How can I tell if a dog is being playful or dominant (aggressive)?

asked 2015-12-03 17:42:07 -0500

I know some dogs play rough, but I have trouble reading the signs. I don't want to get caught in a situation where I don't recognize the signs until it's too late!

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I started keeping a blow horn and an old aluminum bowl to throw on the floor to startle them! The signs I see that my sister's dog is going to "attach" she gets a different look in her eyes and her body language changes right away.. I stop it before she goes into being a bad girl.. I redirect her.

Daisy L.'s profile image Daisy L.  ( 2015-12-04 07:51:44 -0500 ) edit

The growl is a lower tone; more serious. The teeth are shown fully, quiver during the growl. Hackles up, tail between legs. Eyes are hooked on opponent. An aluminum spoon banged on a pot to startle works as well. Use a broom to push the fur balls apart and back.

Cathy D.'s profile image Cathy D.  ( 2016-05-11 13:40:43 -0500 ) edit

It is important to know that hackles can go up for many reasons and often not a sign of aggression. Anything that gets them excited can make the hackles to up. We call it "Happy Hackles" because our 2 labs' hackles go up when greeting old or new friends, 4 legged or 2, and the tails are wagging.

Diane P.'s profile image Diane P.  ( 2016-05-11 15:06:50 -0500 ) edit

5 Answers

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answered 2015-12-04 03:56:46 -0500

It takes a lot of practice to get good at reading body language. Many cues are subtle, like a turn of the head, a change in tail position, a shift in facial muscles, etc. Also remember that play is essentially fighting practice. Dogs will use a lot of the same moves on a playmate that they would use on an enemy, with drastically different intention. Overall, you should see exaggerated movements, loose posture with a curved body, and a fairly even back and forth between the playmates. Both dogs should be getting the opportunity to "win" pretty regularly (though one dog frequently being on top or bottom isn't necessarily a bad sign, since some dogs just prefer one over the other - the point is that both should be getting what they want from the exchange).

By contrast, be wary of stiff/tense posture, jerky movements, hard stares, or an unbalanced dynamic. A lot of the motions will be the same, but the movements will be more precise and deliberate, meant to intimidate rather than to be playful. If I'm ever concerned about a dog's intention, I usually look to their target for clarification. If the other dog still seems relaxed and playful, I'll wait and see; if the other dog appears nervous or unhappy, I'll step in. Even if the first dog was being playful, if they were making their buddy uncomfortable they need to tone it down.

Check out this video showcasing some really great examples of play - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HOiAw...

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Great response! Loosey goosey body language is a must! The moment someone goes stiff, step in- in a calm but firm manner.

Brittany F.'s profile image Brittany F.  ( 2016-01-08 20:06:33 -0500 ) edit
answered 2016-01-01 12:48:34 -0500

Hi Victoria,

This is a very good question and one that we face a lot when we go to the dog park. One of the best suggestions I can give you, is if you have a dog, study some of his/her behaviors when meeting other dogs. From watching Tucker, I have learned when he is meeting another dog if it is going to end well or not. When meeting a dog in a friendly way, most dogs will circle and try to sniff from behind. If a dog approaches nose to nose, keep a watchful eye. This does not allows lead to aggression but could turn into it. Some dogs react to other dogs with very high energy levels. One of the problems we have faced is that people let their dogs just run through the gate at the dog park. If the other dogs are all playing calmly, some dogs will react to this new high energy level. If a dog looks very tense and stiff, back straight, head up tall, tail held high or out stiff, hair between shoulders and neck up, not a good sign. Tucker will give some dogs "the look": dogs don't normally stare each other down, this can translate aggressively/dominantly to other dogs. Some dogs are more vocal when they play but if you pay attention, you can usually tell a difference in a play growl and an aggressive/dominant growl. Aggressive/dominant growling is usually lower and deeper-more menacing and typically can be seen with the stiff posture mentioned above. Also Tucker is neutered and one of the things we have noticed is that he typically reacts towards other male dogs that are not neutered. We always watch him a little closer when an unaltered male dog comes around. Think about puppies playing: if it looks and feels like puppies then you are probably ok. Even if you don't have a dog, going to a local dog park or place where other dogs can go off leash and just watching interactions would be a good way to learn about body language of dogs. Hope this answer helps :)

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answered 2016-04-10 10:04:44 -0500

You have to look at the dogs body language. For example when the dogs are playing look for the tail and if it is wagging from side to side and it looks extremeley nervous pull the two apart otherwise you are putting the dogs at risk of getting into a really nasty fight.

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answered 2015-12-03 18:01:33 -0500

My dogs are always wagging their tails when their happy and playful and when they are ready to become aggressive their tails stop wagging and their bodies tense up. I have some that the hair/ fur will stand up on the back of their neck. Other than that each dog is different I have 9 so I see some react the same and others I don't see it coming.

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answered 2015-12-04 07:46:14 -0500

"On talking Terms With Dogs" by Turid Rugaas is a great resource for dog body language and the different expressions and techniques they use to communicate with each other. It is a short easy read with picture examples! Has some great techniques for calming dogs down too.

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