog?

I recently adopted a one year old cairn terrier/chihuahua cross. He loves to play fight... which I haven't been doing much of for fear that he will do it with someone who is frightened of dogs. He's still a bit of a puppy and seems to have very good boundaries about when we're playing and when it's time to stop.
He never actually bites down when we "wrassle" or play fight as seems to know it's just for fun.
I do want to ensure he knows he can only do this in select circumstances. Is it possible to train him to know when this behaviour is acceptable and when it's not? (ie maybe a word or a gesture)
posted by risaroni to Pets & Animals (26 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not your vet and this isn't medical advice.

The safest avenue is going to be to avoid the play fight dynamic and instead channel that energy into something that does not have the potential for violence. What might seem like obvious factors to you (age, willingness and timing of the opponent) may not be clear at all to your new pup. Best case scenario is that you get to keep play fighting. Worst case is that he seriously injures you or someone else and you're forced to euthanize.

Sorry to be a bummer :(
posted by Nickel Pickle at 8:21 PM on January 3, 2012

There's no way to tell a dog that a certain behavior is appropriate in one context, but not allowed in another. That holds for everything from jumping on furniture to instinctively tugging back when you try to pull something out of their mouths, to running away from you when you chase them, to rolling around and play-fighting. A dog that's gotten used to fighting for entertainment has a very good chance of lunging at a stranger, even if it's just for fun. That's not a habit you want to teach him.
posted by Gilbert at 8:27 PM on January 3, 2012

How rough are these play fights? You say he doesn't bite down, but is it serious roughhousing otherwise? Are there toys involved?

I do think it's possible, depending on the conditions. You just train your dog to play fight only with certain objects and only with yourself/the people he knows. Similar behavior in any other circumstance is not rewarded. That's how every dog I've ever had was trained, and there were never any problems with strangers or with the dogs ripping up things that weren't toys. I would recommend working with a trainer, though. If you're unsure on your own, don't try it!
posted by katillathehun at 8:47 PM on January 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

My viszla loves to wrestle. Loves loves loves it. It's pretty comical, he'll do somersaults and headstands and everything. Although he used to nip as a puppy, I've trained him away from that - same with the barking.

I have trained him that it is time to wrestle when I am on my knees on the floor and tell him. Otherwise, it is not allowed. He only really likes to do it with me or other dogs anyway, so it works out - although sometimes he uses the corner of our sectional to do headstands if I won't play with him.

This dog is pretty smart, and very mild mannered. With another more aggressive or stupid dog it might be more of a risk. Use your judgement and know your dog and know your limits and always be in charge.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 8:51 PM on January 3, 2012 [8 favorites]

Personal experience:

When it came to my dog (wheaten terrier), I never had a problem with fallout from "play-wrestling." Our form of play-wrestling involved me imitating his growling noises and tapping at his paws and head with my hand. He would try to catch my hand with his mouth, but he would never bite down — ever. As soon as I stopped imitating his growling noises and opened my arms for a hug, he understood that the "play-wrestling" time was over and would snuggle up.

In this case, he was no longer a puppy. I didn't play-wrestle with him when he was a puppy because he was teething, and I knew it would be hard for him to fight his instinct to bite down. I think it would have been too confusing for him.

If at any point he had trouble stopping when I stopped, that would have been the end of the play-wrestling. I try very, very hard not to send him mixed signals.

He doesn't have aggression problems towards people (adults or children). In fact, he absolutely loves people — he gets so happy when he sees people, he runs up to them and tries to get them to pet him and pay attention to him. He is also very happy to see other dogs and plays very well with them. On occasion, another dog will snarl at him and he will snarl back, at which point we part ways with the other dog and the problem is over.

For what it's worth, I am the only person who play-wrestles with him. I would not invite anybody else to play-wrestle with him — not that I think he would necessarily get into it even if they tried to initiate it, because he's so excited about the idea of somebody new petting him.
posted by hypotheticole at 8:57 PM on January 3, 2012 [3 favorites]

Dogs (and wolves) have a posture that is known as a play bow. This is a posture taken pretty much exclusively to say "yay you should play with me!" So given that such a posture exists, I am skeptical of the idea that it is impossible to train a dog to recognize context, when in fact they create contexts their very own selves.

