Playing or Bullying? How to tell the difference.
I work a lot with dogs which are aggressive towards other dogs (inter dog aggression). I always ask clients whether or not their dog played with other dogs and am often informed that their dog always played well with other dogs in the past until the aggression started.
Upon further investigation it is not unusual to find that often the “receiving dogs” objected to this “play.” Often clients believe the fault may have been on the part of the “receiving dog;” perhaps it had not been well socialised? Maybe it was elderly or injured. However, rarely is it considered that the other dog objected because it did not perceive their dog’s own actions as playful.
I will often hear that their dog likes to play chase. They believe their dog is playing because his tail is wagging, however, they might agree that the dog plays a bit roughly.
So, how do you know if this is play or not?
Like humans, dogs come in different shapes and sizes and with different personalities. Some are more confident and some are less so. Some are adrenalin junkies and others just want to be calm. Much of this answer depends on the other dog. A well socialised, emotionally intelligent dog is capable of knowing the limitations of the dogs with which they play. Some dogs seem to have little (or no) emotional intelligence. This may relate to lack of suitable social exposure or it perhaps it could relate to an inability for the dog to learn social protocols, much in the same way as some humans! Also, it should be noted that a wagging tail may not be a good sign! It depends on the tail position and the speed of the wag! A very high tail position with rapid short sharp wags (I call this “jaggedy wags”) indicates a dog in a state of high arousal (agitated, angry, fearful), not a happy and relaxed dog.
As a simple guide I try to work out if this is play or something else by looking at the following:
1. Is the play two way? For example; do both dogs chase each other or is this just one dog chasing another? If it is not two way this might not be play. Social dog play involves role reversals so chase should be swapped over so that both dogs have a turn at chasing and being chased. One client informed me her dog loved to be chased and she would be seen “leading the pack”. I explained that in my opinion this dog was unsuccessfully trying to run away.
2. When being chased, does the dog run full steam ahead or does he look over his shoulder whilst running to encourage the other dog to catch him up? Often, well socialised dogs do look over their shoulder and slow down (self-handicapping) to encourage the other dog to play. This is a sign of nicely balanced non-competitive play. If the dog is not looking back this could be that the dog is fearful or highly competitive.
3. If the dog jumps all over another dog, again, is this role reversed? Do both dogs have a go at jumping on top of each other or is one dog trying to control another dog by pinning the other one down constantly? If the latter, this is bullyish play and is best interrupted.
4. How soft are the dogs’ bodies? If their bodies are stiff and carry a lot of tension this can be a sign of rather competitive play. If both dogs push each other around too roughly it is better to interrupt this play before it goes too far. If the dogs’ bodies are soft and they flop around this is more playful and play can continue.
5. When the dogs are running around are their tails loose or held very low? Some dogs do what is known as the “zoomies”. This is where a dog runs about at top speed with rapid changes of direction, often with the tail tucked. Sometimes this dog is having fun and sometimes not. The “zoomies” can be a sign of letting out adrenalin and can be a way of releasing stress. However, some dogs do appear to enjoy this (even if their tails are tucked). It depends on whether or not the dog is an adrenalin junky! I tend to break up play if I see too much of this going on and wait to see if this dog tries to re-join the game after a short break. If he does then it is more likely he was having fun. However, if he chooses not to re-engage this could be evidence that he did not feel that this was play and might prefer to avoid this.
6. Is the dog highly excitable in the presence of other dogs? Again, this could indicate stress. Not all dogs will hide away when afraid, many will become over active and excessive. Often if a dog attempts to interact with other dogs when in a frenzied state he will get “corrected” by the other dog. In fact, this dog might not be “correcting,” this dog might be reacting fearfully and using force to make the other dog back down and go away. So, if your dog is being “corrected” frequently, you should consider working with him and improving his social skills.
7. Some dogs like to jaw spar. Owners often think this is aggression; however, dogs often spar with their jaws. This is where they are clashing mouth to mouth. Their lips can be drawn back to reveal the top front teeth. However, if they are using their mouths on each other’s open mouths in this way, this is likely to be play. Again, the dogs’ bodies will be loose and relaxed and they will both be engaging in this activity. If one dog is using his mouth on another and it is not reciprocated, this might not be play. If the other party declines a jaw spar then your dog should know not to persevere. If he persists in “jaw sparring” with a dog which is not reciprocating, then this is bullying and he should be stopped and called away.
8. If a dog shows a hunched body and is running away or apparently trying to avoid the “play”, then this dog does not perceive this activity as play. This dog could feel frightened or overwhelmed. It might be that this dog is right, the other dog is not playing, he is bullying! You should stop your dog immediately and call him back.
9. It is not uncommon to hear growling in play. However, if the growling becomes really high pitched, this could mean that frustration is setting in. Frustration can lead to anger which could lead to an aggressive outcome. It is generally better to interrupt this play if tempers are starting to flare. If the growl is very deep, this could be aggression. Generally deep growls are a distance eliciting behaviour and could mean that the deep growling dog wants the other dog to go away. If the other dog does not go away, there could be an aggressive encounter.
So, why is it important to know this? In my experience, dogs which are aggressive towards other dogs have often shown bullyish play in their earlier years, even starting as early as in a puppy party. Bullyish dogs can often be fearful and use this strategy to control so that they feel safer. Over time and with success, the dog learns he can control other dogs this way. With confidence and maturity the dog can then start to show aggression. It is surprising how often I work with dog aggressive dogs that live with another dog. And when I ask about play at home, there is a history of inappropriate bullyish play at home with a resident dog. This has enabled the aggressive dog to get a lot of practise at being aggressive.
So, apart from making sure your own dog does not bully others, spare a thought for how the receiving dog feels! There are no winners when dogs are allowed to bully others.
With thanks to the following for kindly allowing me to use their fabulous images: Jasmine Richardson, Natasha Fillingham, Nicki Morey, Sue Thorne, Maggi De Rozario, Wendy Jones and Claire Staines.