Is Your Dog a Bully? Appropriate Play Behavior


Much like toddlers, dogs left to their own devices can turn things into a Lord of the Flies situation. I always supervise play especially with strange dogs. Does your dog play nicely? Or are they a bully? Dogs that play appropriately will take turns, have relaxed body language, self-handicap if need be, take little breaks and engage in consensual play.

Dog Play Behavior

Taking Turns

Are the dogs taking turns playing different roles? Are they switching between chasing and being chased and pouncing and being pounced upon? Is it a give and take situation?

Relaxed Body Language

Dogs who are playing appropriately have relaxed body language. Lots of light, bouncy movements and posture. Relaxed faces and ears. Play bows. Big open grins. Or in Mr. N’s case, blowing a raspberry!


Healthy play requires the stronger/faster/bigger dog to deliberately match the level of play of their play partner and tone down their speed and strength. Mr. N has a couple of big dog friends who will go into a down position and wrestle with him that way while he scrambles over them and plays bitey face. As odd as it may seem for Mr. N to be the “big dog,” he is slightly bigger and stronger than the puppies he is playing with and he will let them win wrestling bouts.

Are the dogs regulating themselves by taking frequent little breaks in between play? If the dogs are getting too excited and not stopping, you might have to impose a play break.
More, More!
Probably one of the best ways to distinguish if your dog is being a bully or not is calling your dog to you and restraining them and watching their playmate’s reaction. Are they following your dog and eager for more play? Or are they ignoring your dog or moving away? If the latter, time to call it quits. Mr. N has been trampled and rolled over and he will still dash back into the fray to play.
Stop Play Now
If one of the dogs is trying to end play by running away, hiding behind objects or people, yelping, or snapping or otherwise showing discomfort, the dogs should be separated. Stiff body language, slower and tense body movements, growling and staring are also indicators that play should stop and an interruption is called for.
Does your dog exhibit appropriate play behavior?




40 Responses

  1. Erin Amanda

    April 8, 2016 1:47 pm

    Oooh, this is a good topic. When you have a multiple pet household, it can be hard to tell if we're happy and playful or upset and stressed. This would make a good topic for cats, too!

  2. Robbi Hess

    April 8, 2016 2:34 pm

    This is great advice. I have never had two similar-sized dogs in the house. Henrietta weighs 7 pounds and Spenser weighed 125! We are getting a puppy so there will be play between him and Henrietta so this is a great resource!

    • Tenacious Little Terrier

      April 8, 2016 8:54 pm

      That's a big weight difference! Mr. N will play with the big black dog in one of the photos who is 70-something pounds. I believe dogs of vastly different sizes can play nicely together but it should be closely supervised and both dogs need to be well-socialized!

  3. Beth

    April 8, 2016 4:44 pm

    Great information! Barley does not know how to play nicely with other dogs, but she does do this with her kitty brother–she regularly play bows with him and rolls around on the floor to be on his level. Of course, 99% of the time Soth swats her and then walks away, but she tries to play nicely with him 🙂

  4. Pamela

    April 8, 2016 5:31 pm

    Excellent description of good play manners.

    Honey loves playing with spirited little dogs. She'll often lie down like Mr. N's buddies and let them crawl all over her.

    But when she was a puppy, she used to yelp when playing with older dogs. When we tried to hold her back or take her away, she gave every indication she wanted to keep playing.

    We learned that her yelp was more of a girly teasing kind of noise. Or maybe that she wanted a brief break but didn't want to end the game.

  5. To Dog With Love

    April 8, 2016 6:55 pm

    Great post! We have Rocco's pals over every now and then, and I always supervise their play. Rocco likes to play, but after a while he's looking for a quiet place to go rest on his own.

  6. Diane Holland

    April 8, 2016 11:36 pm

    What a great post! I know with our 7 pups, sometimes they play so rough it is hard to tell if they are 'playing' or trying to 'fight'. With a little watching, I can see the point that you have made!

  7. Cathy Armato

    April 10, 2016 3:15 am

    What a great post, it really gets me thinking about how my two dogs play together. I thought my Husky was a bit of a bully with my little one, but maybe not so much.
    Love & Biscuits,
    Dogs Luv Us and We Luv Them

  8. Three Chatty Cats

    April 10, 2016 2:38 pm

    Very good info here! My dog does not play well with other dogs. He much prefers humans to other dogs, so we can't take him to dog parks. We've only found one dog that he likes enough to play with.

  9. The Daily Pip

    April 10, 2016 4:06 pm

    Ruby is a little fearful of other dogs so we are very cautious when around other dogs. We also had an experience last year where a larger dog jumped on her and broke her toe. The dog was friendly, but didn't realize he was much larger and he was also off leash.

  10. Hannah

    April 11, 2016 12:37 am

    Really nice write-up! Lilo actually has a nice play style once she gets started and handicaps herself well, but her initial body language betrays the reactivity: lots of stiffness and staring. She's improving, though! I don't know Titus well enough yet to say.

  11. Katie A.

    April 11, 2016 2:53 am

    Great post. Gracie loves to play with other dogs. She is really great with young dogs and puppies as well. However she is a more dominant dog and can be intimidating at times. She approaches other dogs confidentiality with her ears alert and tail curled up, but wagging. She will bow or tap the other dog with her paw to intiate play. She is a sweet girl and not aggressive at all, but I think she has worried people with her confident approach to other dogs. Of course, she leaves dogs who seems skittish or afraid alone.

  12. maryehaight

    April 11, 2016 8:09 am

    Great subject, well done!! Some of those photos, you can't tell how many dogs are piling on, and there's one that looks like a ball of fur (I think it's two dogs, but hard to tell where one begins and the other ends).

    We recently had to discontinue playdates for Kiki with a bull terrier mix – he was getting increasingly aggressive. Pity, but good we caught it early. Kiki wants desperately to play with Tashi and knows she is too big and rambunctious for my little old man, but she tries to engage him to no result. She knocked him over with her waggy tail and because he can't see well anymore, or hear much, he tries to stay out of her way. Poor guy, he can't move quickly at all only because his back leg is giving him trouble and slips out from underneath him 🙁 I never leave them alone and usually have him scooped up on the chair or sofa.

    • Tenacious Little Terrier

      April 11, 2016 8:12 am

      Thanks! There's one with four dogs and yes, it is two dogs in the ball of fur. Finding compatible playmates is important and it can be hard sometimes. Mr. N is not picky about size but he does not like playing with big dogs that play rough.

  13. Groovy Goldendoodles

    April 20, 2016 8:42 pm

    Yes, they do. I don't go to dog parks so the majority of their play is with each other. They do have friends come over to play and they're all pretty much the same size, so they will play for hours off and on. Great tips – especially for those who are new to socializing their pups.


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