So yes. You can play-fight with your pup. Be structured about it and it'll be fine.
posted by kavasa at 9:00 PM on January 3, 2012 [21 favorites]

Our rule with our dog has always been that if he jumps up on someone standing he gets ignored (turn our backs on him) and if his teeth ever touch skin then play time is over. It has worked really well. We haven't had jumping up problems since he was a young puppy and even now he mostly plays with us through toys. I'll grab and rub him a bit, but mostly he bites a floppy toy and one end and brings it over begging you to try to grab the other end.

I personally wouldn't be comfortable trying to teach a dog between biting a little when playing and overdoing it. Context can change suddenly and a startled dog may not react as you'd hope. Not that it couldn't be done, but I'm not sure it is necessary to have a wonderful play relationship.
posted by meinvt at 9:13 PM on January 3, 2012

Dogs are very physical creatures, especially puppies and adolescents. Play fighting isn't really fighting at all - it's just wrestling. There's nothing wrong with it, and while the dog may bit your hands, they're not trying to hurt you or even nip you. You can reciprocate by gently grabbing the dog on the cheek (and quickly letting go). This is what young dogs do with each other, and young dogs will even do this with their older caregivers in the pack.

This playfighting is a form of bonding and a display of affection, so it's unlikely your puppy will do this with strangers immediately. However, this can and will happen, which is why you need to put your dog on a leash, especially around young children.

When wrestling, the older or more "dominant" dog will signal when it is time to stop. In your case, this means standing up and saying "stop", and then turning your back. Your young dog may still try to initiate play, but if you don't want to keep your back turned until the dog calms down.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:14 PM on January 3, 2012 [4 favorites]

It's not a great idea.

He's playing with you the way he played with his siblings, and the way he plays with other dogs. But with other dogs, it's okay - nay, expected - to nip and bark and snap your teeth. Which isn't acceptable behavior for dog/human interaction, and can lead to fights and misunderstandings and scaring random strangers.

When he does it, just deflect him to human-appropriate play. Whether it's throwing a ball, shoving a toy in his mouth and playing tug-of-war, or whatever he likes to do best.
posted by ErikaB at 9:14 PM on January 3, 2012

To tag onto kavasa's comment, we do structured play fighting and wrestling with our (mild mannered, wants-to-be-everyone's-subordinate) dog all the time. He's about 18 months, and started really catching on to context last spring. The play bow, followed by a few slow steps forward and stopping with eyes locked, is our cue, although we may be slightly bad dog owners in that we've begun exaggerating arm and leg movements during play time enough that our dog could seriously misinterpret some old dude doing Tai Chi. But honestly, all the dogs my family has had are exceptionally good with people and context-dependent play. My parents' lab will ONLY jump up and wrestle with my brother, will lean in ridiculously hard against family members, and is exceptionally ginger with the little old ladies who live in their neighborhood. Maybe it's just a retriever thing, but I think Y(dog's)MMV with this one. In your shoes I'd stick to specific, consistent routines (dogs love those) back it off or continue to wrassle as he grows up an you gets better sense for how good his boundaries actually are.

But on preview: yes to playtime being over if at teeth or jumping on people.
posted by deludingmyself at 9:17 PM on January 3, 2012

I think it's fine. It's a completely different behavior springing from completely different motivations than actual attacking. I've done it with a lot of dogs with no bad results.* If he's starting it by play-biting you first, I'd curb that behavior, but if he starts by play bowing, or if you instigate when he seems in an exercise-y mood it shouldn't be a problem. All the dogs I did it with didn't even play bite, exactly, but play kept their mouths open.

