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Is That Dog Aggressive Or Is it Play? Learning The Difference

First of all, Service and Working Dogs should never be aggressive in any way and that kind of behavior should be considered as strong evidence a candidate is not fit for duty. That being said, many people often misinterpret young dog’s behavior as aggression when it’s normal, healthy play. As well, without proper training and socialization, almost any dog can develop aggression towards other dogs or things they fear.

What specific behaviors do you call aggressive?

Separating aggression from mouthing or play is not always easy for a new dog owner.  While it is somewhat unusual to see aggression in very young puppies, it is not impossible. Lack of appropriate socialization, poor genetics, absence of siblings, isolation can contribute so undesirable interactions with other dogs and humans.

Types of dog Aggression

  • Guarding food or possessions: This is normal behavior for dogs, so teaching them that this is unnecessary is an essential part of a young puppy’s education
  • Interactions with other puppies or adult dogs: This is usually due to fear and based on previous learning.  The aggression is a defense mechanism to keep themselves safe. Growling, snapping, raised hackles are behaviors to communicate that the other dogs should move away.  If their actions are successful, then there is a high chance that the same tactics will be repeated the next time they meet a dog.
  • Overhandling: Many puppies are over-handled and cuddled and use the growling and snapping behaviors to try to get the human to stop touching them and to move away.  These actions are based on initial lack of handling training and previous experiences. If the human stops the handling, then the growling and snapping have achieved their aim and are more likely to be repeated in the future.

Is It Really Aggression or is it Mouthing or Play?

What does Mouthing Look Like?

Puppy biting or mouthing is a fundamental part of learning.  It’s how puppies learn about their world and how to interact with their siblings and their human family.

What Does Play Look Like?

Overenthusiastic play, with noisy, growls & bites can all be part of play.  Play should be well balanced with the puppies taking it in turns to chase or be on top.  Different breeds have different play styles; for instance, terriers are fond of leg biting while other breeds prefer to play chase.

What does overhandling look like?

How to stop puppy aggression? Learning to read your dog’s body language takes practice; however, there will be some obvious signs.  Wriggling, licking lips, growling, snapping, biting hands are all symptomatic. A simple test you can use is to touch your puppy for 5 seconds then stop.  If your puppy nudges you for more attention, then he is probably enjoying what you are doing. If he doesn’t re-engage then he would probably prefer you not to touch him in that way.

Redirection is your best tool

Just like with children, redirection is far more effective than yelling. If your dog is already worked up, yelling at them or giving them corrections only serves to amp them up more.

Mouthing – the best course of action is to redirect this on to a suitable chew toy.  Have plenty of suitable items to hand including one in a pocket so the redirection can be done quickly.

Play – interrupt play if excitement levels are getting too high. Practice recalling your puppy away from their playmate.  Keep sessions short particularly with unfamiliar dogs. Keep on lead interactions to 5 seconds.

How to deal with aggressive dog?

Allow the dog to finish his or her meal then and encourage them away with some treats to allow you to remove the bowl safely. For a aggressive dog who is showing aggression towards other dogs, walk him on a lead in quiet areas whilst you are working with a trainer.  In many places, street walking is a good plan as you rarely see other off-lead dogs. Supermarket parking lots are another option where other dogs are not seen often.

Take tasty treats with you when walking.  If you come across another dog, give the cue ‘leave it’ or ‘this way’ and use the food to lure him to walk in the opposite direction.  If you see another dog off-lead coming towards you, tossing some tasty treats his way can buy you a few minutes to turn and walk away.  Remember, you need to take calm action before your dog reacts.

Overhandling can cause numerous issues from putting on a harness or lead to grooming or health checking.  Food is the best for of management in these situations. Lickimats or Kongs can be used to dispense wet foods.

Keeping the family safe – It is essential that puppies are not bothered by young children while they are eating at any time.  This should remain a golden rule. Young children should always be actively (rather than passively) supervised when in the company of a dog. Similar rules should apply with any child-dog interactions. Supervision at all times. This should be active rather than passive. Use puppy pens to assist with this.

If You Can’t Handle Your Dog’s Aggression, Get Help From a Professional Trainer

If you have concerns about your dog’s behavior, seek help as soon as possible.  Avoid waiting ‘to see if it goes away’. Delaying could worsen the behavior and take more time to resolve.


Adapted from Karen Backhouse, Instructor at
For more information and professional online courses, visit


Learn more about voluntary, community-defined training and behavior standards for handlers and their Service Dogs at



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