How to Tell if Dogs Are Playing or Fighting

Updated on August 6, 2016

Playmates rarely injure each other seriously

Features of a Fun Play Session

Telling apart two dogs that are playing from two dogs that are fighting may be quite challenging especially for novice dog owners. Perhaps, the main issue derives from the fact that dog play often focuses on mimicking postures and vocalizations often used in dog fights. Indeed, there are many playful acts of dominance/submission that can be incorporated into play and observed by attentive owners. The main difference, therefore, between a play session and a fight derives from its overall level of intensity. Many dogs engage in giving off "meta-signals" which denote that anything that follows is not to be taken seriously. A play bow is a great example of a meta-signal used for this purpose.

Play sessions among dogs are often dramatic, rough exhibitions of growling, running, biting and posturing. Dogs often resort to playful displays of dominant body postures such as placing a head or paw on the other dog's shoulders or even pinning him down. A good dose of prey drive then may also kick in, as the dog's chase each other or bite each other's legs as they move to run. This all takes place with excited sharp barks, growls and playful nips to neck, ears, tails, and legs.

A typical play session may be initiated by a posture known as the ''play bow''. One dog will crouch down keeping its forelimbs very low and its rump high in the air with the tail wagging in anticipation. The other dog will respond positively by running towards the dog displaying the play bow and an exciting play session takes place.

During play sessions, dogs will also engage into some misleading postures such as rolling belly up in a fake surrender or pretending to innocently sniff the ground in a fake calming signal. The play game choreography contains many features such as self-handicaps, metasignals, and purposeful pauses.

An Insight Into a Fight in Progress

As mentioned earlier, the main difference between fight and play resides in the intensity level. Play involves inhibited bites or better nips, that generally do not break the skin nor cause pain. These play bites stem back to when the dogs were puppies and learned "bite inhibition." Indeed when pups are still in the litter, they learn fast that a too-hard bite may cause a sharp yelp in their litter mate with a fast withdrawal from the game. The puppy therefore quickly learns that next time, he should be ''softer-mouthed'' in order to play.

Dogs that are removed too soon from their litter, refrain from learning this very important lesson. These young dogs may play too rough causing pain when they playfully bite their owners or other dogs. However, they can be quickly taught that this is not acceptable behavior by using the same method its litter mates should have used: a sharp "ouch" followed by an abrupt "game over." The dog will quickly learn its lesson.

A dog fight often causes significant pain and the bites will break the skin and often draw blood. These fights are often challenging to break apart, with a high risk for re-directed aggression towards the people trying to separate them. Learn the proper way to stop dogs from fighting.

Vocalizations are much more intense, there may be deep growling accompanied by snarling and teeth showing. Hackles (the hair on the dog's neck and shoulder) may be raised. Yelps of pain may be sharp, even though some dogs may be so into the fight that they may not show pain even though the injuries are evident.

While the difference between a play session and a fight may be easy to recognize with some knowledge about canine body language, one must always consider that sometimes even a play session may escalate in intensity and develop into a full flight. Any escalation in a play session should be therefore interrupted safely by distracting the dogs before it is too late.

Dog parks are notorious places for dog fights to take place and this often is attributed to the fact that dog owners are often too distracted in talking to other dog owners or reading a book than paying attention to their dog's interaction with other dogs. Dogs may give many dog stress signals before getting into a fight. Often, dog parks also feature dogs with poor manners, rude behaviors and little social skills which may create the ideal grounds for a fight to occur. Often, dog owners will point their finger to the ''bully breeds'' when they are totally unaware that their ''friendly Labrador'' was the one that really provoked and initiated everything. A careful eye on a dog's behaviors and its interactions with other dogs is, therefore, a must. One second of distraction may turn a playful game into a bloody mess.

Questions & Answers


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      • alexadry profile image

        Adrienne Janet Farricelli 3 years ago from USA

        What breed are these puppies? terriers, dachshunds, livestock guardian dogs? I have heard this happening sometimes in some breeds.Is this the first time mother dog gives birth? how old is she? It sure sounds very concerning if they're actually hurting the pup to the point of limping! I wonder if there could be something medically wrong with the pups they are picking on?

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        Sherry 3 years ago

        My 9 week old puppies and their parents have started picking 1 out and all biting it between legs at same time until puppy is limping .the 1st one had to go to vet for deep bites that quickly got infected. Now they picked another one. Stopped them before they could hurt him as badly.this is not playing. Why are they doing it ?

      • Suhail and my dog profile image

        Suhail Zubaid aka Clark Kent 6 years ago from Mississauga, ON

        Last weekend at a local dog park, my 5-1/2 months old Kuvasz puppy was playing with a 6 months old. The latter puppy lost its cool at his inability to catch our boy while running and because of the size disadvantage. He was apparently growling, barking and attacking my boy. Everyone thought that the other puppy was being aggressive and on an attack mode. However, our boy continued playing as if nothing happened. Probably because of his height and weight advantage, he never took the attack seriously. On the other hand, all of us humans could have been mistaken to read other puppy's growling and barking as attack drive.

        What would you say happened?

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        Martin V 8 years ago

        great hub!

      • Darlene Sabella profile image

        Darlene Sabella 8 years ago from Hello, my name is Toast and Jam, I live in the forest with my dog named Sam ...

        Thank you for this insightful article. I have only one dog and a cat, but sometimes the cat hurts the dog and really didn't mean to. Thank you for your wise advice.

      • Sally's Trove profile image

        Sherri 8 years ago from Southeastern Pennsylvania

        Another excellent canine Hub.

        I'm a novice dog owner, having my first dog for only three years now. She tends to be submissive. However, she will only take so much. I have seen her pawed and nipped and humped, but only to a point. A quick turn of her head, a growl, and a lunge puts the aggressor in its place.

        Still, I don't favor the dog park scene, for exactly the reasons you state...owners' lack of attention, and certainly my own lack of experience in really understanding what is play, what is aggression, and what the turning point is when play goes the wrong way.

      • gracenotes profile image

        gracenotes 8 years ago from North Texas

        This is very helpful information.

        When I brought my new dog home that I rescued, it was sometimes difficult to tell how much of it was play with my resident poodle. Actually I had nothing to worry about.

        And after 8 months or so, I'd say the two of them have a very good relationship. They learned how to play together.

      • Doggie Devotee profile image

        Doggie Devotee 8 years ago from Danville KY

        very well written, great information