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How to Tell if Dogs Are Playing or Fighting

Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, former veterinary assistant, and author of the online dog training course "Brain Training for Dogs."

Sometimes dog play looks a lot like dog fighting.

Sometimes dog play looks a lot like dog fighting.

Features of a Fun Play Session

Distinguishing between dogs that are playing and 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 is the 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 rough 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 dogs 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 in 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, meta-signals, and purposeful pauses.

Dogs who are playmates rarely injure each other seriously.

Dogs who are playmates rarely injure each other seriously.


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 littermate 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 may have failed to incorporate this very important lesson. These young dogs may play 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 littermates 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 of redirected 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 by talking to other dog owners or reading a book. This can result in less attention being paid 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 underdeveloped social skills, which can create the ideal grounds for a fight to occur. Sometimes, dog owners will point their finger at the ''bully breeds'' when they are totally unaware that their ''friendly Labrador'' was the one that really provoked and initiated everything. Therefore, a careful eye on a dog's behaviors and its interactions with other dogs is a must. One second of distraction may turn a playful game into a bloody mess.

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Read More From Pethelpful

3 Ways to Interrupt Rough Play in Dogs

While dog play may look rough, in most cases, both dogs are having fun and there is no need to interrupt as long as the dog is taking brief breaks and the body language is loose. However, a time may come when you may want to interrupt play before it escalates. It's always better to interrupt play before it gets rough rather than afterward when dogs are too focused on each other and aroused. Here are a few ways to interrupt rough play in dogs.

1. Train an Interrupter Cue

Train your dogs to respond to an interrupter cue that tells them to rush towards you for a treat. I like to personally use a whistle (but other options are verbal cues such as "enough" or "that'll do'') which teaches the dogs to happily break apart and come to you for a treat. After some time, you can also insert a few calm behaviors—sit, down, etc.—to help them calm down before giving the treat.

After some time, a pleasant surprise is that some dogs may learn to self monitor and when things start escalating they automatically break apart to come get their treat!

2. Train Your Dogs to Chill on a Mat

An alternative option if you are looking for a longer-lasting time-out is to use a verbal cue such as "chill!" where you redirect the dogs to lie down on their mats where they get a stuffed Kong or some other longer-lasting goodie to work on.

3. Capture Calm Play

Clicker training can also help and you can work on capturing calm play. Simply, capture breaks (click/reward them as they happen spontaneously) and shape less intense forms of play. Start clicking when play is at a low level of arousal and use valuable treats. Soon, you may notice that your dogs will start checking in with you every now and then during play.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

Questions & Answers

Question: Why does one of my dogs keep playing when the other dog wants to stop? Could it be an age difference issue? The one who wants to keep on playing is fourteen-months-old. The other one who did play but stopped is six-years-old.

Answer: Yes, age can be a factor and so can different energy levels. At fourteen-months-old, the dog is full of energy and may even be trying to engage in bullying behaviors by forcing the other dog to play.

Make sure your older dog has access to an area where he can get away as needed from the persistent dog and get some well deserved quiet time.

© 2010 Adrienne Farricelli


Adrienne Farricelli (author) on September 07, 2020:

Hi there, there are many dynamics which may be going on here. This may be a normal adult dog trying to correct a puppy for engaging in socially illiterate behaviors, or it stem from fear or stress. This read may help you, but seek professional assistance to find out what is truly going on:

Mahi on September 07, 2020:

My dog is 6 years old she is a female dash hound , i recently brought home a male dash hound puppy , but my 6 year old is keep on following the puppy and trying to bite him on his back and legs , is it normal.and my 6 year dog doesn't have any other interactive experience with any other dogs too.

Devynthecatewithsocks on October 07, 2019:

I just rescued another husky after almost a year later after rescuing my first husky/malamute. The first day we brought her home Max and Leia instantly started playing that was obvious to us. Leia (who is approximately a year old) will inneciate a chase and then Max (who is probably around 3-4 years old) would chase her and they were very gentle. However its been 2 weeks and "fights" would break out. However i dont know if these "fights" are actually fights. So it is clear that Leia is the submissive one since she lets Max enter every room first (if she gets to the door first she backs away until max enters. She was pretty submissive to Max the first few days then started standing up for herself after that. She still lets him enter the room first but will show teeth if Max is barking at her to give him whatever toy she has. When with a toy she usually wants to play but Max will immediately jump up and bark at her, She will eventually drop the toy after snarling back at him but with Max's favorite toy she will run around the house and wont drop it. We decided to take this toy away since when i tried to take the toy and give it to Max fights would usually break out. These "fights" usually start off with Max continuously barking at her then Leia will growl and nip him until things escalate to both biting and growling at each other. Leia still has puppy teeth so her mouthing can hurt and she has drawn blood on Max's ear. It was pretty deep and bled quite a bit but Max didn't seem like he was hurting at all. Yesterday Max broke sin on her ear after a "fight" but it was not nearly as deep and didn't bleed much at all, and again she didn't seem hurt. When trying to break them up Max will usually back off but we have to hole Leia's collar cuz she will continue to bark and nip at him. After she will circle him around until they have calmed down. At the beginning they would fight if Leia accidentally bumped into Max but this has stopped. Max had a pretty rough past in his old home where he was starved and neglected so he does recourse guard but not much anymore. I know huskies are rough players but they don't do this at the off leash dog park ( not to each other or other dogs). So is this fighting and if so who is the aggressor.We usually look at Max cuz he does have a past with being the dominant one but recently Leia has continued the aggression.

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on April 18, 2015:

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?

Sherry on April 15, 2015:

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 Zubaid aka Clark Kent from Mississauga, ON on August 06, 2011:

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?

Martin V on January 22, 2010:

great hub!

Darlene Sabella from Hello, my name is Toast and Jam, I live in the forest with my dog named Sam ... on January 17, 2010:

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.

Sherri from Southeastern Pennsylvania on January 17, 2010:

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 from North Texas on January 17, 2010:

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 from Danville KY on January 17, 2010:

very well written, great information

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