Do you play fight with your dog?

One of the ways I play with my Lab mix Ace is to “wrestle” or “roughhouse” with him.

I get down on my hands and knees and growl at Ace, often grabbing at his legs or shoving him away. He comes charging back for more, play growling and bowing. Tail wagging.

We do this every day.

I know this is not the wisest way to interact with a dog, but I’m being honest here, and this is one of the ways I’ve always played with my dogs.

I think I learned it from my dad, although the majority of the male dog lovers I know also play fight with their dogs.

The dogs love it!

But other than myself, I don’t know any women who “wrestle” with their dogs. Do you?

Do you play fight with your dog

And while my dog seems to think this type of play is “oh so much fun!” there are obvious risks involved, and smart trainers know to warn their clients against “roughhousing” with dogs. (2018 update: My dog Ace has passed away.)

Here’s why:

1. Play fighting in dogs leads to high excitement levels.

2. High excitement levels in dogs can lead to fights.

Most of us have seen this occur. You’ve probably been at the dog park when two dogs start out running and chasing, maybe wrestling and barking a bit. And then all of the sudden the “play” escalates to an actual fight, and the dogs need to be separated.

These same dogs will often go back to being friends seconds later, even though they seemed to hate each other moments before.

This is why people need to be extra careful when “play fighting” with dogs. It can get out of hand easily and quickly. (And guess who’s going to get hurt?)

This is why I do not play fight with my 1-year-old weimaraner Remy. He simply gets way too excited and ends up biting too hard. (Josh still wrestles with him though … typical man?)

What about tug of war?

Even non-wresting games like tug or fetch can lead to high excitement levels in dogs.

While tug is nothing to worry about for gentle dogs like my friend Roxy (pictured), some dogs really get serious about tug of war.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve had my hands accidentally nipped a few times while playing tug. I’ve also seen dogs break into serious fights over rope toys, even though it all started out as play.

Playing fetch is another example, not because it leads to aggression but because it gets some dogs so hyped up that they can’t quit. Ace is very much this way, and being obsessed over a ball not a healthy state of mind.

For this reason, it’s always important to set limits no matter what type of “game” or “work” the dog is doing.

I recommend making the dog take a break from intense play every couple of minutes. Some dogs won’t settle down on their own, and that’s when problems occur. If it’s not a nip or a fight, it’s obsessive behavior or just remaining in a hyper state of mind.

Roxy the shepherd loves to play tug

If you insist on play fighting with your dog, here are my suggestions:

1. Know that play fighting is risky.

I do not recommend play fighting with your dog, but I know people will do it anyway (as I do).

For obvious reasons, you should never roughhouse with anyone else’s dog. The dog may not know you very well, and this could scare, hurt or threaten the dog.

2. Do not play fight with a dog that is overly dominant.

I know “dominant” is a naughty word in the dog world, but I don’t know what other word to use.

You know what I mean. If your dog is always seeking “status,” or trying to push his limits with you, then you’re probably better off avoiding wrestling games with your dog. Tug of war may not be a good choice either.

3. Pause the game often so excitement doesn’t escalate.

If you’re roughhousing with your dog, make sure to be aware of his arousal levels and to pause every minute or so to help him settle. This is a good time to practice and reward a sit or a down command. You want your dog to be able to calm down and obey you, even in “exciting” scenarios such as intense play.

You should also end the game by asking your dog to sit or lie down for a minute or so and then reward the calm behavior.

4. Keep intense play sessions short.

Just five minutes or so is enough for most dogs, no matter what the game is – disc dog, agility, tug, fetch, wrestling, etc.

If your dog is extra hyped up, panting heavily and starting to get a bit obsessive or wild, it’s a good time to work on a more calming exercise like “down” and then end the play session or take a break.

5. If you play tug or fetch with your dog, teach him “drop.”

All dogs should learn to obey the “drop” command, even during an intense session of tug.

Also practice saying “ouch!” if your dog’s teeth even so much as gently touch your skin. The dog should learn to drop the toy instantly when you say “ouch.” I recommend you turn around and ignore your dog for about a minute afterwards so he learns the fun ends if his teeth touch you.

OK, what are your thoughts. Do you wrestle with your dogs like I do?

