Ask the AKC Animal Behaviorist - When Dogs Play, How Rough is Too Rough?

More on PawNation: AKC Animal Behaviorist, AkcAnimalBehaviorist, dog body language, dog play, DogBodyLanguage, DogPlay, Mary Burch, MaryBurch
Meet Mary Burch, American Kennel Club Canine Good Citizen Director and Paw Nation's expert columnist addressing your questions on animal behavior. Dr. Burch has over 25 years of experience working with dogs, and she is one of fewer than 50 Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists based in the United States. She is the author of 10 books, including the new official book on the AKC Canine Good Citizen Program, "Citizen Canine: 10 Essential Skills Every Well-Mannered Dog Should Know."

I have two mixed-breed puppies, a female and a male. They're 7-month-old siblings and have been with me since they were 5 weeks old. The dogs are very active and play a lot, but my concern is that they play very rough. Neither has been hurt so far, but I'm worried that this playing will turn into fighting as they get older. How rough is too rough? How can I tell?

When healthy, active dogs play, it can sometimes seem very alarming. The noise and the intensity of the interaction can make you feel as if you should either run for cover or drag the two dogs apart. Here are a few questions to ask to help you evaluate the situation.

Are both dogs happy or is one or both being hostile?
To help figure out if the dogs are having fun or actually fighting, first look at each individual dog's body language and behavior. Signs of playing include:

-- A lowering of the front of the body with the rear end up. This "play bow" is an invitation to play.
-- A relaxed mouth
-- A desire to continue interacting with the other dog
-- No show of teeth or actual biting (though controlled mouthing is fine)
-- A relaxed posture with the hackles (hair on the back of the neck and shoulders) down

Signs that things are not going so well are when one dog tries to dominate the other by jumping on it, pinning it down so it can't move for an extended period of time, or biting the other dog and causing pain. You should definitely interrupt the game if you see these signs that indicate one dog might not be playing. You may also want to get a book on dog body language so you can better understand what your dogs are communicating.

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