Play vs. Aggression

May 20, 2021 | Animal Behavior, BARKS from the Guild, Pet Guardians, Training

By Maureen Tay

dogs playing

Although the dog on the right is displaying his teeth, his lips and facial muscles are soft, indicating this is a non-aggressive display © Can Stock Photo/moroart

As a trainer, the issue of aggression is raised a lot. Indeed, it is the most commonly reported behavior issue by dog owners (Overall, 2013).

One owner who contacted me recently had adopted a new dog and called me to say that the new dog and the resident dog were now growling at each other and going after each other’s legs and necks. But without being there to see the actual situation, it is obviously impossible to tell if these dogs are just playing or if there is some intra-dog aggression going on, no matter how panicked the client sounds on the telephone.

It can be difficult for clients to know the difference. Dogs often display their teeth in play, for example, but this does not necessarily indicate an aggressive intent. Facial expression and body language must also be taken into context and this is where we can help educate our clients so they have a better idea of what to look for.

Soft lips and facial muscles with teeth showing are completely different to furrowed brows, pinned-back ears and stiff, pulled-back lips, for example. What follows is a list of some of the common issues found in canine play and aggression to help clients better understand their dogs’ behavior and the motivations for it.

Normal Dog Play

Sometimes what an owner describes as dog-dog aggression is normal dog play. The way dogs play can seem scary to some, including the growling, the roughhousing and the mouthing. The way some dogs love jumping on each other may look worse than it actually is.

These owners are rightly concerned about their dog’s behavior and his interactions with other dogs and it is never a bad thing to be curious, especially if they are unsure about a behavior. However, just like any good trait, if clients get overly worried about something that does not require additional attention, it can unconsciously grow into another issue.

This is where educating clients on canine facial expression and body language comes in so they have a better idea of what to look for and how to read their dog(s).

Playground Bully

Some dogs have never learned the manners of polite dog play, which is largely caused by a lack of socialization when they were puppies and insufficient exposure to other dogs to learn about appropriate body language. As such, they may be unaware as to how their behavior affects others. Jean Donaldson calls these dogs “Tarzans.”

The most common sign of a playground bully is that the dog simply does not read the cut-off signals from his playmates. For example, another dog in the dog park is demonstrating all kinds of body language that says, “Okay, we’re done now, no more play from you, time for you to back off,” but the “bully” does not understand or take the hint.

There are some dogs who can handle themselves in these situations. They let the “rude” dog know with some controlled flair and without going overboard that play time is over and they have had enough. Other dogs though may become fearful and perhaps even aggressive. The “bully” dog may be impolite and lack impulse control but is not what we would call truly dog-aggressive.

Fear Aggression

This can also be caused by a lack of socialization, a past traumatic experience, genetics and, most commonly, association (i.e. the owner accidentally caused it without realizing). Fearful dogs avoid people or things that frighten them. They may seem depressed or disinterested at times but may resort to lunging or barking if the perceived threat persists so they can make what they are afraid of go away.

Many owners believe that, in order for their dogs to be mentally healthy, they must go to the dog park and have social interactions with other dogs but this is not always the case.

A dog may be afraid of other dogs for several reasons. For example, some puppies were not exposed to other puppies during their socialization window so never fully learned how to read body language and play cues. Hence, they may grow into adult dogs who are low on confidence and afraid of other dogs and people. Imagine if you lived at home with your brothers and sisters and never saw other children until you were 16 years old.

When you finally left the house to go to school, you would probably be pretty uncomfortable around teenagers your own age. It is the same for dogs, with some adapting better than others for a variety of reasons.

Some dogs may have had a traumatizing experience (or experiences) from their interactions with other dogs, which can later manifest itself through a fear of some or all dogs.

When I see young puppies at the dog park being knocked down, run over and played with inappropriately (roughly) for their age, it worries me. What may seem funny or cute to the owners, who believe they are doing the right thing by “socializing” their puppy with other dogs, may be setting that puppy up for fear aggression around other dogs later in life. It is not appropriate to socialize a young puppy at the dog park where you cannot control the play interaction with other dogs.

If you have a puppy, find a puppy class that focuses on lots of supervised off-leash play with other, age-appropriate puppies. I have had clients call me because their dog was brutally attacked by another dog and now the dog is afraid of all other dogs. Fear has a tendency to generalize, so take precautions adequately.

Frustration (Leash Reactivity aka Leash Aggression)

This is one of the most common issues and is often mislabeled as aggression. Frustration can stem from many sources, e.g. inappropriate handling of leash greetings with other dogs, leaving dogs behind windows or gates, being punished (including using aversive methods like choke chains, prong and shock collars) and restraining the dog because the owner just does not want the dog to go wherever he wanted to go.

Many behaviors, such as barking and lunging (owners cannot possibly miss these) can be signs of excitement and/or frustration but have no relation to aggressive behavior. This is what we call reactivity, which is caused by pent-up frustration.

If a human being is frustrated in some way, he needs an outlet to vent. He may scream at the top of his voice. He may pull his hair as hard as he can. He may do just about anything and a dog’s way of showing frustration is exactly the same. He may lunge, pull on the leash, jump against the door, be very vocal – or a combination.

Dog-Dog Aggression (with Intent to Harm)

Some dogs seem to find fighting with other dogs incredibly rewarding. Other dogs, because of bad breeding, incorrect handling and abuse, may actually kill another dog. This type of dog-dog aggression is quite rare compared to the dog-dog aggression I see as a behavior consultant, which is usually fear-based. Also, sometimes a dog just does not like or get along with another, particular dog, causing tension between them that can lead to aggression between specific dogs.

Territorial Aggression

This issue stems from multiple causes, including fear aggression, barrier frustration and plain old reinforcement (e.g. a dog barks at another dog or person walking past his yard, they keep walking regardless and eventually disappear. In the dog’s eyes the barking eliminated the threat and obviously worked.)

Some of the most common sights and sounds you will see from a dog with territorial aggression is lunging at the gate, barking at the top of his lungs and chasing after the perpetrator. “I see you, you can’t escape. I am going to bark until you go away,” thinks the dog. And it works.

If you have a dog with fear issues, he may bark continuously until the “invader” goes away. He has learned that barking makes the danger disappear. He most likely feels good about it – not to mention relieved, a powerful reinforcer – and will most certainly repeat the behavior. He may look fierce and feisty but it does not mean that he is aggressive.

Donaldson, J. (2004). Fight! A Practical Guide to the Treatment of Dog-Dog Aggression. Dogwise Ebooks
Overall, K. (2013). Manual of Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Dogs and Cats. St. Louis, MO: Mosby, p. 88

This article first appeared in BARKS from the Guild, May 2015, pp.30-31. For more great content on all things animal behavior and training, you can sign up for a lifetime, free of charge, subscription to the digital edition of BARKS from the Guild. If you are already a subscriber, you can view the issue here.

About the Author
Maureen Tay is the chief trainer at KasPup UniFURsity. She is also a licensed Family Paws Parent Education educator, a certified canine first responder and an accredited dog trainer recognized by The Panel for Accreditation of Dog Trainers in Singapore. She is currently studying to be a service dog trainer at the International College of Canine Studies.