Let me know your opinion on all of this! I’m curious if there are other women out there who “fight” with their dogs.

*For obvious reasons, most trainers are against roughhousing with dogs, and I think we should all consider that advice. I’m lucky to have a seriously laid-back, submissive, polite dog, so I probably take his gentleness for granted.

51 thoughts on “Do you play fight with your dog?”

  1. We do some play fighting, wrestling with Mom in the living room but then it gets out of hand and she says take it outside and off we go without her and continue the fun with just us dogs.

  2. I’ve never been into that type of play with my dogs. That being said, I think it totally depends on the dog & level of training, on whether it’s a god idea or not. I had a neighbor whose dog was SO nippy and mouthy. But he spent the whole day in a crate, the owner would come home, play fight with him for a while & then ignore him again. Then he’d get mad when the dog would nip him & everyone else. Duh. At one point he admitted that he created it.

    Norman, I don’t think would not get them game. I imagine he would just stand there wagging his tail, confused & lick your face if you growled at him.

    Kaya though, I think would really like it if it was a thing in your life but she is so excitable, I’ve always tried to tone down her interactions with me & others. I recently caught my roommate playing with her like that and I felt bad but I had to tell him to cool it. No wonder she acts like she’s shot out of a cannon whenever he comes home! The next thing you know, she is nudging him constantly & he can’t get her to relax around him. She obviously doesn’t have a very good off switch so I try to have people be as calm as possible with her around the house.

    1. Lindsay Stordahl

      I know what you mean about Kaya, because that’s how Ace can get around a ball. He’s not quite so hyped up when playing tug or other games, but with fetch he loses it and doesn’t have an off switch.

    2. PLACE command is a great training tool for creating an OFF switch, and teaching a dog to learn to be calm. I use a dog cot to train it. Lots of videos on You Tube on how to. Start with just a few minutes, my ACD is up to hours now. Always supervised, any time I am on the computer, watching TV, doing dishes, he is on PLACE or his treadmill. Really helps high drive dogs, and great when company comes over! 🙂

  3. I wrestle with our dogs and play tug of war. We don’t have fights – the dogs seem to understand that we have to take turns. Even when we’re rolling on the floor, the dogs never get in each other’s way – they play really well together that I’ve never worried about them fighting. Thanks for this post. It’s something good to know as we add more dogs to our family.

  4. Baxter’s not always in the mood to wrestle, but if he is my husband and I will both wrestle with him. I have absolutely no concerns doing so. Baxter will sometimes get mouthy when wrestling, but he’ll never close his mouth at all. He’ll just use his mouth as part of the game the same way we use our hands. I think it’s impressive how he knows to be gentle, given how strong his bite is and we’ve seen him tear apart sticks and bones. Our trainer was actually very in favour of wrestling because she thought it was a natural part of dog play and it was important for dogs to learn to manage themselves when playing with humans and others.

  5. Yes, I do wrestle with Haley and I also learned this from my dad, lol. She loves it and can get pretty wound up sometimes, but will immediately change moods and relax if we tell her to take a break. I think it does depend on the breed, temperament and personality of the dog as to whether it’s a good idea or not. Ace and Haley sounds so much alike, very polite and submissive.

  6. I wrestle with Jack a little bit…although I will say his size intimidates me a bit. I wrestled with Sally and Tino all the time. Like you said, it’s fun and the dog loves it. Done thoughtfully I don’t think it creates aggression

  7. Larry likes to wrestle. At 25lbs, he’s pretty easy to handle, but we don’t, in fact. let our daughter wrestle with him. We don’t want him to think it’s okay to wrestle (and especially be mouthy) with other kids. And when we wrestle with him, it does only last a couple of minutes.
    The other thing we’ve noticed is that he has a ball he is obsessed with. It’s a squeaky tennis ball. He uses it to help calm himself in the car. That ball absolutely can NOT come into the dog park with him. He is way to possessive of it and will start something if another dog comes near it. But regular tennis balls are just fine.

    1. Lindsay Stordahl

      That’s interesting about Larry and that one tennis ball. Who knows what they are thinking/reacting to sometimes.

