National Dog Bite Prevention Week: Is Roughhousing with Your Dog an Invitation to be Bit?

According to the article titled Dog Bite Prevention on the CDC website, more than 4.5 million people are bitten by dogs each year. Among those at highest risk are children, adult males, and of course households that own dogs.

While there are many reasons why men are more likely to get bitten by dogs, I would like to talk about one reason that involves a particular pastime I indulge in, roughhousing with my dogs.

Roughhousing with my dogs is something that I’ve always done. From the time I was a kid and could lead them a merry chase, until now when I have to play the fish out of water, there are few things that draw the corners of my mouth into a wider smile. It allows my “inner child” to come out and play for a while but also reminds the “outer old man” that he can no longer indulge in this type behavior without the aid of some naproxen and a heating pad soon after.

Roughhousing with dogs, especially more than one at a time, is somewhat controversial and not without its risks. As an adult who has studied dog training and behavior I’ve learned what to look out for to stack the odds in my favor when indulging in this type of play. Notice that I use the term “stack the odds in my favor” here. Not in the sense that I want to win the game, but in the sense that even with a dog both well trained and temperamentally suited for this type play, I know I still run a risk of being bitten.

I evaluate each dog both individually and in a group to see if they are prone to getting overly excited. An overly excited dog not only runs the risk of being too rough with you, it can become a nuisance to other dogs that are playing and be targeted for corrective action by them. Additionally, no matter what age a dog is when it comes into my home, training it to have a soft mouth is one of the first things we do.

I consider myself somewhat lucky in that I have never been seriously bitten when roughhousing. Technically I am bitten every time I play like this with my dogs because their teeth do come in contact with my hands and arms and on purpose. I am careful to watch for any signs of over arousal and of course I have worked so that all my dogs have soft mouths. But all it takes is one mistake. A dog hurts itself when playing with me and lashes out at the pain; I become too involved in the fun of the moment and miss signs of over arousal; or a dog suddenly steps over the line with another dog and I become the victim of redirection.

Because I’ve studied and understand dog body language, I am less likely to suffer a serious bite when I decide to roughhouse with my dogs. But a greater risk of a serious bite is involved for the dog owner not fluent in dog body language.

Is roughhousing something you engage in with your dog(s)? Have you every roughhoused with more than one dog at a time? If you’re a trainer, have you ever had to deal with issues of roughhousing by children or adults that have led to a serious bite?

For more resources on preventing dog bites, check out these resouces…

If you have other resources you would like to see added to this very limited list please leave a comment with the link and we will add them to the main list.



8 thoughts on “National Dog Bite Prevention Week: Is Roughhousing with Your Dog an Invitation to be Bit?

  1. Kevin – I have been lucky enough to have a dog that loves to rough house, but will only do so with a soft toy in her mouth 😉 She LOVES to play, but usually only if she is the only dog involved. I would never rough house with someone’s dog unless I knew them very well. I had a dog walking business for several years and have worked with many dogs – and there are only a handful that I would rough house with 🙂

    This is a great, insightful article – Thanks! I’m going to post a link on – please feel free to post any training articles!!

    • Thanks for posting this on Julie. I would absolutely agree that roughhousing is something you should only do with a dog you know very well. And even then you need to be aware of the risks involved.

  2. I regularly rough house with my crazy golden girl. It’s the only time she will put her teeth on me, and even then she’s hesitant to do so. She has a great “off switch” which I think is important, too.

    I think it’s especially important for single dog households. Unless regulars at a dog park or having doggie visitors, they just don’t get the opportunity to be rough and tumble otherwise.

  3. I roughhouse my dogs, as well, and I’ve found very little support for the sport in the dog community.

    The thing is, my rough housing comes with special rules. Firstly, the game only starts when it is cued. Secondly, the game always stops when it is cued. Thirdly, my arms are the only target.
    To me, these rules are vital to ensure the safety in the game. I am quite willing for others to not participate in this game if they do not consider it appropriate, but it is my choice to play this game (with carefully enforced rules) and I see the risk is minimal. In fact, perhaps playing the game teaches better bite inhibition.

    I actually went a different route with my puppy, to teach her to not-mouth I taught her a cue to mouth. Ian Dunbar frequently advocate teaching opposites – to teach a dog quiet, teach it to bark. To teach a dog to get down, teach it to jump up. And though I doubt he has ever said or suggested it, I thought – why not teach a dog to not-mouth by teaching it to mouth? My puppy is still a bit young to recognise the success or otherwise of this process, but I’ll get back to you on that!

    • Tegan I absolutely agree that these types of games can lead to better bite inhibition and extremely soft mouths. As you say there need to be some definite rules set up and the game should only start when cued and stop on cue as well.

      I also love the idea of putting opposites on cue. I think it’s a great way to get behaviors that occur naturally to dogs under our control.

  4. Yes, I play a game I think of as “grab-a-paw”. On my hands and knees, I gently grab at whatever paw I can reach. He responds by jumping out of my grasp and “grabbing” (using his mouth) at my hands or wrists. He has always been gentle and stops when I stop playing.

  5. Pingback: Do Your Dogs Play Too Rough? - Dog Daze

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