When Rough Dog Play Goes Bad
The following is about a young, large breed dog who was playing roughly and becoming aggressive with another dog in the household. This is how we fixed it. As an update, the two are playing great together and the larger, younger dog won't even be outside without a toy in his mouth now. At 9 weeks old, Ricky, a Shiloh Shepherd, came to live with two older German Shepherds. The oldest being a 12 year old male, the other a 6 year old female, both altered. When Ricky arrived, Fred, the male was very clear that there would be no playing between them. However, the female, Lucy, was not so clear. She was so happy to have a puppy to play with that she let Ricky wrestle & grab her all he wanted. The owner didn't see the wrestling as a problem and continued allowing the playing/wrestling because the breeder said that is what they do, all her dogs do it. Forward 9 months...Ricky is now larger than both of his housemates. He still shows Fred quite a bit of respect, but his relationship with Lucy has changed.
He loves to play, and he plays rough. So rough in fact, that she is becoming afraid of him. Unfortunately, Lucy tires more quickly than does Ricky and when she'd stop playing his frustration would build to the point where he was attacking her. At first the client was able to break it up with a verbal correction, but he began to ignore that after a few weeks. Of course in trying to help the client and her dogs I asked that she prevent them from playing to keep his frustration level at a minimum. I didn't want him to practice the behavior, especially since he was now ignoring the owner and going after Lucy pretty hard. Lucy was becoming very nervous in the house now as well as outside where the attacks would happen. Her entire demeanor was changing. To my dismay, although the owner was very compliant in every other way, she did not make it a habit to keep them apart. Her reason being, that they really enjoyed playing together, and he only attacked Lucy about 50% of the time. The problem was that the owner couldn't tell when he was going to attack Lucy, or even when the playing was getting too rough and she should stop it before it got to "that point".
Because Ricky would never display the behavior during our appointments I asked if she could video a play session. Not only was it useful to see with my own eyes what was going on, but by being able to pause the tape & show the client the body language the dogs were exhibiting the client was more able to control & stop situations before they escalated. She said the tape really helped her to see what is going on that it isn't all one big blur any more. From the video, it was obvious that Lucy was showing stress signals at the very beginning of play. She wanted to interact with Ricky, but was apprehensive and conflicted.
What we needed to do was help Lucy feel that it wasn't just her defending herself against Ricky. At the same time, Ricky needed to understand that if he picked a fight with Lucy, he was taking on a person as well. Also, we needed to give them a way to interact together that didn't include him putting his mouth around her neck and yanking her to the ground. With this in mind, we taught Lucy the cue "close", which means "come stand by me". Separately we taught Ricky "go away", which is self-explanatory. We also taught him that the word "toy" means to pick up a toy.
The protocol went as follows: The owner would walk outside with the dogs & immediately tell Ricky "toy", while keeping Lucy with her. As soon as Ricky picked up a toy she would release Lucy to play. If Ricky dropped the toy she would tell Lucy "close", which stopped all play. If he tried to follow Lucy over to the owner she would tell him to "go away" & "get the toy". Ricky had been rehearsing the behavior for a few months when you count the time it started at a mild level. I told the client not to get discouraged, and that it could take him a few weeks or more to understand that dropping the toy meant the play stopped, and the way to get Lucy back was to pick up the toy. By telling her it would take longer than I thought it would, it helped the client be patient with the process. Amazingly, two days later the client called me to say that he had it. He would pick up a toy and toss it around in an obvious solicitation of play to Lucy. It would take her a while sometimes to trust him enough to interact with him, but you could see that she really wanted to.
They would then run through the bushes, her chasing him. Sometimes he would emerge from the bushes without the toy, in which case the owner would say "close". Ricky would then begin looking for a toy, any toy, all on his own and the game would start again. If he couldn't find a toy and Lucy wasn't close to the client then he would default to an attack. Getting the client to understand that just because he has two good days, it doesn't mean Ricky has overcome his bad habit. This is what drew the process out longer than it should have taken. It has been a few months now and the progress report is excellent. The past three weeks have been attack-free. They are playing very nicely together. Lucy is calmer than she's ever been, even before Ricky came along. I've told the client that the play still needs to be supervised and the exercises will need to be continued for at least twice as long as he practiced the bad behavior. Hopefully things will continue on this track and this form of play will become a lifetime habit for Ricky.
For more information about rough dog play, listen to our 2 part podcast about this topic:
Animal Attraction Unlimited