  8. Lindsay, you always have such informative and thoughtful posts! Yes, I wrestle with my dogs. Maya can be a little more excitable and rowdy than Pierson. Mostly it is when she jumps up on me. I inevitably get scratched somewhere or sometimes even knocked over. She’s accidentally bitten me in tug of war too. Pierson, on the other hand, is much more gentle in wrestling and tug of war. Him and I can wrestle and play longer because of it. I agree that you need to be careful when playing certain games like wrestling and tug of war with your dogs. Believe it or not, despite all the dogs I’ve had in my life, I’ve never had problems with wrestling. I have, however, had problems with tug of war. At least two dogs in my life were very toy possessive. Playing tug of war with them would not have been smart.

  9. Hey Lindsay,

    I used to love roughhousing with my dog, although usually just gently pushing around his head and lightly slapping him. Haha, that sounds weird out loud, but he loved it.

    I remember when we first got him though, I was pretty young and tried to play tackle him. He snapped at me and really scared me. Then he felt so bad and wouldn’t stop licking where he nipped me. Only time he ever nipped at me, but that certainly shows the dangers of playing too roughly with a dog who is still not 100% comfortable with you.

    We also used to have the best game where I’d run all around the house and he would chase me until I could whip around kitchen island counter and hide. Then he would stay back and bark at me until I came around the corner again. He was so smart and such a good play partner. It’s funny how dogs can really get the hang of games we might designate to kids 😉

  10. Lindsay – what an interesting post!

    I just stumbled across this blog because I was looking for information on lab mixes. Max joined our family via our youngest sibling after my brother and I were out on our own (this was about ten years ago) and he just recently became “MY” dog. My fiance and I took him in when my parent’s health started failing, and I am appalled at myself for not realizing YEARS ago what a treat Max is, and what a joy it is to be a ‘dog mom’.

    In answer to your question – YES. I do wrestle with Max, and yes – also learned it from my Dad. I would get upset at him -‘him’ being the dad, not the dog. “Dad, leave him alone, listen to him, he’s growling!” To which the response was always, “Nah, he loves it.”

    I didn’t fully realize how true that was until he came to live with us, and yes – have totally embraced the wrestling. The fiance “doesn’t know how to play-fight” – so when I get home, after greeting me he’ll go straight to living room, grab a toy and lay with in between his front paws while his chest is on the ground and the butt is waggling in the air. Should I choose to accept his challenge, he’ll start a low rumble-y growl (that I now recognize as playful rather than angry) the second I start moving in his direction.

    Unless he’s frowning, and his nose is scrunched up. Then he’s had enough, and is starting to get crabby lol

    Sorry for the ramble, and thanks for your article! After writing this response, I’ve realized that I agree that avoiding wrestling with other people’s pets is probably smart (and feel terrible for semi-encouraging friends to rough house).

    Thanks again!
    -Andrea

    1. Lindsay Stordahl

      Such interesting points! Thanks, Andrea! Yes, I think it’s best never to “wrestle” with other people’s dogs. I play fight with Ace all the time, but I don’t like when other people attempt it because I don’t want him to accidentally bite their fingers during his crazy tug sessions. If he bites me, well, that’s my own fault!

  11. I play fight with my terrier everyday 🙂 he loves it and it always ends in him on his back with his tail wagging for belly rubs 😀 he is a very submissive dog though and never gets aggressive though can get overly hyped 😀

  12. I don’t rough house with the puppies they get excited enough on their own. I try to keep them as balanced as possible, but on the other hand Raven and Linus will do their best to reverse that and love rough housing with the puppies.

    1. Lindsay Stordahl

      I’m not rough housing or playing tug with Remy at all. Well, I’m trying anyway! As you said, it gets him way too excited. We also might train him as a hunting dog so figured playing tug would not be a good idea for now anyway. I play tug with Ace though. We just won’t play around Remy. If Remy ends up being as “soft” of a dog as Ace I’ll probably play rough with him later on. But I can already tell he’s much more “dominant” or shall we say impressed with himself.

  13. I’ve definitely added more tug to Laika’s play routine over the past few years. When she was young it was way too easy to get her overly excited, and not to mention we needed to get her puppy biting & impulse control in line before playing games that might encourage more mouthiness. Like you said all dogs are different, and sometimes getting a dog overly excited leads to unintended consequences.

