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Puppy Aggressive Play: How To Curb Aggressiveness

May 10, 2022

Anything from an overzealous scratch to a painful nip can be enough to ruin the fun mood when playing with your puppy. These kinds of behaviors that might seem relatively harmless in puppies could become real issues when they grow up.

The earlier that you address these problems, the better chance you will have for success. Try to create positive habits as soon as possible. This will give those habits the best chance of sticking with your dog long into adulthood. If your puppy is displaying signs of aggression while playing, here are some ways that you can nip that behavior in the bud.

What Are the Signs of Aggressive Play?

Before we get into how you can prevent your puppy from taking out their rougher instincts on you, we should establish what to look out for in terms of aggressive play. Exactly how your puppy plays rough will depend on the dog, but there are some common behaviors that you can look out for:

  • Biting or nipping at your hand/extremities
  • Growling when you try to play with them or when you attempt to take their toy away
  • Having a stiff posture
  • Not wagging their tail
  • Making prolonged and direct eye contact with you
  • Snapping at you

Identify the Source of the Aggression

In many cases when a puppy is playing, they might simply not be cognizant of their own strength, or their ability to hurt others. When this happens, it can be shockingly easy for an otherwise harmless puppy to accidentally do some real damage. Here, the intention is not at all malicious, but the result is still the same. However, how you treat a puppy who is dealing with this particular affliction is different than how you would consider a genuinely aggressive dog.

On the other hand, it is also possible that your dog is displaying signs of true aggression. Aggression is often caused by fear in puppies and dogs, so try to find what might be causing your dog to feel afraid. Could it perhaps be a result of a specific toy you are using, your surrounding environment, or the playstyle you are employing? The faster that you successfully determine why your dog is acting out in this way, the faster that you can put a stop to it.

If following the tips that we will lay out in this article does not help, or if you suspect that your dog is adopting some aggressive tendencies, then it is likely time to get some professional help. Taking your pet to the veterinarian or to a dog behaviorist sooner rather than later is the best way to instill positive habits for many years to come.

Stop All Play When You See Aggressive Behavior

Since puppies are such boisterous little balls of energy, there are few things that they enjoy more in this world than a good play session. Playing is one of the very best ways that you can create a long-lasting bond with your dog, but it has to be done in a way that is both safe and fun for everyone. Unless they are asleep or in the middle of scarfing down their dinner, your puppy could probably go for some play. Therefore, your ability to stop playing is an incredibly effective tool that you have in your arsenal.

If you notice that your dog is beginning to display any of the signs of aggression that we talked about earlier, it is imperative that you stop any and all play at once. Immediately end the play session and do not give them the attention that they want. This will send a very clear message that something that your puppy did is the reason the fun stopped.

After enough repetition of consistently and quickly ceasing all play once aggressive behavior starts, your puppy will get the message that these actions are not to be tolerated. At this point, they are likely to prioritize playing with you, and as a result, their prior aggressive behavior should significantly diminish.

Redirect Your Puppy’s Attention to Toys

Some of the most common forms of aggressive play occur when a dog bites their pet parent, scratches them, or otherwise causes some kind of unpleasant physical interaction. Your puppy’s instincts to bite are not going to go away, and this is especially true if they are currently in the process of teething.

Many puppies teethe up until they are roughly six months of age, which is important to keep in mind when it comes to providing them with the proper tools to remain comfortable. This brings us to the main point of our suggestion: give your dog an abundance of toys to play with. If you often find your dog nipping on your fingers, first stop playing with them, and then give them a proper toy to play with.

There are also toys made especially for puppies’ smaller teeth as they go through the teething process. These will make both you and your pooch feel much more comfortable. After all, they will have a toy to help them through the natural process of teething. At the same time, you will get to go through your day without having your hand constantly bitten.

Do Not Use Negative Reinforcement

Negative reinforcement is never a good idea when it comes to teaching your pet. If you try to train your dog using this method, there are a few likely results. For one, depending on the method of negative reinforcement, your dog could become afraid of you over time. This is of course a nightmare for pet parents who simply want the best for them and their puppy’s relationship.

Then, there is also the possibility that your dog will simply take any reaction as a positive reaction. If this happens, then your pet will just continue doing the same behaviors as normal. Your dog might not be able to distinguish between a so-called positive reaction and a negative reaction.

Instead, they only internalize that their actions got a rise out of you. As a result, your pet might be accidentally incentivized to do these behaviors the same amount, or possibly even more often than they did before.

