Play fighting is an essential part of early canine development. Mock brawls are an instinctual urge in puppies. It helps them learn to control the strength of their bite and how to socialize with other dogs. However, you may need to intervene if the playing gets too rough or aggressive.
Play Fighting Basics
In general, you shouldn't discourage puppies from play fighting. It's a completely normal and desirable behavior in young dogs up to several months of age. Puppies brawl with their littermates, mother and friendly adult dogs to develop their skills, bodily coordination and strength control. When the puppy bites too hard, the other participant may yelp and stop playing momentarily. The lapse in play is undesirable to the biting puppy, who learns not to repeat this behavior if he wants to continue to have fun in the future. Not all puppies learn this concept quickly, though.
Signs of Pain
The occasional yelp or squeak during a play fight is standard, but pay attention to your puppies' interactions if you start hearing a lot of "pain sounds" from the play area. It's easy for the biggest of the litter to accidentally hurt the runts, and a nip on the ear is enough to send any puppy crying to the corner. Your puppy's behavior is problematic if he pursues his littermates and continues to bite or brawl after they vocalize their pain, flip over in surrender or flee from him. Don't let your pup consistently bully his brothers and sisters.
Discourage Rough Play
When your puppy bites you or another puppy too hard, put him in a large box or shut him away in isolation for a minute or two. This associates excessively rough play with an undesirable outcome, which helps him develop better habits. Allow your pups to play fight until they are about 4 months old. If they are still treating each other roughly, try to redirect their aggression by offering them toys when they start to bite at each other. Never use your hands when playing with your dog. Instead, hold a rope toy by one end and allow him to tug on the other.
Identifying Aggressive Behavior
If your efforts to discourage your pup from inflicting pain aren't successful, consider contacting a canine behavioral specialist or dog trainer. You should definitely get professional assistance if one of your dogs displays true aggression, which may emerge during a conflict over toys, food or attention. If one of your pups is blatantly hostile or fearful, his bad behavior could continue to get worse and make him an unsuitable domestic companion later in life. Common signs of aggression include baring teeth, deep guttural growls and unprovoked biting. Bites to the neck, face and stomach are not OK for play fighting. These attacks are meant to debilitate or kill, so discipline your pups with a time-out penalty if they bite each other in these areas.