Years ago, my Border Collie, Mack, was enjoying a game of chase with a group of dogs at the park.
The dogs all looked like they were having fun racing around the area.
A medium-sized white dog was just ahead of Mack, who then turned and bumped into the white dog. The dog became furious and started lunging at and chasing Mack down, intent on doing damage.
Mack spotted me and headed back toward me with the white dog on his tail. When he arrived, I was able to keep him out of harm’s way long enough for the other dog’s person to grab the dog and lead them away.
What had started as a fun game quickly turned into a fight when a dog who already had little impulse control was angered during a playful game.
As someone who is around dogs a lot — whether it’s my own dogs, dogs I work with as a professional dog trainer in Georgia or unknown dogs in public locations — I have seen my fair share of fights and potential fights in the years since then.
Unfortunately, not all dog fights end as easily or quickly as that first experience did. But there are many things you can do to prevent dog fights, stop them once they have begun and learn how to spot potential trouble early on.
If you have more than one dog or frequently go places to let your pup play with other dogs, you’ve probably wondered whether the dogs were fighting or playing. It can be scary watching your dog get rough with another dog, and you may not know if you should intervene or not.
In this expert guide to telling the difference between dogs fighting or playing, we’ll discuss:
- What do dogs look like while playing?
- What do dogs look like if they’re actually fighting?
- When play turns into real fighting
- How to prevent dog fights
- How to stop dog fights
What Do Dogs Look Like While Playing?
According to researchers Barbara Smuts, PhD, and Camille Ward PhD, writing for The Bark, “Play fighting is the primary method [that dogs use] to negotiate new relationships and develop lasting friendships.”
“Although play is fun,” they point out, “it also offers serious opportunities to communicate with another dog. In this sense, play is a kind of language.”
Normal dog play can include barking, growling, tackling, stalking, chasing, biting, whining and wrestling.
But … fights can also include any of those things, too.
So, how do you tell the difference?
Your dog may be barking and growling, but look at your dog’s face and overall body language. In most cases, a playful dog will have different body language than a dog who wants to fight.
Play behavior typically includes:
- A play bow right before an “attack”: A play bow is where a dog’s front end is lowered to the ground while their backend stays upright. It looks like the dog is taking a bow.
- Open, loose-mouthed grin.
- Relaxed ears: Other ear postures can mean either playing or fighting, depending on what the rest of the dog’s body language is communicating.
- Loose, fluid, wagging tail: A stiff, quick tail wag can be a sign of danger, though. Pay attention to whether the tail looks relaxed. (If either dog has a short tail, do not use the tail as an indicator.)
- The dogs are taking turns chasing each other or being on the bottom while wrestling.
- When one dog seems tired, the other dog allows them to take a break.
- If they are biting each other, the bites are very gentle and leave no marks on the skin. Typically, these bites involve very open mouths and not a lot of pressure.
- If one dog yelps, the other dog backs off.
- Both dogs look relaxed and happy, not stiff or anxious.
- If sniffing each other, both dogs take turns letting the other dog sniff them — especially their bottom. A dog who refuses to have their bottom sniffed is being unsocial.
Look for a combination of the above behaviors. One behavior by itself is not a guarantee that everything is OK, but a combination of friendly behaviors is a good sign.
What Do Dogs Look Like While Fighting?
It can be scary when a dog fight breaks out, especially if your dog is involved.
Sometimes it’s hard to tell if dogs are getting along or not.
Look for the following signs that the dogs are fighting, or that a fight may break out soon:
- The dog’s tail looks very stiff and ridged, and any wagging is in short, quick wags. If the tail is held high while giving a stiff wag, this is even more concerning — friendly wags should look relaxed and loose.
- The dog’s body looks tense and stiff in general.
- One dog is staring at or stalking another dog without other signs of play, such as a play bow or a loose grin.
- One dog is continually pinning another to the ground and refusing to let them up, or refusing to take turns being pinned.
- Bites are forceful or continuous; snapping may be heard. Play bites tend to be wide-mouthed and gentle, even if you see a lot of teeth.
