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

How to Tell When Dog Play Is Going Seriously Wrong

On the other hand, if you see brief freezes, or if the dogs are stiffening up, making more staccato movements, it’s definitely time to interrupt. If the players are vocal types, listen for growling that grows deeper and more intense. Boxing, with the dogs standing on their hind legs face to face, can be benign or can mark the prelude to a fight. Much depends on the individual dogs--some de-escalate easily, whereas others get more and more amped until suddenly it’s toddlers out of control on the playground and you’ve got a fight. Pit Bulls and various terriers often seem to have hair triggers, especially with dogs they don’t know well. If you’ve got such a dog, the crowding and random mingling at dog parks probably aren’t well suited for her--play dates and hikes with compatible dogs would be a better choice.

Can Dogs Who’ve Fought Become Friends?

Play does sometimes turn into a squabble even between socially skilled dogs and even between good friends. So the fact that you’ve had to break two dogs up doesn’t necessarily mean they shouldn’t meet and play again. Give them a breather from direct interaction--the humans should step away to open up the space around the dogs, and maybe take a stroll together.  Then see what develops. These dogs may become friendly or indifferent non-playmates, or they may just have had some differences to work out. If play goes south repeatedly, though, the simplest response is to help the two dogs to steer clear of each other. You don’t get along with every person you meet, and rare is the dog who gets along with every other dog.

Can Three Dogs Play Well Together?

Dogs play best in pairs; when a third dog joins the mix, whether in chase or wrestling, two often gang up on the third. Alexandra Horowitz offers the plausible explanation that with multiple dogs it’s easy for those “we’re just playing” signals to get lost in the mix.  Often one dog winds up lying on his back with his tail tucked between his legs and his neck exposed, while the others stand over him, stiff and tense. Or the victim dog will stand at bay, also with tucked tail. The others dart in and out, nipping. Or a chase game suddenly goes from “Yippee!” to “Uh-oh, they’re really after me!” Again, you’ll likely see the chasee’s tail tucked, and if the chasers catch up with her they may bodyslam her to the ground and then stand over her.

These ganging-up scenes are a pet peeve of mine. People often seem oblivious to the victim dog’s distress and will allow the bullying to continue until the victim explodes--at which point, guess which dog gets blamed? Fortunately, the more we learn about body language and behavior, the better we can respond to difficult situations.

There is much, much more to say about play than I can cover in one brief article. I’ll have more another time; meanwhile, check out the resources below. As for The Dog Trainer, visit me on Facebook, email me at dogtrainer@quickanddirtytips.com, or call 206-600-5661. Your questions and comments may appear in future articles. Bye for now, and thanks for reading!


Bennett, Robin, and Susan Briggs. Off-Leash Dog Play: A Complete Guide to Safety and Fun. Dream Dog Productions, 2008.

Handelman, Barbara. Canine Behavior: A Photo Illustrated Handbook. 2008. Ms. Handelman’s behavior blog is also invaluable. Check out the August 2008 video of two dogs face-fighting (link is about halfway down the page). A bit higher up on the same page are two dogs boxing; the comment by “Wicked” puts the behavior in context of the dogs’ relationship.

YouTube is chock full of dog behavior videos, not all of which are well understood by the people who posted them!

 Horowitz, Alexandra. Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know (Scribner, 2009), p. 201.
Milius, Susan. “Don’t look now, but is that dog laughing?” Science News, July 28, 2001
Bekoff, Marc. 1974. “Social play and play-soliciting by infant canids.” American Zoologist 14:323-340.
Bauer, Erika, and Barbara B. Smuts. 2007. “Cooperation and competition during dyadic play in domestic dogs, Canis familiaris.” Animal Behaviour 73:489-499, pp. 495, 497. 
Horowitz, p. 200n.

Two English Bulldogs image from Shutterstock


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).