  14. I’m not the one to wrestle w/Sade-Mae..lol. I only outweigh her by 8 – 10 lbs (yes, I am a tall, thin person..by genetics) so our 100lb Belgin shepard/retrivier mix could get over me quickly! I’ll play tug..limited..she knows the STOP command and follows it well!. My husband..he’s another story..lol..Sade-Mae has much more Shepard traits esp territorial ect but he takes her to the brink at times..he’s learning to listen to me now that he’s learned although he is a big man (no, not fat..lol..but in stature..he is getting that 50 yr old man belly though!!) She has gotten almost too much for him! Although she lost about 8lbs since her amputation surgery, she still is all muscle..he has to understand that..I think he does now 😉

  15. We wrestle with our dog, but it’s definitely something that came naturally to my husband and something I had to learn to do! My husband and dog roughhouse everyday, and Ranger LOVES it. He brings out all of his special “voices” during wrestle time. We play tug of war everyday too, and it gets pretty rough, but Ranger is very gentle. I would not play that way with a dog who does not know me well. It’s really easy to get hurt!

  16. I have heard that playing eg tug of war games is just playing for the sake of it. If I watch our 2 – one is really serious, eyes shut tight, really wants the toy, but our shepherd – well, you can see he’s just playing, especially if he does it with a human, he’s happy to stand and hold the toy without tugging on it hardly. It is as I’ve heard, that all important (social) interaction

  17. I’m a mom to two pit mixes and we play fight daily. If they get overly excited I’ll put a stop to it but I don’t encourage anyone else to play with them in this manner.

  18. I have an 8 year old german shorthair pointer. I did not play tug with him until he was about 1 1/2 or 2. He had much better restraint then and he was taught that as rowdy as the tug game got when I say GIVE he is to instantly release. After a bit of rest, and as a reward for the GIVE… the game would resume! Same for wrestling. He doesn’t get to initiate, but if I get down on hands and knees, he knows it’s on! He is a loud player so anyone watching would maybe be scared, but he is gentle in his rowdiness and knows TAKE A BREAK. As young puppies, GSPs and Weims are too excitable to play these kinds of games, but the time should come when you can. 🙂

  19. I play fight and play tug with my 6 month old shepherd mix. She loves it and is good about calming down when I call it quits. Thanks for the reassurances that I’m not doing it wrong!

  20. Hi there! I have two submissive mastiff females. One of them likes for me to ‘bite’ her neck (with my hands, gently) and she will slow motion ‘bite’ in my general direction. All of this while laying in a submissive position on the ground. My other female loves to ‘push’. She will charge and I will shove her and grab her jowls. Both dogs have a great time with our play, but they also give up so I have to ‘run away’ to prompt them to continue. It is a great confidence builder with pups that don’t usually play ‘rough’.

  21. I rough house with my mini Aussie all the time but limit it to a few minutes. I do the same with ballfetch, I have to limit it to 5 minutes in the hot weather then get her back inside the ac for a cool drink. She would fetch all day if I let her, at first I throw long fetches then ease up and throw short ones before I bring her in. When roughhousing I let her mouth my hand and she knows not to bite hard, but if she gets a little too hard I correct her and she goes easy again. She’s an Aussie, she’s the smartest dog I have ever had.

  22. Yes, I play wrestle with my Terrier Mix, Lolly. She loves it! Always on the bed, and if it gets too rough, I say “Don’t bite the mommy” and she backs off right away.

  23. I absolutely do play fight with my dog! With my older girl, I couldn’t just play fight because she wasn’t interested in wrestling (with me OR with other dogs). But she LOVES tug and so our games of tug could get kind of rough. I’d shove her around, reach in and open her mouth up to grab the toy, let her jump for it. The more I shoved her around, the more amped up she got. BUT…this was an exceedingly mellow dog and so “amped up” for her was pretty much not what it was for other dogs. It really helped her in agility!

    I definitely play fight with my younger dog. Ben LOVES it. He’s not huge into tug, but he loves for me to get down on my hands and knees and play bow with him and then wrestled, chase him, etc. It’s all great fun to him and while yes he can get kind of amped up, he’s also a dog who self-regulates REALLY well. He always has breaks when playing with other dogs, stopping, laying down, and then suddenly play bowing and off he goes again. He seems to use the same with me. AND it’s also really helpful in agilty as her loves to play iwth just ME, no toys or treats needed, so when I go out there for a trial, he can get all happy and focused and play with me when I’m not allowed to have another reward.