- There is yelping, and the other dog is not stopping.
- There is intense, continuous growling or barking. A dog may bark and growl during play, but the intensity of growling and barking during a fight sounds loud and increases in intensity as the fight continuous.
- One dog is trying to get away, and the other dog will not let them. The dog chasing could be playing, but that dog is acting rude, and if they don’t stop chasing, there may be a fight.
- A dog lifts a lip or corner of their mouth when approached by another dog.
- A dog lets out a low growl and is tense while being approached or sniffed by another dog — without other signs of play like a play bow or a relaxed body following the growl.
- A dog stiffens when approached by another dog, and the behavior is not followed by relaxed body language or a play bow.
- A dog approaches your dog very puffed up and large looking, with ears, tail, shoulders and posture held high.
- A dog lays their head on another dog’s back, neck or head while looking puffed up and large, without other signs of play such as a play bow or running away to be chased.
According to the ASPCA:
“A dog displaying aggressive body language will look large, standing with his head raised above his shoulders. His body will be tense, with weight either centered or over all 4 feet or leaning slightly forward onto the front legs. A dog displaying aggressive behavior may also have a wrinkled muzzle, a short lip and a hard eye.”
When Play Turns Into Fighting
Have you ever heard the saying “It’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt”?
Many dog fights start as play. When some dogs play together, they get highly aroused. As tension and excitement build, rough play can turn into fighting.
Some dogs also use play to establish dominance, which can become a problem when another dog decides it’s time to take turns being on top during wrestling or chasing during a run. If toys are involved, resource guarding can also lead to fights.
There are several things you should watch for while dogs are playing together. If you see any of these things, it’s time to get the dogs’ attention and give everyone a break until things calm down, or completely avoid the dog your dog can’t seem to get along with.
Watch for these signs that things are not going well and a break is needed:
- One dog won’t let another dog stand up while wrestling
- One dog insists on chasing another dog even though the one being chased doesn’t look like they are having fun anymore.
- One dog keeps bothering another dog who is trying to take a break from playing.
- Play fights are getting louder and rougher as time goes on. Watch for harder biting, rougher pinning, one dog trying to get away, yelping, or louder barking and growling than normal.
- One dog is a known resource guarder, and there is a toy, stick or food involved in the play. This is a ticking time bomb. Stop the interaction and remove the object from the area. “Bringing a toy of any sort to a dog park is a big no no,” says blogger Carol Bryant.
- One dog lacks impulse control, is not tolerant in general, or doesn’t understand normal dog social cues. These dogs should do something structured together, like a hike or heeling walk, and should not be roughhousing or chasing one another.
- One dog keeps trying to dominate another dog by humping, laying their head on another dog’s neck, back or head, pinning another dog down, not taking turns, refusing to let another dog sniff their bottom, or doing anything else that seems to irritate or scare the other dog.
- One or both dogs seem tired and are becoming less tolerant as the game goes on.
This video shows you 16 useful clues to understand your dog better:
How to Prevent a Dog Fight
Knowing what warning signs to watch for during play and interrupting dogs when things start to get too tense can prevent a lot of fights.
There are additional things you can do to ensure your dog will avoid being in a fight. Some of these things start the moment your pup comes home to live with you.
To prevent dog fights:
- Supervise dogs while they are playing together.
- Teach your dog obedience commands so that you can call them away from a potentially dangerous situation if needed.
- Socialize your dog while they are young with other well-mannered, vaccinated, social adult dogs.
- Bring your puppy to a puppy kindergarten class or puppy play group where there is time for off-leash play with other puppies. Separate puppies when one pup seems overwhelmed or things get too rough, until the puppy calms down again.
- Avoid letting puppies meet potentially aggressive adult dogs.
- Avoid dogs who are intensely staring at your dog, pulling or lunging toward your dog, or are very tense around your dog. If your dog is uncomfortable around other dogs, work on teaching your dog to be calm, heel during walks, obey commands and associate other dogs with good things.
