Puppies, especially litter mates, play fight a lot. There's little more adorable than watching a group of puppies tussle with each other, but how can you know when the wrestling stops being playful and starts to become a true fight, though? What can you do if you have one puppy in particular that continues to take play time a little too far?
Why Do Puppies Fight?
Puppies learn normal social behavior, what is acceptable and okay and what is not, from interacting with other puppies. This starts even before puppies are weaned from their mother. Healthy play allows a pup to not only build a good foundation of socialization but it also helps them learn body language and other nonverbal behavioral cues. What they learn as puppies in regards to normal dog-on-dog behavior sets the ground work for skills they will utilize throughout their life.
What is Healthy Play and What is a True Fight?
Being able to read body language and behavioral cues yourself is of utmost importance in order to differentiate puppy play from puppy fighting. Puppies that are engaged in healthy, happy play will be loose, having bounding, bouncy, sometimes exaggerated movements with a big, silly, open mouth. You may see the stereotypical play bow and you may hear loud and/or continuous growling. Healthy play between puppies has no winners or losers. Instead, there are constant role reversals where you may see the chaser become the chasee only to become the chaser again. In addition, when puppies are exhibiting healthy play you may see one pup ‘self-handicap’ him or herself by laying on their side or back or crouching down lower (if they are playing with a smaller puppy). You will also see puppies taking breaks from healthy play. Two puppies may be tussling on the ground one second and then getting up to go get a drink of water the next second.
Puppies that are engaged in a fight will have markedly different behavioral cues and body language. Instead of loose, bounding movements they will become stiff and tense. You may even see their hackles raise up. Instead of a happy, open mouthed, tongue lolling face, they will tight lipped with either a snarl or a low, quiet growl. The ears will become flat and pinned back.
If you happen to catch your puppy in a fight you want to separate the puppies as quickly and safely as possible. If your puppy has their leash and harness on them this usually can be done without much difficulty. Of course, most puppies don’t play with their leashes attached to them all the time. As much as you are tempted to do so, do not reach out for your puppy’s scruff or try to get in between your puppy and the other one. You may get injured in the process. Instead, redirect them with other toys or try to momentarily distract the puppies with a loud noise, such as whistle or clap. From there, if your puppy has a well-trained recall already, you can call him/her over to you or you can simply clip his/her leash on and lead them away from the other puppy.
How to Prevent Puppies from Fighting
Puppies that are routinely getting into fights with other puppies may need more enrichment outside of puppy social hour. Dogs can learn behavioral cues (sometimes referred to as commands) as early as seven to eight weeks of age, so enrolling in puppy classes as close to eight weeks old as possible and continuing through adolescence can provide your puppy with the mental stimulation he/she needs to stave off boredom. It also provides foundation skills (like that simple recall) for controlling your puppy’s behavior as well as helping you to better understand what normal puppy/dog behavior is and what normal puppy/dog communication is.
Finding a trainer is sometimes easier said than done. Unlike the world of veterinary medicine, the world of dog training is not regulated, either by federal or state guidelines. Anyone on the street can wake up one morning and decided they want to start training dogs but that does not necessarily mean they should. A good trainer will utilize science backed, evidence based methods. They will seek out different certifications in their field (certifications that, again, are not required to call yourself a dog trainer) and continuing education lectures and workshops to stay up to date with modern methods and current studies. They will be respectful of any concerns you have, should have no issues with you observing a class to see their training style and observe how dogs and owners alike respond to their method of training, and should be open to collaborating with your veterinarian if behavioral modification and/or behavioral medications are prescribed.
One thing to definitely watch out for when finding a dog trainer is one that guarantees results or behavioral changes. Dogs, just like people, are all individuals and their personalities and behavior are as fluid as our own. For that reason, a trainer may be incredibly successful training a dog with one behavioral concern but that does not mean they will be able to successfully train all dogs with that same behavioral concern all the time. As with most things, if it sounds too good to be true, it usually is.
Additional exercise, usually in the form of play time not involving other puppies, can also provide your puppy with a more appropriate outlet for aggressive play. Toys such as balls or stuffed toys allow you to play with your puppy from a distance and are perfect for this. A lot of puppy fights are not a result of an offensively aggressive puppy but rather a puppy that is just overstimulated and over aroused. Basically a puppy that is over aroused is just so excited about whatever is going on they cannot handle it and they pounce on whatever is nearby. Oftentimes over stimulation in puppies can be managed by increasing play time with their balls and stuffed toys.
Puppies need playtime with one another in order for them to grow up into confident, well-adjusted dogs. Knowing how to tell when a healthy tussle has crossed over into a true fight and knowing appropriate outlets for more aggressive play, though, is just as important for setting your puppy up for success.