Matching a dog’s play style

Today I conducted an evaluation and consultation for a dog owner whose dog was asked to discontinue their participation in a doggie day care. The dog had been evaluated by their staff and at first deemed appropriate.  Later, as the dog felt more comfortable in the new environment, the dog began repeatedly mounting the other dogs at the facility and playing very rough.  The play style was over the top for the other dogs and the owner was concerned if this meant her dog was dog aggressive.

The consultation took place at an area park where I could observe the dog’s behavior to passing strange dogs.  The dog showed intense interest in the other dogs but no aggression.  The dog simply laid down and watched the passing dogs go by with no reactivity.

I then introduced him to my personal dog, Starbuck, a very friendly and playful German Shepherd.  Initially, the dog showed some nervous behavior.  The hair on his back stood up which is sometimes called his hackles or more appropriately called pilo-erection.  He closed his mouth, tensed up his muscles and monetarily stopped breathing. It’s like the calm before the storm as the dog considers his next move. Often times this behavior predicts aggression. However, a second later, he did a play bow and immediately commenced playing with Starbuck with repetitive attempts to mount him.

There was no aggression showed just a very rough style of play.  Starbuck a large dog was able to match the dog’s play style, let him know when the play got too rough and prevent the dog from continually mounting him. Therefore, the mounting ceased and their play was equally matched.  The dog also showed great bite inhibition meaning while he bit at Starbuck’s legs and side he did not bite down to cause pain.  It was simply a rough play style. And, because Starbuck was able to match the play style, they had a great time together. Additionally, the dog’s play style began to settle down to the point where they both laid on the grass simply mouthing each other.

The doggie day care facility was correct that this dog’s play style is too rough to be a good fit with most of the other dogs in the facility.  Even though the facility has different play groups based upon dogs’ play styles and energy, this dog’s style is presently over the top for even the most energized groups. What this dog needs is safe play with other dogs who can match the play style and appropriately let the dog know when enough is enough.

The owner can also interrupt the play from time to time to teach the dog to sit and be calm before resuming the play sessions.  This keeps the play sessions under control and teaches the dog that a request for it to end (by cuing come and sit) is not a bad thing because it results in the opportunity to go play again.

Based upon the dog’s history and behavior displayed it was clear the dog needs to be matched with other dogs who can match his play style and prevent the mounting from occurring, without becoming aggressive themselves, as Starbuck did. This will allow the dog to expend his energy and eventually develop a more appropriate play style. This type of consultation is very rewarding as I was able to reassure the owner that her dog was not displaying aggression but instead a rough play style that is too much for most dogs.

If you’re concerned that your dog maybe showing signs of aggression, contact a dog behaviorist for an evaluation.

About Michael Burkey

Michael Burkey is a professional dog trainer, behaviorist and owner of, a highly successful dog training company whose aim is to promote peaceful relationships between pets and families. Additionally, he is an expert trial witness, certified Canine Good Citizen (CGC) evaluator for the American Kennel Club (AKC), former Police K9 Handler, Search and Rescue (SAR) K9 Training Director and SAR K9 Handler, obedience and rally competitor and social worker. Dog training is a complex science and art requiring knowledge of behavioral science and learning. You can rely on Michael's experience, teaching methods, and integrity. He can be contacted at or 734-634-4152.
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