Canine Behavior/Dogs play turns to biting
Hi Jody, I have a 9 mo old female Maltese and a 16 mo old male Parti toy poodle.Both of the dogs have been fixed. My dogs seem to like each other,however their play is like kids wrestling & they start biting each other on the back legs and on the face.They are not bringing blood but their"playing"seems really rough.I call them down and they stop but start again within minutes. I am worried that this type of play will cause problems if they are around other dogs.My Maltese seems to be worse at biting than my poodle & is usually the instigator. How do I stop this behavior so the will play without fighting. Also the poodle mounts the Maltese numerous times a day.They are both super hyper. Would this have anything to do with their behavior? I am at wits end. I am 75 yrs old and need my dogs to be non-agressive and calm.
Thank you for your question. I understand your concerns. We all want for our dogs to be friendly and non-aggressive.
The first thing I'll address is the mounting behavior. Mounting is very often an inept attempt at play. When dogs have an abundance of energy and don't know what to do with it, they may try to mount/hump another dog or person or other animal or even a toy or pillow. Another reason that dogs will often mount is if they're overwhelmed by the environment. In this case, a dog may mount another individual in an effort to control their movements so the one who is doing the mounting can feel calmer and more in control of their space. This is not about being in charge of the other party. It's about feeling out of control and thus overwhelmed and trying to help themselves feel better. But, in what you describe it's probably more about efforts to play.
When my little terrier tries to mount his older "brother", I just tell him, "Stop humping your brother" and he immediately moves off and does something else. Sometimes just saying something like that with a clear intention in your voice (firm but not aggressive or angry) is sufficient. The key to making that kind of comment work is to immediately praise and reward the dog when he does something else. Another phrase I use with my little terrier frequently is "Make a different choice". Again, in a firm tone but not angry. Just an I-mean-what-I-say tone of voice). In reality, what you say is entirely up to you so long as you're consistent in saying the same thing each time and following through with praise and reward when he stops mounting and chooses another activity.
As to the play you describe, it sounds like normal, healthy play. Some dogs do aim for back legs and I do think that's rude because it can trip the other dog. When my terrier does this to his older brother, I tell him to "make another choice" or to "be nice". Or I call them for a time-out. Healthy play involves lots of pauses in the game. Sometimes those pauses are very short - less than one second. Other times those pauses may be a minute long and then the game resumes.
Whenever I'm watching a play session and I'm not sure if it's play or escalating to something more, I watch the "underdog". If Dog A is instigating and Dog B is relaxed and engaging back, then it's all play and both parties understand. If Dog A is instigating and Dog B is tense in body, or tail is tucked or back is cowered or Dog B is trying to escape or getting aggressive in response (showing teeth, snapping straight at face, holding on too long, etc) then it's time to create a time-out. Also, if anyone yelps or screams, then it's probably a good time for a pause in play. But even there, context is key. Did Dog A bite too hard and hurt Dog B? Or did Dog A accidentally step on Dog B's tail and so Dog B squealed, but is still playing?
Here is a link to a video of my dogs playing. It happened to be a particularly great example of what truly healthy play looks like. This video defines some standard play signals and also points them out in real time during the play session.
You'll notice in the video above, most of their contact is directed at each other's necks, shoulders, ears and face. This is totally normal doggie play behavior.
Now the level of energy in that video is pretty calm and relaxed. They could have been 3 or 4 times higher in energy, there could have been some playful growling involved (and sometimes there is) and it still qualifies as pretty healthy play.
But, if you feel they're getting too worked up, you can always create a pause in the game by calling them to you. I used "Time Out" when the little white one was a puppy to teach them to step away from each other and come to me during play. This was easy when he was a puppy because I could say "Time Out" and then just pick him up out of the play session and gently restrain him until he calmed down and then let him back to play again. You can shake a container with treats in it instead of picking up one of the dogs - this is actually the better choice anyway. I'd say "Time Out" and then shake the container with treats. When they both come to you, ask for a Sit if they know that command. When they are calm - when their body's are not vibrating with energy - you can pop them each one treat and let them start playing again.
PRO TIP: You might need to do another Time Out immediately if they jump back in at the same energy level. However, if they go back to the game and the energy level is lower, then you can allow them to continue playing.
PRO TIP: We don't want to over feed the dogs, so you can retain a portion of their daily ration of food and use individual kibbles or bites of whatever you feed them for this purpose. That way their overall calorie intake for the day is the same - they're just getting some of those calories as reward for interrupting their game rather than for free in a bowl...
I hope this proves helpful. Please feel free to followup if I Can be of further assistance. If your dog's behavior is vastly different than that in my video, if you're able to capture a bit of their play session on video (your smart phone perhaps), you could upload it as a private video on YouTube and send me the link. Then I could evaluate it and let you know if there is cause for concern.
Jody, CPDT-KA, APDT
Los Angeles Behavior Specialist