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,
February 9, 2010
Episode #049

How Can You Tell When Dogs are Playing or Fighting?

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?

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.

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.

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