*The one dog I did it with who reacted "badly" didn't turn it into an attack, but got super, super amped up upon discovery of someone willing to play fight and raced around like a crazy dog and also did actually play bite and wasn't as gentle with the play biting as she should have been. But even with her, I suspect it would have calmed down if she had been given more energy outlets and training (her owners have her pretty confined most of the time and don't seem to have trained her much) and she also stopped once I made myself unavailable to her for play fighting.
posted by vegartanipla at 9:19 PM on January 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Dogs can and do understand some form of context. My dog loves to play fight and as have almost all my dogs minus one (a golden who would not only bite you but probably tear a face off). Not all dogs are the same but in my experience it is somewhat a normal interaction.

If the dog get too rough, it just needs to be put in its place. Tell it no and ignore it. My dog can be intimidating (yellow lab, pit), but is nothing but a sweetheart. She can get too rough but a quick reminder brings her back to acceptable behavior. One thing I have noticed with my dog is often she will match the excitement level of her "opponent" and not be as rough with people who just want to give her some attention besides pets and strokes.
posted by handbanana at 9:34 PM on January 3, 2012

Just wanted to add, I even play a game with her when I am reading on the couch. I will be rubbing her face and gently play with her nose. She will pathetlically let me win by not catching my hand. We also play a game where I slide my hand between her teeth and she "tries" to catch it. She wins when her teeth touch my hand and it is never with pressure or any associated pain.

/she does not play the second game with other people
posted by handbanana at 9:38 PM on January 3, 2012

Whether or not you decide to keep play wrestling with your dog, one of the best things you can teach him is a "settle down" or "calm" command. Teaching a dog how to calm himself down from a state of heightened excitement is so important and helpful, and play wrestling or any other play that amps him up is perfect for practice. If you watch dogs play fight you'll see this interaction going on where one of them calls off the activity by averting and not responding and the wrestling will stop. Usually one or both dogs will then shake off the excess tension.

Anyways, for training your dog, you want to give the command in the middle of play and then stop all interaction and turn away. As soon as they calm down you can resume play or stop and give them a reward (food, petting, etc). Gradually increase the time they have to settle down before the reward and the intensity of the play before you use the word (but only work on one thing at a time, not both! In the beginning you want it to be fairly sedate play and a brief pause.) and over time you'll have a dog that can go from full on wrestlemania to a zen state based on a single word from you. That's one of the most valuable things any dog can learn.
posted by hindmost at 9:41 PM on January 3, 2012 [3 favorites]

The main problem with play fighting is whether the dog understands the context. Most well-bonded dogs will enjoy a bit of wrestling or tug-of-war and it will not affect their relationship with you. But any activity that encourages a family dog to bite anything but a toy is a bad idea. A new dog can also have some confusion over dominance; this is something that you have to learn how your dog reacts to. Some dogs have very particular needs to be "mastered" and you need to be careful how you play with them. For instance, it can be a bad idea to get down on the floor and play with a dog like this. They don't get why you're demoting yourself from alpha to peer. Other dogs are much more amenable and flexible.

We have a dog that's pretty high-activity for the human attention available, and had experience with a big, aggressive dog in a previous household, so I like to give her some of that type of contact -- sort of pushing her head this way and that. She has never once failed to close her mouth and deflect her head, so she was trained well as a puppy about biting behavior.
posted by dhartung at 10:45 PM on January 3, 2012

One thing that you are teaching your dog while playfighting is bite inhibition. You are teaching him how to control his mouth around people and that real bites hurt. I Agree with other posters that context is important and teaching him to settle down when you want him to are important...but no, it is not inherently bad.
posted by catrae at 4:22 AM on January 4, 2012

Re phrase it from play "fighting" and you'll feel differently about it.

We get down and wrestle with our husky all the time, wonderful grrring/wooing conversations, play bows, sideways looks.. she loves it. Teeth are involved, but never in a manner to hurt, keep in mind her mouth is the only thing she can use like a hand.

This is the same dog I take to work with me every day (an alternative school with 10 to 17 year old kids), in the three and a half years she's been coming to work, she's never engaged another person like we engage when we're wrestling around at home.

