How do dogs play? How to tell if they are playing or fighting?

how do dogs play

Dogs lolloping around the park chasing their best friend is, quite frankly, a joy to watch. They look so happy playing together, their mouths wide in a delighted smile. But I didn’t always feel that way. I used to be really nervous around dogs meeting for the first time.

How do dogs play? How do you tell if your dog is playing or fighting? Or what if it’s play fighting?  It wasn’t until I had a lot more experience with dogs that I realized there are a few telltale signs to work out if your pup is playing or fighting and what you should do to encourage fun.

It starts when they’re a puppy!

From about 2 weeks puppies start to play with their brothers and sisters. This is crucial to their social and mental development. At this stage, they start to learn what a hierarchy is and what dominant and submissive behavior looks like. They learn key social skills that they take with them into adulthood in the play park. 

This early play also teaches them bite inhibition – which normally happens when they’ve nipped their brother a little too hard and he won’t play with them anymore. They learn their own strength, when to use it, and, more importantly, when not to. 

Whilst watching fluffy puppies play fighting is adorable and really fun, it’s important to recognize when this dog play behavior changes. So, how do you tell if dogs are playing or fighting?

How do dogs play?

dogs play fighting

Anyone who has a dog knows they love to play. Much like humans, not all dogs play in the same way. Some love to catch a ball, others like to chase and some like to pull endlessly on a rope. They also don’t always interact with other dogs in the same way. There are, however, a few things you can notice to ensure that they’re friends play fighting and not actually showing aggressive behavior. 

Exaggerated movement

If you watch dogs playing for even a moment, you can notice how exaggerated their movement is. They seem to gallop, bounce and do silly things to entertain their friends. Their tails are constantly wagging and their head lolling from side to side as they run away from each other. These are all signs that they’re having fun. 

Taking it in turns

Quite often dogs play a sort of game of tag. If it’s a fun thing they’re both playing, they’ll take it in turns to be the chaser.

Playful bows

Quite often when dogs are play fighting, they initiate the game by bowing. They bow their heads down, buts in the air, and sometimes hit the ground with their paws. This play behavior is normally accompanied by a very wagging tail and a toothy smile. 

However, if the dog holds the bowing for too long, this can mean that he's unsure about the situation. More information about this on the video below:

They make themselves submissive

One of the best ways to tell if dogs are playing or fighting is if at any point they voluntarily act submissively. This could be rolling on their backs, allowing themselves to be caught, or ‘pretending’ to fall down. No dog acting aggressively would want to be seen as submissive. 

Dogs playing or fighting?

are my dogs playing or fighting

So, we know how dogs play but what should we look out for to know if they’re fighting?

Stiff bodies

When dogs feel threatened or are acting aggressively, their bodies become very stiff. The hairs on the back of their necks rise (known as hackles).

Snapping and lunging

If your dog lunges aggressively, this is not a playful behavior but rather them asserting themselves. When dogs are play fighting they occasionally nip each other in a fun way, but when they’re fighting it’s a much more aggressive move.

Their mouth says it all

When a dog is fighting, it will snarl, show its teeth and make a low, aggressive growl.

What should you do to prevent/ stop dogs from fighting?

Not all dogs will get along, and that’s ok. Some dogs will love the dog park and others will prefer to be left to their own devices. For all pups though, early socialization is really important. It’s important that they learn how to play, when to stop, and when to respect other dogs. 

If your dog does start to act aggressively toward another dog, you should separate them as soon as you can before they start fighting. Don’t try to intervene if they are fighting, you could get bitten.

Normally, dog fights are quick and it’s just one asserting their authority over the other. However, if you do need to get involved, a large sound or even using a water hose can work. More about this in this article.

Dogs play fighting is a totally normal and fun way for them to interact with each other. With these signs, hopefully, now you’ll be able to tell the difference between dogs fighting and dogs playing.

How does your dog play? Let us know in the comments!

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