Roughhousing vs Play – When Puppies Learn How to Fight

August 20, 2019

When we allow puppies to roughhouse with each other, especially with larger puppies they quickly move from lighthearted play to sparring and mock battle. What they are doing is reverting/regressing to sibling behaviors that encourage competition and bringing down one’s opponent.

What’s Love Got to Do with It?

If you’ve ever seen sibling puppies interact with each other you may be surprised to find they can be highly competitive, even brutal by fighting over food or toys. You’ll see them pin each other like wrestlers, bite the other’s ears and neck, then twist their bodies vigorously as if to dismember each other. This is practice of course, for the, “real thing.” In the wild these rough and tumble behaviors create tough competitors and survivors. In a home as a pet however, these behaviors can lead to what humans (and their children) perceive as rude, crude, and rough. Even with a small puppy there’s no way we can compete with those sharp teeth and nails. Better to teach your pup how to be calm, learn a new way to interact, and throttle back with those sharp weapons.

Adrenaline – Fuel to the Fire

Because puppies have no impulse control they get excited quickly. Once adrenaline kicks in their play turns intense and can turn into a fight if allowed to continue.

When Playmates Become Opponents

When puppies are allowed to play roughly they quickly learn how to use their bodies in ways that overwhelm their partner. It is in this rough play that puppies learn how to fight.

You can tell when a puppy is about to go ballistic during play. His energy level will become increasingly intense and explosive. As his brain fills with adrenaline he quickly moves into a state he cannot change or stop. This is when play turns to sparring and mock battle, when the competition starts to feel too real and puppies (like dogs) slip into fight mode.

What Does “Fighting Behavior” Look Like?

I use the term, “fighting behavior” carefully here because some interactions sound worse than they really are. If you listen to the vocalizations of both participants it can sound like mortal combat. This can confuse people, especially if both dogs are regular playmates and they like to vent energy by acting fierce without doing harm. There’s a mutual understanding at work here; we don’t mean it. Nevertheless, when it comes to puppies these are the sounds that tell you it’s well past time to break things up, take a time out, and have your puppy do something else.

Fighting Behaviors in Puppies and Dogs

I love National Geographic movies about wild animals. The vivid hunting scenes are hard to watch and always make me wince. Nevertheless, if you watch closely you will see that the goal of rough puppy play is to bring down one’s opponent. It is strategic, battle- driven, and survival based.

In rough play puppies will each attempt to get on top of and pin his opponent like a wrestler, bite the front or back of his neck and give a mock shake to sever his spine, bite his hindquarters in a chase to bring him down, push back from the front and bite his front leg, crash into him sideways at a run, “tee off,” or ram each other in a chase… Make no mistake, these are combat behaviors all wild canids engage in and you can observe them in places where dogs are allowed to play without supervision, like dog parks – the most dangerous place in the world for puppies and young dogs (I’ll share more on this soon).

What’s True for a Toddler, is True for a Puppy

One thing to consider is this; if your puppy where a toddler or young child you’ll intercede before things get out of hand and stop rough play. Your concern is the development of bullying behavior, fearfulness, and inappropriate social behavior in your child. It is the same with puppies.

Puppy-Dog Interactions

The downside of allowing your puppy to roughhouse with another puppy, a grown dog, or a person is that once he’s learned rough play is permissible it’s challenging to teach him to stop. Worse, and more dangerous; if your puppy uses these behaviors with an adult dog there is a strong probability he’ll find himself in the real thing – a fight.

If an adult dog decides your puppy is being rude and decides to discipline him it could result in being pinned down, bitten, chased, even badly injured. Either way it is a frightening experience. Worse, your puppy won’t know why! Whatever the outcome he’ll carry that memory the rest of his life.

Sadly, encounters like these are missed opportunities to teach your puppy how to approach another dog the right way – calmly and respectfully.

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More Ways to Learn

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  • Jumpstart is a daylong, 4-week program for puppies 8 weeks to 6 months old, specializing in socialization, training, and potty skills. You can learn more about the Jumpstart Puppy Program HERE.
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