Probably the important thing to teach her is that YOU always initiate this activity (and, doing a play bow is a great sign, somthing that is not likely to happen accidentally out in public).
posted by tomswift at 4:57 AM on January 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

Is it possible to train him to know when this behaviour is acceptable and when it's not?

Definitely. I always play "fight" with dogs. You should be able to get them out of fight/play mode with just a word. And you should always end the play like this. Then the dog is able to change its mode in an instant. Remember: You must be the alpha and you control the dog with your mood/mental state. If you are exited, the dog will get exited, if you are calm, the dog will get calm. Everything else is unacceptable.
posted by yoyo_nyc at 6:51 AM on January 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

I play wrestle with my dog.

I am really the only person he does it with and he knows when I am done. He never does it with my wife because he knows he has to be more "gentle" to her. He knows to not really bite me when we play and its more just mouthing or giving the little mini-bites as I call them that are harmless. He will usually play bow or wiggle on the ground making noises when he wants to play. Its very controlled and when I am done we are done and thats that. He goes about normal life and calms down pretty quick. He listens to me very well and knows that I am the dominant leader of our little pack.

Dogs can sense when you are playing and when your are not. Like yoyo said above, so as long as you are "alpha" and they listen to you, then theres no harm in controlled wrestling playtime. Plus its fun for both of you!
posted by amazingstill at 7:24 AM on January 4, 2012

Play fighting amongst dogs has a lot of signalling involved with each other so that they both know that they are playing and it is not aggression, it includes positions such as play bowing and also the noises like puppy barks and panting noises.

I adopted a very fearful dog that had been attacked a lot by other dogs and he was terrified of any sort of aggression directed toward him by any dog so for over 12 months he didn't play as he thought the other dogs where trying to attack him no matter how much they signaled before hand, even he however has learnt context and now will play wrestle with other dogs, even dogs much larger than him and has an great time, he has even learned to play bow to instigate play. If he can learn context I am sure dog, which seems to have the boundaries already can.

I feel with a dog if you use similar signals yourself, ie get down on your hands and knees and stick your ass in the air, dogs can learn the difference between play time and other time. You will have to remember to keep things playful, so if the dog gets too rough or mouths at your hand or nips you have to yelp loudly and turn away and refuse to continue to play. When you are done playing have a clear signal play time is over, I stand up and make a wide gesture with my arms in a "grown up" voice say all done and then go and distract the dog with a treat if they are good and stop trying to play.

The good news is even playful dogs will try and "invite" people to play for the most part and don't go crazy and just randomly start to play with new people so if you know someone a bit more fearful of dogs work on your dogs general obedience and they or you can always distract the dog with a firm sit or down as needed. As your dog get's older they will get a bit more polite about play time too which helps.
posted by wwax at 7:26 AM on January 4, 2012

Is it possible to train him to know when this behaviour is acceptable and when it's not? (ie maybe a word or a gesture)

Yes! Our cues to our dogs that we want to wrestle include getting on the floor into that play bow position and saying "Who wants to eat some face!?"* Our smaller dog loves wrestling around - he uses his mouth but never clamps down. Our larger dog gets equally excited, but he prefers fetching a tennis ball, so he spends the playtime dropping his tennis ball on top of the smaller dog hoping we'll toss it. (We do.)

When we're done, we say "All done!" The dogs immediately come over with ears down and tails waggling, and get scritches.

*Civilized, we are not. Then again, you rarely hear that phrase socially, even here in NJ.
posted by ladygypsy at 7:31 AM on January 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

I play-wrestled with my first dog, a (very alpha with others) cairn-corgie mix and never had any problems. To onlookers it looked sort of terrifying, with her teeth lunging at me and growling, but she never actually bit and it was all great fun. She never tried initiating the play fighting with anyone else, or even with me. Only using the "play bow" position linked to above would get the fighting going. When I stood up, playtime was over.

I do the same with my current dog, an (very submissive with other dogs) Aussie Shepard / Lab mix. Pretty much the same deal but she does more mouthing (but never bites down). Same deal - no one else wrestles with her and she doesn't try to start wrestling with anyone.