- If your dog is approached by an off-leash dog and a meeting is inevitable, try to stay as relaxed as possible. Give slack in your dog’s leash to help your dog relax, let the dogs sniff each other for 2 seconds, then happily tell your dog to heel or come, and walk away. A brief, calm interaction can satisfy the other dog’s curiosity, but get your dog out of there before a fight starts.
- When things are tense between dogs, but a fight hasn’t broken out yet, try to keep your energy confident and calm.
How to Break Up a Dog Fight
Have you ever experienced shaking hands, a heart beating wildly, the feeling of wanting to disappear or the anger of the hulk?
If any of this sounds familiar, perhaps you experienced the adrenaline rush associated with witnessing or try to break up a dog fight. It can be a frightening experience.
If the fight happened between someone else’s dogs, then you probably left the experience wondering what you would do if your dog got into a fight.
When fighting and highly aroused, many dogs will redirect aggression onto anything they view as a threat. If you grab your dog while they are fighting, there is a good chance you will get bitten.
Your dog probably won’t realize it’s you in the heat of the moment, so you need to safely avoid your dog’s mouth and the mouth of the other dog during a dog fight.
Follow these tips to stop a dog fight:
- If another dog is charging your dog, start yelling and clapping your hands with all your might. You may discover that you can yell loudly and the noise might scare the other dog off if they are not human-aggressive.
- If you have access to a water hose, douse both dogs with water from a safe distance.
- If the dogs are small, try throwing something large and soft onto them, such as pillows and blankets.
- Use something long like a tree branch in-between the dogs to distract them. The item needs to be long enough to keep you out of harm’s way.
- If you carry pepper spray on walks and another dog charges your dog, spray the oncoming dog. Be sure to get away from the area quickly, though, or the pepper spray will end up blowing onto you and your dog as well.
- If all else fails and you must grab your dog during a fight, reach for their hind legs and lift them upward as if your dog were a wheelbarrow. Pull them back from the fight while their rear legs are lifted. They will likely try to bite you when you do this, but this position makes it harder for them to reach you.
Dr. Sophia Yin, DVM, a veterinarian and applied animal behaviorist, recommended that last method, which she called “wheelbarrowing.” But Dr. Yin warned that there were some important things to watch out for:
“Because of your positioning in relation to the dog or because they are moving around too quickly, you may need to shove one away by placing your foot on their rib cage and pushing. This is safer than bending over and trying to push with your hands. It may also allow you to use your hands to grasp the other dog if you don’t have someone else to help.”
Ideally, the other dog’s person will arrive and do the same to their dog, until both dogs calm down and can be led away safely.
To summarize this expert guide, being able to answer the question “Are these dogs fighting or playing?” can provide you with peace of mind.
Being able to identify the differences between playing and fighting can help you:
- Feel confident enough to let your dog play with the right dogs
- Know when to intervene during play
- Avoid dogs who are likely to start a fight
- Calmly navigate tense situations
- Raise your dog to be social, confident and respectful around other dogs
- Stop a fight that has already begun
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- Smuts, Barbara, PhD, and Camille Ward, PhD. “Is Your Dog’s Rough Play Appropriate? Some Like It Ruff.” The Bark. Feb. 2015. https://thebark.com/content/your-dogs-rough-play-appropriate.
- Bekoff, Marc, PhD. “Play Signals as Punctuation: The Structure of Social Play in Canids. Behaviour 132, no. 5–6 (1995): 419–429. https://animalstudiesrepository.org/acwp_ena/30/.
- “7 Tips on Canine Body Language.” ASPCA Pro. https://www.aspcapro.org/resource/7-tips-canine-body-language.
- McConnell, Patricia B., PhD, CAAB. “Resource Guarding: Treatment and Prevention.” McConnell Publishing Ltd. May 3, 2013. https://www.patriciamcconnell.com/theotherendoftheleash/resource-guarding-treatment-and-prevention.
- Yin, Sophia, DVM. “How to Break Up a Dog Fight Without Getting Bitten.” Cattledog Publishing. Dec. 2, 2014. https://drsophiayin.com/blog/entry/how-to-break-up-a-dog-fight-without-getting-bitten/.