    Now he HAS accidentally bitten me before, usually while leaping for a toy and missing (once biting my boob, which was SUPER fun! P.S. Don’t train in pajamas!). But that’s an accident and it doesn’t bother me. As he’s gotten older this has happened less and less. The last time it was just a complete collision. He leapt as I moved forward and his open mouth collided with my hand. It’s no biggie to me. Things happen!

  24. Yes, I play wrestle with my rottweiler because he loves and it is a rish, but I stop when I undestand He is high excited.
    He knows the comand “aus”. Good boy

  25. I love wrestling with my AmStaff- boxer girl & she totally enjoys it too. My brother does it too (he doesn’t live with me and sees my pup occasionally). Completely agree, I need to be aware of her excitement, other than that- know the dog, trust your instincts and have fun.

  26. My yellow lab is a ball junkie for sure. I have to limit the amount of play she gets with the ball. We both love tuggies and she is good when it comes to stopping play. The ball is a whole other thing. I leave the ball at home for most of our walks because she`s too crazy when its around.

  27. I personally play fight with my dog close to everyday as well. I used to feel that her being the only dog this was a way to get her used to play fighting but its backfired a little becuase now she thinks every human wants to play fight. Im starting to teach her that it is only okay with me and in one part of the house so she doesn’t expect it from everyone but we are adjusting. I love play fighting with her. Its fun for me and once she accidently nips me and I say “Ow” she knows to back off.

  28. I know a lot of people like to play with their dogs like this, tug of war, pulling toys, etc. however, my dental specialist, who started the dental program at a very well known vet school, said no!. it is very bad on your dog’s teeth and gums. it loosens the teeth and can cause major problems. he is against all hard chews that you cant make a dent in it with your fingernail as well. my other vet, said when the deer antlers became all the rage, she got so many calls abt dog with broken teeth, she could not keep up with them. with my girls we just play fetch with soft toys or play touch the paw, they touch my hands, and I touch their paws, they get excited run off and come back to play more.

  29. Thor is a 12 week old labrador retriever. I do a little light play wrestling (no growling or ‘intensity’). He has a wubba toy that we tug around with while I’m on my hands/knees…i’ll butt my head against his neck and push a little. Thor will growl a little but he doesn’t go for my hands at all when we’re doing this and i feel safe nudging him with my head during this time. He does however started to go for our hands/arms at times. Its usually towards the end of the day and I think he is just tired but at some point if we try to pet his head he will motion with an open mouth towards our hand/arm…and also when he comes in for a walk and we are trying to clean his feet…omg…major nip-fest at that time. After reading this I’m wondering if I should stop play wrestle/tugging with him. I have tried to distract him with a toy when coming in from a walk so we can clean his feet a bit. Open to any suggestions

    1. I would say since the pup is growling and nipping I wouldn’t wrestle with him. This could lead to problems when he gets bigger and stronger and thinks it is still okay.
      At your pups age I would start training him to sit, and down. ( My black Lab graduated level one obedience at the top of her class, at 4 months old- never too soon to start training) Work up to stay during sit /down. This can all be taught with food and luring the dog into position. I use their regular food for training, not free feeding. They get distracted easily, and have short attention spans as pups, so I would use what is left of their meal to put in a Kong rubber toy, or other interactive toy- when your pup comes in and you need to clean his feet ( I would use collar and leash unless he is willing to stay right there with the toy) give him the toy -he should be so pre occupied by trying to get the food out he will stay still. Once you are done with his feet pick up the toy, it can be used later when you need him to settle down a bit. 🙂

    2. Lindsay Stordahl

      I’d probably still play rough since that’s my personality but is keep it to just 90 seconds or so and then do something calming like reward for sit.

      I have taught my dog Remy that he gets a treat if he let’s me dry his feet or trim his nails, maybe you could work on something similar. I started out by giving a treat after a second of calm behavior and slowly increased my expectations.

      Do be careful with your face so close to your pup’s face while you’re playing, as you know puppies are quite careless with those teeth.