I always figured they would do this sort of play-fighting with their litter mates if they were still growing up together so I was just the stand-in. The worst injuries ever sustained is if we bumped heads.
posted by mikepop at 7:32 AM on January 4, 2012

It entirely depends on the dog. Some dogs just get too serious, and you should be able to recognize that and stop. Some dogs are aware it's a game but get overstimulated, and you may have to come up with some other game.

Games like wrestling, Got Your Feet, and Get Your Face (my personal favorite, as my dogs will sing when we play Get Your Face) are good ways to get dogs accustomed to being touched and handled, as well as teaching Soft Mouth.

Dogs like games and will invent their own if you're willing to go along with them and figure it out. Play-fighting and variations like tag/chase-me-chase-you are how puppies socialize with each other, and if you're the only other "dog" around you'll have to suffice.
posted by Lyn Never at 7:48 AM on January 4, 2012

tl;dr other responses, but just wanted to chime in with this tidbit.

Playing a bit rough/fighting with our pups, while maintaining a healthy 'ok that's enough' reaction from both parties (dog and I), has the perhaps unexpected benefit of teaching the dog how to respond properly when someone unfamiliar with the dog comes in and maybe plays a bit too rough. This is assuming the dog is well behaved, well adjusted in the first place.

Maybe that's unclear. What I'm saying is that I've seen our dog behave exactly how I think he/she should when a younger/dog-dumb person comes in and decides to play/tussel. Dog will nicely play back and/or respond passively with a squeak/retreat if they are hurt by something. Contrast this with a dog that wasn't played rough with at all who might react, unintentionally even, violently if harmed by someone ignorant.
posted by RolandOfEld at 8:04 AM on January 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Echoing the above comment that play-fighting is great for teaching bite inhibition and other useful bits of self-control.

My dog and I have all kinds of physical games, from chase/tag to just standing there and punching each other. (Nicely. She's a Boxer, they box, she likes to swat with her forepaws, so she whacks me in the knee and I bop her face with my foot and it's the BEST GAME EVER.)

She's the sort of dog who, given an inch, will stand on your head, so I had to set firm rules for all of this, and then spend a long time enforcing them during her very trying adolescence. Yes, the rule counts if we're outside. Yes, the rule counts if we're on the couch. Yes, the rule counts if you have this toy instead of that toy. Yes, I can still tell you what to do if I am lying on the floor and you are standing on your feet. Yes, yodeling is okay, but no, growling is not. She's great at loopholes, this dog. It took a long time to get all of this settled. Years.

So, the play rules are as follows: either one of us can try to initiate play, but if I am not interested and I tell her to chill, she must chill. If she's not interested I'll leave her alone, but that almost never happens. Boxer. She's allowed to mouth at things like socked feet and sleeves and hands, and of course tug-of-war toys, but if I feel the slightest bit of tooth pressure it's over.

Doing this was a bunch of repetition and consistency. The bite inhibition was mostly with tug of war: if a tooth touched me, I'd yelp "OW!" and stop playing instantly. She wanted to keep playing, so she learned to be careful with her mouth. (She is so good at this that if she's got a death-grip on a toy, I can slip a finger into her mouth and she'll instantly let go.) The self-control was similar. I'd tell her chill, or stop, and then ignore her. If she chilled or stopped, then we'd start back up again. Sometimes I'd stop play in the middle, tell her to calm herself, and then do some sit and down commands. If she did those, we got more play time.

If other people initiate play with her, the same rules apply, and I make sure they know what they are. But, again, it's a behavior she is only ever asked to display. My mother, who is all manner of infirm and unsteady on her feet, never has any problems with roughhousing. She just gets snuggled on and licked, because she won't be having with this rough play, and Riley knows it.
posted by cmyk at 1:17 PM on January 4, 2012

Response by poster: Awesome answers everyone! It's wonderful that everyone's answers were remarkably similar. I'm excited to feel free to do this with my dog as he loves it and we will work on a calming signal word.
Thanks so much!
posted by risaroni at 3:41 PM on January 4, 2012

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