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Canine Behavior/Telling the difference between play and aggression



We have 2 older dogs, Roxie who is a 10-year-old Husky/Golden Mix, and Molly, a 9 year-old beagle/Chow mix. We recently added a puppy to the group, a black lab Trevor. He was 7 weeks at the time of adoption (he was abandoned on the side of the road), and is now a week shy of 6 months. The girls are neutered, he is not yet (the vet is advising we wait until his growth plates close at 18-24 months, unless we start having behavioral issues).

He is a very boisterous puppy, and easily riles the girls into playing with him. Lately, Molly seems less like she's playing, and more like she's trying to assert dominance. She does her best to get her front paws up on his head, neck or shoulders, body-slams him very hard, and the snarls and snaps are a bit worrying. He has yelped a few times, at which point he'll sit on my lap, and they all have a cooling-down period. He gives as good as he gets, but I get a strong sense of "playful puppy who doesn't know his size" vs her "I'm getting tired of this puppy and it's time to show him who's boss here!".

I've been watching their play intently lately, not breaking it up unless blood is drawn (he bit her ear, which did not end well), but I'm not sure if there's a distinct signal when play has gone too far?

Thank you in advance for your time and patience!

First: find a new veterinarian.  That is VERY BAD ADVICE.  We're not neutering HIM, we're neutering YOUR DOG.  As soon as testicles descend, they come off.  AFTER 18 months of age, testosterone related behavior is SET and requires remedial attention.

Your breed mixes are interesting.  Let's take a short course on hybridization: when one first generation (or even second generation) "purebred" dog breeds with same, the "mix" can result in a difficult dog.  Husky/Golden: difficult dog; Beagle/Chow, extremely difficult dog.  Now without DNA tests you don't really *know* these are true representations of the hybridization taken place.  Molly, if she is indeed a Chow hybrid, is the most likely to assert her social hierarchy over a boisterous and out of control 6 month old male of unknown breeding, unknown horrors at the hands of the miscreants who dumped him, unknown anything.  Poor "mothering" by dam (due to nutritional inadequacy, age, extreme fatigue, too young an age, or too many noenates) can lead to an extremely contentious puppy, adolescent and young adult dog.  At six months, your Trevor is now an adolescent.  He is "testing" his "pack" (THAT INCLUDES YOU).  Molly is doing what she needs to do in order to control him.  BUT YOU should be doing it.

WHEN she disciplines him, DO NOT LET HIM SIT ON YOUR LAP.  You are giving both dogs the wrong signals.  The body slams, snarls and snaps might be worrying to you but this is what a dam does to a young puppy who is out of countrol.  "Play" is not what it is between Human children: in the dog culture, "play" is a test of strength, tenacity, perseverance, and surrender.  WHEN Trevor's behavior is out of control, put a leash on him.  Do not pet him, say nothing, no eye contact; bring him to your side but do not touch him.  Sit there a minute or two, then drop the leash but keep an eye on him.  TELL Molly, in this manner (and Trevor, also) that:
1.  YOU are at the top of the social hierarchy
2.  There are behaviors that require restraint
3.  You are not on anyone's "side"
4.  Molly's "place" in social hieararchy is secure (for now)

If you do not neuter this dog, his aggressive attempt to find a higher position in the social hierarchy will WORSEN as he gets older.  By eighteen months of age, you could be looking at a blood bath with you in the middle.

I suggest, after six weeks of having him neutered, you find a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist to just take a simple assessment of your household and make suggestions (NOT a dog trainer).  You can find one by calling the veterinary college in your geographical area or possibly from the following site:

MEANWHILE Trevor requires positive reinforcement training in a GROUP environment, if you can find one in your area.  Ask for the credentials of the trainer(s); look at their credentials (they should be posted in a public area); ask for references and call them; sit in on three classes BEFORE making the commitment.  Trevor needs to learn to work well among other dogs and to accept cues (commands) and perform appropriately, for praise and high value food reward.  The trainer must understand the situation in your home; Trevor will improve immensely in his response to you, as well as be willing to "work" for (ultimately) just praise.

A real "dog fight" results in serious harm; a small nip to an ear will produce more blood than is really a problem (just as any scalp wound produces what seems to be volumes of blood in a Human).  Do not panic.  Do as I suggested.

You can feel free to report back at any time using the followup feature.  Save this answer in your email, return to the answer by clicking the link, scroll down and use "followup" feature so I can see original question/answer.

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Jill Connor, Ph.D.


I have spent my entire professional life rehabilitating the behavior of the domestic dog and I can answer any question regarding any behavior problem in any breed dog. I have answered more than 5,000 QUESTIONS on this site in the past (almost) eight years. If you are a caring, committed owner and need advice, I'm here for you. I am personally acquainted with my colleagues (Turid Rugaas, Ian Dunbar, etc.) who were members of an elite group in EGroups that I founded: K9Shrinks. THERE ARE NO QUICK FIXES for serious behavioral issues; not only is it unprofessional to offer same, it is also unethical. IF I ASK YOU SUBSEQUENT QUESTIONS, I NEED YOU TO INTERACT WITH ME. More information equals more credible answers and a more successful outcome. If you want ANSWERS THAT WORK, participate in any way I request. I'm quite committed to working on this site for YOUR benefit and the benefit of YOUR DOG. Help me in any way you can.


30 years of solving serious behavior problems in domestic dogs; expert in dog to human aggression; Internet columnist for for 5 years; former radio talk show host, WHPC.FM, Garden City, NY "Bite Back" (1995 through 2000). List owner, international animal behavior experts, Seminar leader: "Operant Conditioning and Learning"; "Aggression in The Domestic Dog"; "Solving Problem Behaviors" -- conducted for various training facilities on Long Island from 1993 through 2000. Former clinical director of "Behavioral Abnormalities" in conjunction with Mark Beckerman, DVM, Hempstead, New York.

Member, APDT (UK); Psychologists in Ethical Treatment with Animals

Harcourt Brace Learning Direct: "The Business of Dog Training" "The Fail Safe Dog: Brain Training, not Pain Training"

Ph.D., UC Berkeley

Past/Present Clients
Board of Directors: Northeast Dog Rescue Connection; The Dog Project; Sav-A-Dog Foundation; etc. Pro Bono counselor: Little Shelter Humane Society My practice is presently limited to forensics. I diagnose cause of dog bite, based upon testimony before the Court, for attorneys and insurance companies litigating dog bites, including fatal injuries. I also do pro bono work for bona fide rescue organizations, humane societies, et al, regarding such analysis in an effort to obtain release for dogs being held for death in municipal shelters in the US.

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