Dog owners often find it difficult to distinguish between appropriate and inappropriate play. Many think that perfectly acceptable play behaviour is bullying because it involves growling, biting, and apparently pinning the playmate to the ground. Appropriate play can, in fact, look and sound quite ferocious. This rough play is perfectly natural and comes from the evolutionary behaviour of learning defence and hunting through play.
The difference between bullying and play is in the response of the playmate. If both dogs appear to be having a good time and no one’s getting hurt, it’s usually fine to allow the play to continue. This can be identified through learning about calming signals and canine body language. Thwarting your dog’s need to play by stopping them every time they engage another dog, even if it’s rough play, can lead to anxiousness, becoming anti-social as well as other behavioural problems.
With a bullying situation, the playmate clearly does not enjoy the interaction. The gentler dog may offer multiple appeasement and deference signals that are largely or totally ignored by the canine bully who continues the harassment, or escalates.
Any time one play partner is obviously not having a good time, it’s wise to intervene. A traumatic play experience can damage the softer dog’s confidence and potentially induce a life-long fear aggression or "Dog Reactivity" response – definitely not a good thing!
Some bullies seem to spring from the box full blown, meaning there could be a genetic element behind this type of personality. However, there can be a learned component of any bullying behaviour. The act of harassing a "non-consenting dog" is in and of itself reinforcing for bullies.
By definition, a behaviour that’s reinforced continues or increases – hence the importance of intervening with a bully at the earliest possible moment, rather than letting the behaviour become more and more ingrained through reinforcement. However, as highlighted previously intervening in rough play which is consensual can create behavioural problems in itself. Identifying this behaviour is paramount in ensuring that your dog is both safe from being or becoming a bully and that they are able to avoid the behavioural issues that can come with it.
If you have noticed this in your dog you need not give up hope. As with most behaviour modification, prognosis is brightest if the dog is young, but even older dogs can be brought around to more appropriate behaviour.