How to Tell If Dogs Are Playing or Fighting

Updated on May 24, 2019
alexadry profile image

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

Playmates Rarely Injure Each Other Seriously


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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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.

Is it Play or Not?

During play, it may appear that one dogs is acting as the aggressor and the other as the "victim." Is the vicitm having fun or is she being intimidated? An easy way to determine this is to restrain the" aggressor" and watch what the other dog does. If the "victim" dogs comes back to try to initiate play again, then chances are it was just play and both dogs were having fun.

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 are taking brief breaks and the body language is loose. However, a time may come where 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 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

  • 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.

    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 Janet Farricelli


    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment
    • alexadry profile imageAUTHOR

      Adrienne Janet Farricelli 

      4 years ago

      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?

    • profile image


      4 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 

      8 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?

    • profile image

      Martin V 

      9 years ago

      great hub!

    • Darlene Sabella profile image

      Darlene Sabella 

      9 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


      9 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


      9 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 

      9 years ago from Danville KY

      very well written, great information


    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at:

    Show Details
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the or domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
    ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)