It can be tempting to roll around on the floor with a new puppy or kitten.
They’re so cute and harmless and their bites don’t really hurt—but roughhousing can lead to some long-lasting behavioral effects down the road. A pet at any age that seems to turn aggressive when playing can do a lot of damage in the wrong environment, so it’s important to curtail that behavior as soon as it starts.
Why Do Pets Play Rough?
Nipping, play biting and lunging are all common traits of animal behavior, especially when it comes to having fun. Dogs in particular are known for their entertaining display when roughing around with one another. Sometimes, though, the roughhousing can get a little too aggressive, causing someone to get hurt.
Animals play rough because they’re taught to. As puppies and kittens, pets will generally learn the basic rules of engagement from each other when there’s no human involved. They’ll nip and bite but they’ll let each other know it’s too rough with a yelp. That, or their mother will get involved to break things up. With humans, learning to play happens a little differently. As much larger creatures, humans can generally handle more rough forms of play than animals, meaning what might seem like a harsh bite to a puppy is just a nip to a human. However, encouraging the behavior by laughing or continuing to play with your dog will lead him to believe that sort of playing is okay.
Other things can lead to aggressiveness during playtime as well:
A pet becoming overexcited
A dog trying to be dominant
A pet growing up in a rough environment with other animals or people
The best way to stop aggressive play is to never let it start in the first place by always playing gently with your pet. If that ship has already sailed, you can always correct the course.
Scrutinize your dog’s current situation when it comes to playing and determine if there are areas where you might be able to make adjustments. For instance, do you currently take her to the dog park where she engages in rough play with other pets? The solution might be to find an alternative place where she can unload some energy without roughhousing. Similarly, if you have a couple of cats in the house who like to get into tussles, you might have to keep them separate throughout the day.
If you or your children currently roll around on the ground with the dog during playtime, it might be time to put a kibosh on that. Instead, engage in activities like fetch or hide-and-seek in order to stimulate your pup. Avoid physical contact with your dog or cat during playtime to discourage dominant behavior.
Treats can be a great motivator to stop playful aggression, much like with any other form of training. If your dog starts getting rough, practice a command to get her to calm down. If she obeys, give her a treat. Another method that some owners find helpful is to immediately remove yourself from the situation. Dogs, and sometimes cats, feed off of attention. If your pet is getting overly excited, stop what you're doing and turn your back to them. If that doesn't calm them down then walk out of the room and place a closed door between you. That will let your pet know their behavior is unacceptable.
If your pet is out of the puppy stage and has yet to be spayed or neutered, that could also be an effective solution to the problem. Many pet owners indicate that their pet calms down significantly post-surgery.
If at-home training doesn’t seem to make a difference, you’ll need to enlist the skills of a trainer. While expensive, a good trainer will be able to teach your pet to play in a respectful manner with both humans and other animals. Proper play is something that should be addressed right from the beginning, so do your best to get your pet off on the right foot.
Ben Kerns is a freelance writer, photographer and outdoor adventurer based out of San Diego. When he’s not busy working you can find him hopping across the world looking for new places to climb big rocks. He’s also fanatically obsessed with funding his outdoor obsessions for as little money as possible.