Overly Intense Play and Dog Aggression

It should come as no surprise that, if allowed to get too intense, play between dogs can turn into aggression. This can happen with humans as well. It happened all the time when my brother and I were kids and played Bruce Lee vs Chuck Norris. It even happens with adults…hockey anyone? That doesn’t mean that rough play is bad, just that we need to pay attention and play referee sometimes. 

In this video you can see that rough play can be totally fine but it must be consensual, meaning that both parties are enjoying themselves, and it should be bouncy, sideways, back and forth, bent front legs, etc. Below are a few red flags to watch out for when supervising dog-dog play sessions.  

Failure To Take Breathers

  • Play should have an element of taking a breath, not just pounding away at full speed for long periods.
  • It’s kind of like how hard rock can be intense but it still has melody, breath and dynamics to it, as opposed to some forms of speed metal that are just full throttle for the whole song. 
  • No offense to speed metal fans, bang your head all you like, but dogs playing should not look like a mosh pit. 

Play Biting That Causes Pain 

  • This can be a sign that the biter is escalating into an aggressive state or it can trigger an aggressive response from the receiver of the bite. (see: Pain)

Up On Hind Legs 

  • If this is happening too often or for too long it could escalate into a fight. 
  • Remember, I said that dog play should be bouncy, meaning up and down, not up and brawling like a couple of wild grizzlies. 

Excessive Pinning, Over-Dominating, Bullying 

  • This can be a sign that the dog is escalating into a dominant-aggressive state or it can trigger a defensive-aggressive response from the underdog. (see: Fear, Dominance)
  • Some pinning is fine, as long as it is playful and mutually enjoyable but the underdog should appear to be submitting to this sort of play willingly. 
  • Role reversals are a sign that they are just playing. 
  • Relaxed bodies and jaw wrestling are signs that they are just playing. 
  • If you separate them and then the underdog goes back for more, that’s a sign they are just playing. 
  • If the underdog is trying to get away, panicking or getting upset, this needs to be stopped. 
  • If the dominating dog can’t take a hint (see: Hyperactivity) and keeps bothering a dog that is not interested in that sort of play, they need to be firmly corrected.
    • If you don’t know how to properly and fairly correct unwanted behavior, or if you only believe in “Positive” training, then the dog should simply be removed from the situation.
    • Please note: If you have already drank the positive training kool aid, you may not like a lot of what I have to say. However, if your mind is still open, and you want to do what’s best, please read on.
    • The benefit of balanced training is that giving the dog a quick, firm correction only takes a second and, in the larger picture, is actually more “Positive” than completely removing the dog from the situation.
    • By using a quick correction, the dog can be allowed to continue playing rather than being punished via social isolation. Yes, I said “punished” because removal from the situation and social isolation are forms of punishment.
    • Make no mistake, “positive” trainers do use punishment but ethical ideologies often impair their ability to choose the most effective methods. Yes, this is a fact but everyone must wrestle with what they believe is ethical vs what actually works.
    • A quick correction or removal from the situation, either one is better than letting things escalate into aggression.


  • Even if the other dog is ok with it, the next dog he tries it on may not be, so I just don’t allow any humping at all in my play groups. 
  • Humping is often claimed to be dominance, and maybe sometimes it is, but most of the time I don’t think it is. I think most of the time the dogs don’t really know why they are doing it. They are probably just getting too amped up, which is still a good reason to stop it. (see: Hyperactivity)
  • Some dogs might interpret mounting as a dominance challenge and may react aggressively. (see: Dominance)

Chase Games 

  • These are fine until they get too intense or become “predatory”, especially when a group packs up against one dog. (see: Fear, Hyperactivity)
  • When the dog being chased stops having fun, becomes fearful or is really trying to escape, there’s a problem. This needs to be stopped.

As we saw in Part 2, Hyperactivity, calm dogs rarely get into trouble. Hyper dogs, on the other hand, will more easily escalate into an aggressive state or find themselves on the receiving end of aggression. They may get yelled at or hit by an upset person that doesn’t like being jumped on, for example. Or, they may get attacked by an intolerant or aggressive dog due to their unruly, socially inappropriate approaches. (see: Rude Behavior) This can lead the once friendly dog down a path of antagonistic social experiences, causing the dog that “just wanted to play” to eventually become aggressive.

Chad Culp – Certified Dog Trainer, Canine Behavior Consultant, Owner of Thriving Canine. 

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