Watch How you Play - Rough Housing Leads to Aggression
As a behaviorist the most common dog problems are related to aggression - biting or near biting the owner or another dog in the home. The cat problems are either house soiling or biting or hissing/swatting and lunging at the owner. Often both of these situations has a common element - rough play for the animal that is aggressing.
What I mean by rough play is either the dog is jumping, body slamming, mouthing, inhibited biting on a housemate dog or to the human and it is a part of daily play. This is part of the daily ritual of how the 2 dogs act around each other or how the owner may greet the dog or encourage play. For cats, one cat who has strong predatory play will want to grab at the hands and feet of people and may be encouraged to do so by people rubbing their belly or allowing the cat to grab at a sleeve.
There are 2 ways that this kind of play increases aggression. In the case of dogs - there is a fine line between dogs equally running, jumping and playing increasing and decreasing in mouthing and body slamming. When it is play the intensity decreases for periods. When it is turning to aggression, you will see the growls, mouthing, jumping and body slamming increase. I have heard so many expressions like "chicken winging" where the one dog grabs the back lower leg of the other; "wallering" for the mouthing on the neck and head or "show down" for the face to face stare that goes into a pounce and chase. These look like fun and games but they are actually early aggression. The running and pouncing easily ramps up the excitement to where bites go deeper and then there is a fight back. Playing games that involve a dog grabbing a sleeve or people batting at the face of a dog in a keep away type game is teaching the dog to bite and grab at hands that need to reach for the head. Like a veterinarian who needs to examine a mouth or ear. Or an owner who needs to clip a leash on a collar or wipe a face.
When people rub the belly of their cat, and the cat grabs the hands or feet biting and treading in a play like manner, this same cat now learns that anyone reaching or touching the belly should be grabbed and bitten upon. This is why these cats will bite or attempt to bite and scratch to be picked up and put in a carrier, moved off a bed or other area. When they are reached for they will also tend to bat, swat or hiss at the hand often resulting in a bite.
A lot of this can be avoided by proper play. That means, for dogs have them wear a drag line on the collar so when they start to escalate you can pull them apart, praise them for leaving and tether them for a 5 minute cool down. Do not grab the collar to separate the dogs - this is when people get bitten.
For cats, stop all hand movement or touching when your cat starts to grab onto you. Get a stuffed animal and throw that on the ground or drag it around to get the cat to pounce on this. Better play manners can do a lot to reduce aggression in a home. Offering your pet a healthy outlet for the normal play behaviors that pouncing and rough housing vents is much safer and better overall than allowing them to express that on a human or a house mate.
You can find more information about proper play at our website.
- written by Dr. Sally J. Foote