How Can You Tell When Dogs are Playing or Fighting?

Learn how to tell when dog play is normal and fun, and when it’s going wrong.

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA
6-minute read
Episode #49

Common dog-park scenario number 1: people watch while two dogs play. Suddenly, the dogs are snapping and snarling at each other. The dispute ends quickly and nobody gets hurt, but the humans are shaken. None of them saw that canine argument coming.

Common dog-park scenario number 2: two dogs bounce and wrestle. They never stop moving, flashing their teeth at each other, snarling, growling. Their people watch them anxiously, then wade in to break up the “fight.”

Can You Tell if Dogs are Playing or Fighting?

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In the first scenario, the humans missed the signs of escalating tension between their dogs. In the second scenario, they missed the dogs’ mutual signals that all the roughhousing and horrible noises were play. This week, play--how dogs communicate playful intentions, what play styles different dogs enjoy, and how to tell when the game may be about to go awry.

How Do Dogs Signal They Want to Play?

Most of you probably already know that play often starts with a “play bow”--front end low, butt wiggling in the air, goofy openmouthed smile. Behavior nerds call the play bow a metasignal, meaning it tells the recipient how to interpret what comes next. When Dogalini offers Spike a play bow, she’s communicating that subsequent lunges, growls, bounces, and snaps aren’t real threats. When two dogs know each other well, they may barely sketch the play bow. The wonderful researcher and writer Alexandra Horowitz calls the result a “play slap”--exactly what it sounds like, a fast slap with the forepaws of the ground in front of the dog. 

Do Dogs Laugh?

Dogs may also laugh to initiate play. The behaviorist Patricia Simonet describes the laugh as a “pronounced forced, breathy exhalation”--panting, but a particular kind of panting, with a broader frequency range.  In Simonet’s small study, puppies who heard recorded pant-laughs often picked up a toy or approached people and other dogs who were present. Another puppy-typical play invitation is the face-paw--Puppy A swipes a forepaw at Puppy B’s face. Or, as one scientific paper puts it, “This action involves extension of one of the forelimbs toward the face of the other animal.”  That really doesn’t quite convey the cute, does it? Some adult dogs paw-swipe, but my observations suggest that it doesn’t always go over so well, especially when a big galoot directs his paw-swipe to a smaller dog.


About the Author

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA

Jolanta holds professional certifications in both training and behavior counseling and belongs to the Association of Professional Dog Trainers and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She also volunteered with Pet Help Partners, a program of the Humane Society of the United States that works to prevent pet relinquishment. Her approach is generally behaviorist (Pavlovian, Skinnerian and post-Skinnerian learning theory) with a big helping of ethology (animal behavior as observed in non-experimental settings).