Something I have been seeing quite a bit of lately are dogs who are getting really aggressive with their owners when they are playing with them or refusing to play altogether. A case in point was a puppy I was demoing play with at class recently. He bit me twice in thigh so hard that he ripped my jeans and left me with several punctures and bruises. The owner said this was a regular occurrence with him and that he becomes aggressive every time they try to play with him. She was understandably very concerned. Turns out, she had two teenage boys at home that liked to roughhouse with him and, by the way he responded to me at class, it didn’t seem like the pup was finding play to be very enjoyable.
The problem is, when we play with our dogs, we often play like the strong, agile PEOPLE that we are and we don’t always realise that our dogs can’t – or don’t want to – play as rough or with as much power as we do. Just like you wouldn’t use your full strength if you were playing with a young child, it’s important to learn to self handicap when playing with your dog, too. They need to feel like or believe that they have a chance at winning at least some of the time. If we come on too strong, our play can feel quite threatening to our dogs, which for many dogs triggers aggression and, in some cases, causes the dogs to check out from our interactions all together.
Here are a couple of quick tips to help you soften your play style to help ensure that your dog enjoys the game as much as you do:
1) Don’t trump your dogs strength. At most match it but, particularly with young pups or less confident dogs, you’ll mostly want to let his trump yours. This means you only make moves that are equal to or even less than the strength of what your dog is coming at you with.
2) Proper play always includes give and take between playmates. Sometimes you’re a bit stronger, sometimes the dog is (think of two dogs wrestling – one should never continuously pin the other down on the ground). Sometimes you’re moving towards him, other times you’re moving away from him and letting him advance on you. Sometimes you’re chasing him, sometimes he’s chasing you. More often than not, let him chase you and be the stronger player – with the exception here being if you have a dog who KNOWS his strength and uses it to his advantage.
3) Only engage for a second or two and then pause, giving the dog a chance to do a counter move. Particularly when playing tug of war with our dogs, we tend to pull continuously on the toy without pausing which only serves to build the dog up into a more aggressive state of mind. In the case of tugging, only do one or two quick, short tugs in rapid succession and then relax and let your dog make the next few moves. Repeat back and forth in that pattern, frequently letting the toy go (yup, it’s okay to let your dog ‘win’ sometimes) before encouraging your dog to bring it back to you to start over.
4) Relax! Play is not a “win or lose” sport. Loosen up your body when playing. Even sit on the ground if you can safely play with your dog that way. Holding your body firm and rigid while playing will send the wrong signal to your dog. A major clue that the play is getting too intense for your dog is loud and/or continuous growling from them. When you hear that, time to take the play level down a notch or two or even take a break for a minute.
These are by no means hard and fast rules for every dog, but making some simple changes to your body language, movement and style of play will make playing together with your dog a lot more fun for both of you again.
Until next time,
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