During a regular visit to the dog park, you’re likely to witness some form of wrestling at any moment, a favorite play pastime with puppies and adult dogs alike. But how can you tell when all the snarling vocalizations, neck biting, and body slamming crossed the threshold into aggression? How do you discern between dog playtime and dog fighting?
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Playing versus fighting
The first thing to remember is that rough play is normal and even sociable behavior for dogs. Puppies begin to exhibit almost constant wrestling with their littermate from the moment their eyes open, roughly two weeks after being born. According to experts, this early play is a critical phase in social conditioning and development, when juvenile dogs learn how to interact respectfully through learned bite inhibition and role reversals of submission and dominance. Once you take your puppy home, you’ll likely notice how eager they are to continue the fun and games with a human family.
By contrast, a real dog fight is an alarming and upsetting spectacle. On rare occasions, play fighting can devolve into a real fight, meaning it’s important to understand the cues that indicate a switch. Preventing your dog from engaging in any form of wrestling or rough play, especially active breeds, will not benefit your dog’s social or emotional well-being in the long run. Play is an essential part of a healthy, happy life. Learn to tell the difference and spot the early sign of trouble by observing the signs that say “It’s all in good fun” versus “This is not a game.”
Signs of a Dog at Play
- Play Bow: The most familiar invitation to play fight is the ‘play bow’ — the goofy stance of front legs splayed on the ground while the rump remains raised. Performed to humans and animals alike, the gesture is a clear and friendly invitation to play.
- Vocalization: Playing dogs are often loud and exaggerated compared to the relative quiet of a real fight. In this case, the bark really is worse than the bite.
- Posture: Flowing movements with high and alert tails and ears
- Mouth and jaws: Open-mouthed play and tongue-lolling grins are the hallmarks of a play fight, even while neck biting and rough behavior occurs.
- Movement: Dogs at play will make big, bouncy, and exaggerated movements.
- Signs of submission: Playing dogs will typically take turns throwing themselves theatrically to the ground with their belly exposed as a sign of submission during a game of chase.
- Return to the action: Even after rolling over, happy and playful dogs will return to the fray and continue to play.
Signs of a Dog Fight
- Posture: A dog’s postures will become very tense and rigid, usually with hackles raised to appear larger (though this may not be visible on long-hair breeds). Tails will be held stiff and ears pinned back.
- Movement: Dogs will move economically and swiftly in attack or defense, there will be no silly bounding or bouncing.
- Mouth and jaws: No open-mouth grins here. Dogs will have a closed mouth with lips curled back and a warning growl
- Vocalization: Fights may be a lot less loud than play, beginning with a low warning growl and sudden bursts of aggressive snarls and snaps, as well as yelps from the attacked dog.
- No role reversal: Unlike play fights, the ‘losing’ dog won’t come back for more and will try to escape the area.
It might sound strange, but repeated sneezing is a canine communication tool. According to dog behavioral experts, the sneeze is a dog’s way to show the other human or canine playfellow that the action is all in good fun and not a real fight. As the action mounts, the ‘play sneezing’ may recur as a cue to keep things light and diffuse tension. The ‘play sneeze’ happens when your dog is particularly excited and stimulated, so you may notice it more during a favorite activity.
To a human ear, all dog growing can sound the same — and therefore have the same negative connotations. However, it’s important to remember that growling is also a dog’s communication tool. During play fights, even from earliest puppyhood, dogs will vocalize through growls. As previously noted, sound effects can be much louder and more extensive during play fights than real fights as your pup gets into the theatrics and excitement of a play fight! It can be hard to judge, but playful growls are typically more high-pitched and constant in frequency than a true warning growl that escalates under threat in snarls and snaps.
Like fighting, dogs can engage in a play version and a real version of chase. Once again, the trick to spotting the difference comes down to body language. Playing dogs will bound and bounce, take turns in role reversal, hold their tails and ears high, and come back for more fun. By contrast, a dog that is being chased with intention will hold its ears flat and tail cramped down in defense when making a real attempt to escape. Vocalization will be high-pitched and fearful.
Tug of War
Many dog owners seeks to discourage games of tug, believing it can foster bad habits and cause a dog to become possessive. However, many dog behavior experts advise that tug-of-war can be an effective tool for promoting impulse control and confidence, as well as fostering bonds between companions. The game mimics natural canine impulses, so when your dog latches into a game of tug of war with another dog, it can actually discourage resource hoarding and possessive behaviors, and effectively neutralize aggression. Plus, while their mouths are engaged in a game of tug, there’s no danger of biting!
Wrestling and mouthing
When dogs engage in wrestling, they’re exhibiting the moves of a real dog fight without aggression or intention — a practice that starts in puppyhood. For this reason, play fights can often look rough as pups mime biting, tussling, pinning, and locking jaws. The key difference is that both dogs are switching roles, respecting boundaries, and never breaking the skin. Since a dog’s primary weapon is its teeth, there can be lots of mouthing, knocking teeth, and ‘bites’ that crucially never break the skin. All of this rambunctious behavior is totally normal and a great way to build social bonds and expend energy — even if it doesn’t look like fun to you!
Poorly socialized dogs or dogs with aggressive tendencies are more likely to overstep the boundaries of play. This can result in fights breaking out when poorly behaved dogs overstep the social cues of a play fight. This is more likely to happen when parties of more than two dogs begin to play fight and the roles are less clearly defined. If you know your dog is fearful, poorly socialized, or prone to aggression, you can try to avoid group areas like the dog park where wrestling is likely to break out, and keep food or prized toys out of the picture — as these factors can increase the chance of play fights becoming something more serious.