Is My Dog Playing or Being Aggressive?

Any play movement where a dog uses his teeth on another dog’s skin, especially with any type of shake, can be interpreted as aggressive by another dog, even if it is intended as play. This is especially true for dogs with a large size difference; even a playful grab and shake from a larger dog could injure — or even kill — the smaller dog. While this is very rare, it’s possible; this is why small and large dogs are separated into different play areas at the dog park.

While it is possible that your dog is playing in an aggressive manner, it is more likely that the other pet owners are misunderstanding how canine play works. Some behaviors, such as putting a chin over another dog’s shoulders or mounting another dog, are often perceived as aggressive behaviors at the dog park (by owners, not necessarily by dogs). However, if all other appropriate play behaviors are present and both dogs are relaxed and enjoying the encounter, these behaviors can be part of a healthy play exchange. For this reason, it’s essential to look at both dogs’ body language and not just one “play move” to determine if the play is appropriate or aggressive.

If you see your dog mouthing another dog and are unable to decide if the other dog is frightened or wants to play, grab both dogs and hold them. Let the other dog go and see if he moves toward your dog to continue play or runs in the other direction. If he moves toward your dog and exhibits playlike behavior, it’s likely the situation is all play and the encounter can continue.

If you have any lingering doubts about whether your dog’s behavior is playful or aggressive in nature, contact your veterinarian for a consultation or referral to a qualified behavior professional.

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