  30. No, I don’t wrestle with my Australian Cattle Dog. I do play tug tho, with a “Chase ‘n Tug” lure toy- which gives me many opportunities to proof his “out” (drop) command. Once he learned what the word meant I was able to use low level (Mini Educator) stimulation to enforce that he does “out” even in high drive, the first time, every single time. Now we play without any collar on him, muscle memory is a great thing! 🙂 Reinforcing the “out” command can also be done by immediately using a release word, I use “break” so he gets to play more. He likes to tug, but REALLY loves to chase the lure, so this encourages him to release when asked. When I want the game to end I let him chase it ,and he misses the lure then I stop. Stopping before he gets bored creates drive, and keeps him interested.

    If I have a dog who moves up on a tug toy I am holding I will move up the tug first with my hand and lightly pinch the loose skin on the dogs mouth- just as another dog would to claim the toy. Not to be done with aggressive/assertive dogs, but I would NOT recommend playing tug with an aggressive/assertive dog in the first place. 🙂

  31. Yes I tug with my dogs, I ask where is tug? They get it and we play. I own the tug I tell them to get it, give or drop, play more or I say all done. Sometimes we tug, then I’ll say where is ball? They run and find that toy, or ring which is fun because it rolls wobbly. Anyway no problems, I have caught a fang in the back of my hand but that was my fault.

  32. With the dogs that have been in our lives, I have learned they all are not the wrestling or tug of war types, some of them ok others I realized they were the ones gaining control and wasn’t fun. Our Lily, our newest addition, is now two and we can do the tug of war and be fun, except I have to be aware of placement of toy and hand as she is part border collie and does get carried away with the nip. So I don’t encourage the game with people who aren’t aware of her habit, my younger grandchildren for example. Wrestling she gets too keyed up and don’t do that very often, she has gradually gotten easier to calm down by using the word enough and done in a calm voice. We had all our kids and grandkids for xmas with two extra dogs and believe me our house was full. Skeena who is 8 1/2 got along well with our past dog Tatsa and Zoey, but now we have Lily whom they see each other two or three times a year have worked out their relationship and this year we introduce Layla who is smaller than the other two but also two and also thinks she is a big dog. Skeena is a shepherd/rott/doberman mix, Lily is border collie/newfoundland mix (fortunately her size is more on border collie) and Layla is a DAUG, cross between Dachshund/PUG. Long story short, Lily in her excitement in having friends would get carried away and I discovered quite accidentally that one time out of a bit of frustration when she wouldn’t leave Layla’s behind alone, I just said ENough and I’ll be darned if she immediately sat. It gave Layla time to breath and by the second day the two of them did a nightly routine of their own wrestle after their evening walk. Layla would even stand on Lily’s body (Lily would be lying down) while they nipped away at each other and became good buddies. Skeena simply would walk by them give a growl and a bark pick up an ignored toy and go back to her bed. It was a great learning experience for all of us, being relaxed and observing them and seeing how they worked it all out with only a couple of incidents which required intervention but no harm done and even the two cats by the end of the week were starting to come out of their various safe places. So enjoy your little opportunities to share.

  33. I did this a number of years ago, wrestling on the floor with my Irish setter. The result was a corneal scratch on Thanksgiving morning, leaving me barely unable to keep up with the tasks to prepare for family traveling for the afternoon meal. My eye was so painful that both eyes were watering like crazy. when I saw my Dr., he said it was the worst corneal scratch he’d ever seen. Fortunately it healed, but with a small scar & some astigmatism.

  34. Hey, hey anxious puppy Rudra here, no wrestling for me! My lady owner would love it and did with her first dog but I just can’t handle it. I start screaming and high pitch barking because it is so very exiting, I hop I bite and I can’t stop if my owner stops I try the cats! Fetch is a different thing I m a herding dog I love to fetch outside and after a couple throws ( of a ball) I “herd” it back I do this with my nose , push it in front of me , it takes a while and makes me tired , my owner loves this! Love and wet kisses Rudra the Blue Heeler

  35. Serina J Rieckman

    I do but not extremely. If tug randomly will say leave it. If wrestling, will tell them place to go settle on bed until calm down. I do think certain breeds have a harder time calming down so this teaches them how to control themselves instead of ignoring the issue

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