Are Dogs Playing or Fighting

Kathleen Roberts
Sometimes it's difficult to tell...

In this tip, Two Minute Dog Advice columnist Wendy Nan Rees explains how to understand if your dogs are playing or fighting.

Dilemma: Are the Dogs Playing or Fighting?

With Cappy gone today, I noticed all of a sudden that Little Man and Little Lady were playing - or were they fighting? I had never seen them interacting like this before. They were playing with a rope-tug and growling at each other, and this lead me to really wonder what they were saying to each other and whether they were fighting or playing.

To my delight, the dogs were playing because my "alpha" dog was away with his daddy, and the two younger dogs were having a blast being out from under his paw, as it were. After eight days of solid rain, it was so wonderful to see somebody having fun. I have to be very honest with you, this has been the worst winter ever for me as far as owning a dog is concerned, and I do not just own one dog; I have four. At the present time, I am also taking care of my sister's dog, Gomez. With all this rain, the dogs are bored and do not want to go outside in it. It is not just a sprinkle or a little rain; it is like the heavens have opened up and the dogs, whether big or small, just say "No, thank you." Playtime amongst dogs can look like a competitive match. Whether you take your pet to a dog park or arrange play dates with neighbors' and friends' dogs in a safe, fenced-in area, you should learn what healthy play looks like. Normal dog play can look rough and tough; you may hear some yipping (but not yelping) and a bit of growling (sing-song growls, not low nasty snarls). That's the sound of happy dogs interacting and taking turns talking back to one another. Monitor the sounds, and if you notice urgency or aggression in dogs' voices, run interference. Leash both dogs, and stop the play session.

Interpret the Body Language

Pay attention to the dogs' body postures. They will take turns being the "alpha" on top; they will alternate chasing. A submissive dog will introduce himself by lying on his side or crouching so the other dog can sniff and "meet" him. The shy dog should come out of his shell if play is healthy, acting as an equal participant in the jumping and chasing. It is healthy for dogs to play in a sort of dancing pose, standing on hind legs in an embrace where one dog is the leader. As long as they take turns being the leader, or alpha, the couple can dance all they want! Monitor dog play, especially when your dog is meeting a new friend. Here are some danger signs to watch:

  • Ganging behavior - Watch that the dogs play fair and don't pick on one participant.
  • Unequal matches - Size isn't everything; some big dogs are intimidated by small, feisty characters.
  • Over-Domination - One dog is clearly in charge and aggressive, not allowing the other to chase back or take a turn being on top during some playful wrestling.

When the winter doldrums strike, we just have to be creative and muscle through them. With a sense of humor and a bit of creative thinking, we will all make it to spring.

More Tips from Wendy

  • Importance of Dog ID Tags
  • Massage for Your Dog
  • Tips for Naming Your Dog
  • Canine Blood Donors
Are Dogs Playing or Fighting