Dogs, as domesticated creatures, seek playtime their entire lives. For some dogs wrestling is a favorite game. Dogs use wrestling to communicate with each other, as well as to burn off extra energy. Wrestling can be a sign of friendship or a means to move up in the pack's pecking order.
Wrestling as a Learning Tool for Puppies
Most of the play puppies engage in is a form of practice for adult dog behavior. They're learning from each other and their mothers what is and isn't acceptable doggy behavior. Wrestling teaches puppies how to interact with each other without making one another uncomfortable. A puppy who wrestles too roughly, for instance by biting too hard, will be corrected by his sibling victims when they run off or bite back. The puppy who plays too roughly learns that his unacceptable behavior causes the game to end, and the puppy who runs off or bites is practicing self-defense.
Wrestling as Play in Adult Dogs
Lots of dogs still enjoy wrestling when they're grown up. Two dogs who are evenly matched and displaying "happy" body language are engaging in healthy, normal play and should be encouraged. Dogs who are having a good time wrestling continue to engage each other, rather than one dog trying to escape the other. They take turns being in control and they chase each other to continue the play. Their faces and bodies are relaxed, showing no tension. Their tails are up or wagging, rather than hanging low or tucked between their legs.
Wrestling for Dominance
Sometimes dogs wrestle because they're trying to assert their dominance over one another. The dogs involved in a wrestling power display will show different body postures and facial expressions from dogs who are simply playing around. Their faces may show tension, and their eyes may be fixed on one another intently. A dog who's trying to dominate will pin his opponent to the ground and won't let him up to continue tussling. They might try to mount each other. Mounting and humping have little to do with reproduction and are used by dogs to assert their rank. If a dog allows himself to be mounted, he has submitted to the other dog. If the dogs bare their teeth in addition to looking tense, with their tails straight out or hanging, this is a bad sign and they should be separated before the aggression escalates.
Sometimes a "dog pile" will form if multiple dogs join in on a wrestling match. Most commonly this means that the dogs involved are trying to take one of their number down a notch. The dog who ends up the target of a dog pile is viewed as the lowest-ranking member of the pack because he has been dominated by all the others. Gang-ups can be dangerous because with more dogs involved the chance of someone getting carried away increases. If the dominated dog seems scared or anxious—running away to escape rather than to encourage chasing, tail tucked, ears back, eyes wide—break up the wrestling match right away.
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