The biggest kind of negative reaction that you should show would be a firm but quick “no” or “ow” after your puppy does something wrong. Then, move on to the process of ignoring them by taking your hands away and not giving them attention. As we established earlier, in these situations you should instead give no reaction (or a very limited reaction) and then stop playing completely. It will actually be the lack of a reaction that really gets the message across to your puppy, and will hopefully save you a few unpleasant bites or scratch marks in the future.

Praise Your Puppy When They Play Safely

While negative reinforcement is never the answer for dogs, positive reinforcement could and should be used regularly as a means of communication. After employing enough of these methods, your dog should begin to show signs of their aggression diminishing.

When this happens, it is important (and fun) to reward this productive behavior. If you play a round of fetch with your pup where they easily give up the ball and never nip at your hand, that is the perfect time for some positive reinforcement. You can also reward your dog when they are just lying around calmly outside of playtime.

Speaking of playing games with your puppy, it is worth noting that you should always allow your dog to “win” in the end. For example, if you are both playing tug-o-war, make sure that you eventually drop the rope and your dog can feel like the winner. This is not the time for your overly competitive side to come out.

Once your dog wins, it will create a sense of accomplishment that will make them want to keep playing this game. Since tug-o-war specifically is such an excellent way of getting much of your puppy’s potentially aggressive energy out, this is the ideal situation.

What Is Positive Reinforcement for Dogs?

We have established that you should reward your dog with positive reinforcement when they do something that you want to encourage, but how exactly do you do that? Positive reinforcement might look a little bit different depending on the dog themselves, but the core principle is the same. Positive reinforcement uses objects, treats, or praise that your dog enjoys in order to make them keep doing that behavior.

Maybe you want to give your dog one of their absolute favorite, high-reward treats or a treat spread after they chose to nibble on a chew toy rather than your hand. Similarly, if your pet does not scratch your hand while trying to get a toy, that is a wonderful opportunity to voice your praise aloud.

Dogs are actually capable of understanding much more than we realize. When we use a happy tone of voice, our canine companions are aware of it. With this in mind, do not hesitate to praise your dog excitedly when they do something right. You might feel silly using your wildest baby voice, but chances are that your dog will love it.

Get Your Puppy Enough Exercise

Much of the time, a dog might participate in particularly rambunctious play because they are overcome with energy. The solution to this is to tire them out, but that might seem like a complicated issue when your primary method of exercising your pet was to play with them. Luckily, this is when you have the opportunity to get a bit more creative in terms of getting your dog’s steps in.

Puppies need to move around, or else that infectious energy bubbles up and comes out in undesirable ways. Whether your hand or your furniture is paying the price, there are ways to get that energy out in a productive way that will leave people smiling and tails wagging. You should already be taking your puppy out on several walks a day, but consider extending the length of those walks to help them get more exercise.

Similarly, it might be beneficial to change up your usual walk route. Seeing some new sights and sniffing some new smells can also help to tire a dog out, as long as they do not get overstimulated in the process. If this happens, your dog might throw a puppy temper tantrum.

Perhaps consider a short hike or a trek with more incline than your previous paths. This will certainly tire your dog out more, and could also offer pet parents a new way to see more of their community than they had before.

If you do not have the time or energy to take your dog out for extended walks, a trip to the dog park or having a fenced-in yard can also help. The key is just to allow your puppy the chance to run around until they are well and truly tired.

Can a Puppy Get Too Much Exercise?

It is also important to keep in mind that there is such a thing as too much exercise for a puppy. This can also be detrimental to your dog’s wellbeing, so it should definitely be avoided.

While there is not an exact way to determine the correct amount of exercise for your puppy, you should aim for an amount where your dog is genuinely tired out, but never uncomfortable. You can consider your dog’s age, breed, size, and stamina when planning out your exercise regimen. Smaller dogs will of course require less exercise, while larger and older dogs will be ready to take on different terrains more quickly.

Curb Your Over-Enthusiasm

As we have mentioned, when a puppy plays in a way that we interpret as “aggressive,” it is often the result of an overzealous dog who is too full of energy. Getting your puppy enough exercise, being cognizant of your methods of reinforcement, and redirecting their attention onto toys are all ways to curb their over-enthusiasm. If you suspect that there is something beyond the usual excitement that is causing your dog’s behavior, it is likely time to take them to a professional.


Teeth Teething and Chewing in Puppies | VCA Animal Hospitals

Puppies: How Much Exercise Is Too Much? | American Kennel Club

Positive Reinforcement Training | The Humane Society of the United States

The Diggs Team

Dog-Loving Pet Parents

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