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Pet Happenings January 2010

by Sue Sternberg

This article is a second in a series of articles about what defines “play” in dogs by Dog Behaviorist Sue Sternberg. Often in dog-to-dog interactions, owners often assume anything that is not an outright attack is play. This series reviews what behaviors are considered more risky than “healthy” play. These are things as an owner you should watch for and interrupt when you see it.–Jessica Turquette of Moab Barkery

risky chase
risky play

Slightly More Risky Behaviors:
The following responses are not necessarily signs of aggression or danger—but these are behaviors to observe and consider important, as they often serve as ‘red-flags’ for potential future escalations and a possible fight or injury. With any red-flag behavior I observe, I will interrupt or intervene if there are more than two red-flag behaviors occurring simultaneously. There is no harm in interrupting dogs during play, as long as it’s not punitive. Rewarding dogs for returning to their owner(s) when recalled is a wonderful way to keep arousal levels low. Even if you have to walk right up to your own dog’s head, and talk in his ear and tell him to come away, it is worth interrupting dogs whenever you see a slightly more risky behavior, lure your dog away from the other dog, praise, pet, reward the dog when he sits in front of you, and keep him there for at least 15 seconds while his heart-rate drops and his arousal levels lowers before sending him back to play.

Note these are ‘slightly more risky behaviors’ and not ‘slightly more risky dogs’—the same dog can have healthy, slightly risky, and at times very risky behaviors with other dogs depending on not just the situation, but depending also upon the play partner(s).

Slightly Risky Play:
Rise in Intensity/Arousal
Hackles Up (full or partial)
Snarling (teeth exposed—defensive or offensive)
Hard, Physical Contact (eg hip-checks, shoulder-checks, rolling)
Explanations of Slightly Risky Behaviors

Rise in Intensity or Arousal: This is hard to quantify but when dogs have been engaged with each other, uninterrupted, and the play becomes more and more intense. Whatever behaviors the dogs started out with, these progressively become exaggerated and faster and harder.

Hackles Up: Whether the dog has just a razor-thin line of hackles up between his shoulder blades, or a full spine-full, or just his rump-hackles, this indicates to me a rising level of either arousal or stress, and I use it as an indicator to keep a close eye on the situation.

Snarling: When a dog (or both or all) is playing and is exposing his teeth, whether or not the dog is on the defense and snarling, or on the offense and snarling—I use this as an indicator of a level of arousal and stress that keeps me on edge. I have noticed that snarling is commonly a symptom of two dogs in a household who play too intensely, too much, too often uninterrupted—which can sometimes lead to other behavior problems from one or both dogs (but usually the younger dog). It doesn’t matter to me if the dogs ALWAYS play while snarling—it is still an indicator of arousal or stress that I consider a concern.

Hard, Physical Contact: Any hip-checking, shoulder-checking, pummeling of the other dog with his or her chest, or rolling of another dog is to me a violation of space and an intent to do harm, and I would see this as a sure sign to interrupt or terminate the play.

NOTE: When in doubt, interrupt. As long as you’re not punishing your dog for engaging, but merely calling him benignly off and to you, there is no harm in interrupting or intervening too often. It’s really a case where it’s better safe than sorry.

Most Risky Responses:
Most Risky Play Behaviors:
Relentless, uninterrupted engagement
Orientation to the other dog’s neck or throat
Grab-bite with head-shaking
Full mouth biting

The following responses are what I have observed to indicate the greatest risk, and the behaviors that should keep the handlers in high alert. In the presence of one or more of these behaviors I will usually recommend terminating the interaction. I believe the dogs are either practicing for something we don’t want them practicing for (dog-aggression, dog-killing) or they are spending so much time honing skills that could do harm.

Explanation of Most Risky Responses
Relentless, Uninterrupted Engagement: When two dogs are engaged in an intense interaction without coming up for air, and I don’t yet have a time amount after which I would say the engagement becomes ‘relentless’, sorry. Being out of control of a human’s voice and presence is a high risk for trouble, since any issue that ignites is, absolutely, out of control.

Orientation to the Other Dog’s Neck or Throat: This is when one or both dogs are either constantly staring at, nose-bopping (muzzle punching) grabbing, clamping, or biting at the other dog’s throat or neck. Practice makes perfect, and I have observed, in my private consults, that dogs that regularly ‘play’ by neck or throat grabbing (usually with another dog in the household or a regular playmate) IF the dog is to have a future aggression incident with another dog, he likely bites the other dog’s neck or throat—practice does seem to make perfect. I suspect that bite orientation has a genetic basis to it and may be rather immoveable (like cattle dogs to hocks, and other herding breeds with distinct orientation to biting or gripping livestock) but I would pay particular attention to a dog that orients in his play style to a vital part of the other dog’s body, and interrupt and supervise carefully to make sure I always could call my dog off.
Grab-biting with Head-shaking: The grab-bite and head-shake are the critical portions of the wolf hunting sequence, and once again, if play is merely practicing skills for real life, than dogs who regularly grab skin/fur and then head-shake another dog is practicing and honing skills I don’t want a dog to develop. I would interrupt and prevent these behaviors.

Full-Mouth Biting:
This is when the dog fills his mouth with the other dog’s skin or fur—there is no ‘air’ showing in the back of the dog’s mouth, because his mouth is full of the other dog. This is a very proficient bite and again, not what we want our pet dogs to practice. Whether the dog is breaking skin or not is not the point—it’s best to think of averting possible future, serious events. The healthiest play has gentle, inhibited, or air-contact.

If you are interested in more information from Sue Sternberg please check out and We also carry her books in store at the Moab BARKery, and the HSMV has sponsored seminars continuing in January.

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