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Many dog books and trainers assert that playing aggressively with your dog encourages your dog to be aggressive. In my opinion, the opposite is true! For dogs with aggressive tendencies, rough play can provide a healthy outlet so that aggressive behavior doesn’t come out in unacceptable ways.

Let’s look at a popular breed which is often bred for aggressive behavior: the Pit Bull. I work with more Pit Bulls than any other breed. They happen to be one of my favorite breeds as well. A Pit Bull that is not properly trained or is handled by an inept owner can be extremely dangerous. Pit Bulls often have a propensity for aggression; it’s part of their genetics. So do German Shepherds, Rottweilers, Doberman Pinchers, Akitas, and Mastiffs, among other breeds. If you own a dog that is of one of these breeds that doesn’t have an aggressive bone in his body, no need to post a comment. 

That’s not uncommon. I’m simply saying that somewhere along the line these breeds have protection among the characteristics that breeders were seeking as they developed the breed. Some of these breeds are more likely to be aggressive toward other animals, some toward people, and some simply don’t discriminate. Even when not bred specifically for aggression, Pit Bulls are part Terrier and more likely to be dog aggressive than other breeds if not properly trained. Despite their bad reputation, Pit Bulls are one of the most loyal, affectionate breeds out there.
Each week clients come to me with puppies saying, “I wish I could play tug of war with my puppy. He loves it, but all the books say not to because it will make him aggressive.” Those books are wrong. If your dog likes tug of war you should play with him every chance you get. Such aggressive play does make your dog respond in kind. However, if done properly, once the play session is over your dog will actually be less likely to exhibit aggression. Playing aggressively with your dog gives him a healthy and appropriate outlet for those aggressive tendencies that he might have inside of him. If you don’t provide your dog an outlet for aggression, it can build up over time and come out in other ways, such as aggression towards other dogs or people.
The nice thing about play is that when done properly, it is a controlled activity where you can set limits. If you don’t want your dog to bite you while playing, you can let him know that behavior is not allowed. The same goes for growling or jumping on you, or any other aspect of play. I personally don’t mind “play growling” and even encourage it. Now if the growl turns aggressive, then I don’t allow it. I can tell them apart. You can also (and should) stop play periodically to remind your dog that you are the one in charge, and to reinforce that he takes his direction from you. This is extremely important. Find my guidelines for playing tug here. You can watch my instructional video on how to play tug here.
For my pit bull clients I advise them to play with intensity to really get their dog engaged. You want to push your dog around, grab his skin, grab his ears, etc. Remember, you’re goal is to give your dog an outlet for pent up aggressive energy! If your dog gets this out of his system during play he will be less likely to direct it toward another dog, a cat, or person. If you can’t make it to the off leash dog park on a particular day it’s also a good way to tire your dog out. When your dog starts really getting into playing, but before he loses control, stop, say his name to get his attention, and make him drop the toy. Tell him one time and one time only to “Drop it.” You must have a leash on your dog to play this way. If he doesn’t drop it immediately, give him a correction (collar or audible). If he still doesn’t drop it then pry it out of his mouth. Be sure to praise your dog, even if you had to pry the toy out of his mouth. Next tell your dog to “Leave it” and drop the toy in front of your dog. Be sure that you don’t hold your dog back, the leash must remain loose. You can give a correction if you need to, but the leash stays loose — he has to stay back on his own.
If your dog has as part of his makeup aggressive tendencies, wouldn’t you rather choose when, where, and how that aggression comes out than to leave it up to your dog to decide? I much prefer to dictate dog behavior rather than wait to see a dog react and then respond to his behavior. Staying in charge has the additional benefit of making a dog feel happier and more secure. As I often say to clients, “We have dogs because we like to share affection with dogs. Dogs like affection, but first and foremost they need structure. They need to know who’s in control at any given time or they can’t be happy, well-adjusted dogs.”
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[…] Playing Tug-of-War with your dog illustrates this concept. Most books and trainers say that you should never play Tug with your dog because it can make your dog more aggressive. It absolutely can make your dog more aggressive! If you drag your puppy around the house all day on a rope she is going to become more aggressive. But, if you play Tug the the way I advocate, not only will your dog not become more aggressive, she will become less aggressive! It’s not whether or not you play Tug with your dog that’s important — it’s how you play Tug that matters. […]

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