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

What Are the Different Kinds of Doggy Play?

Play itself can be lightning fast, one reason humans often find it difficult to interpret. Chase, wrestling, and tug are a few common forms, and dogs have individual preferences and play styles. A personal favorite of mine is “face fighting,” where two dogs stand or lie face to face with their teeth bared, scissoring their heads back and forth and snarling ferociously. In her younger days, the now elderly Isabella and our late Pit mix Muggsy Malone used to grab any loose skin they could get hold of and drag each other around our apartment. Play that intense can easily devolve into fighting, but Izzy and Muggsy were especially close friends and rarely did their play go wrong.

When play’s going well, you’ll see constant, fluid, loose movement and lots of turn-taking.

How to Tell When Dog Play Is Going Well

How can you tell when play, especially intense play, is going right? Look for constant, fluid, loose movement. As the play goes on, you may see the dogs take turns being on the bottom or being chaser and chasee. Surprisingly, though, the only observational study of play between pairs of dogs found that switching off rarely produced a 50-50 balance between the dogs. The same study, by Erika Bauer and Barbara Smuts, found that younger and smaller dogs generally did the most self-handicapping and offered the most play signals. These also seemed to be subordinate dogs. Bauer and Smuts suggest that perhaps it’s important for subordinates to make it especially clear that play aggression doesn’t reflect a serious challenge.

Watch the dogs’ faces. Look for open mouths. You may see teeth and hear snarls and growls, but again these will be in the context of fluid movement and lots of change--the dogs won’t lock into any one position. Their ears and the corners of their mouths will likely be back rather than forward.

Socially Skilled Dogs Can Deal with Their Own Minor Mistakes

You don’t necessarily have to intervene every time play goes wrong. Even socially skilled dogs who are good friends sometimes make mistakes--nipping a little too hard, for instance, or body-slamming with just that bit too much enthusiasm. Usually, they’ll de-escalate all by themselves. The dog on the receiving end of the mistake will yelp or snap and the dog who made the mistake will move out of the other dog’s space. One or both dogs will probably “shake off,” as if shaking off water. Next may come a renewed invitation to play, which may or may not be accepted. Either way, the dogs have handled the situation just fine; unless this scenario takes place over and over and over again, there’s no call for humans to step in.


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).