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Video: Fight or Play?
Learn to read canine body language
L to R: Shelby, Ginger Peach and Jolie play.

This might sound strange, but I've been studying dog play recently. A lot. My normally playful mixed breed, Ginger Peach, stresses easily in new environments.

She often refuses to tug on her toy, play with her Frisbee, or otherwise engage with me. She gets a glazed look in her eyes and pants heavily, completely overwhelmed by so many dogs, people, noise and no doubt smells.
This does not bode well for her long-term agility career if I don't figure out how to help her be as relaxed as she is in training or agility class.
I've been videotaping how she plays with my other dogs and reading as many books on dog play as I can. My friends and students enjoy watching some of the film snippets and good-naturedly listen to my latest canine body language observations.

What I find particularly intriguing is how some people can’t tell the difference between dog playing and dog fighting. When I showed the clip above to a friend, she thought my Dalmatian, Jolie, and mix, Ginger Peach, were fighting. The growling, teeth flashing and body pinning scared her. We talked about the difference between playing and fighting, and how to read canine body language. We also talked about play styles and why Jolie and GP are such a good match.

What’s your dog’s play style? How do you tell the difference between playing and fighting?



Julia Kamysz Lane, owner of Spot On K9 Sports and contributing editor at The Bark, is the author of multiple New Orleans travel guides, including Frommer’s New Orleans Day by Day (3rd Edition). Her work has also appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Poets and Writers and Publishers Weekly.

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Submitted by Kathleen St. J. | April 8 2011 |

It's always interesting to watch Daisy play. Since she's dog-aggressive, she only has a couple of approved pup pals she can play with. Her favorite friend is my parents' dog, a very patient Lab named Hawkeye. When we first let them be off-leash together, she would seem to get her emotions confused -- she wanted to play, but her hackles would go up and she'd go from playful to aggressive from moment to moment. It was like she was fighting with herself.

After almost four years, she's gotten so that she clearly "states" her desire to play as soon as she sees Hawk, sniffing politely, play-bowing and giving him gentle nibbles. She's a big fan of chasing, so she'll start running around crazily, getting Hawk to follow. The bouts of play usually end in a nice sunbathing session. So cute.

Submitted by Judy Stove-Wilson | April 8 2011 |

Great to see this issue raised. Our pitty cross, Nelson, and neighbour's Belgian shepherd, Rocket, two large male black dogs, play like this all the time: teeth bared, wrestling, taking turns to dominate. They intersperse this with short chases and bringing-down each other (luckily we live on acres!). This keeps them fit and burns off boredom. Occasionally if one (usually Nelson) hurts the other (usually Rocket), there is a squawk and some irritated snapping, and Nelson backs off, grinning, tail vaguely waving, for a moment.

But yes, it's definitely all play - and very entertaining to watch!

Submitted by Anonymous | April 8 2011 |

Thanks for posting this! My Jack Russell plays so rough with other Jacks, snapping, "snarfing", teeth clacking, nose skin all furled up, and lunging. I have similar videos that can be confusing for people who see it for the first time. The dogs are just enjoying good play time and its great fun to watch when you understand the games! Thanks, again.

Submitted by Anonymous | April 9 2011 |

definitely not a fight. i board dogs and this would be completely acceptable and super fun here! some over the top playing can get carried away, but this was maybe a 6 out of 10 in my experience, just FUN.

Submitted by Anonymous | April 9 2011 |

They are playing. See how they keep their mouths open all the time. Also, the one dog was almost laying down, not striving for domination. They stop very quickly, look around and sort of smile. No meanness there. I take my dog to the park often and I can tell when the play is getting too serious and I take my dog to another area. Dogs have short memories.

Submitted by Dr Dawg | April 11 2011 |

I recommend John Rogerson's Dog Vinci Code for insight into your dog's issues.
The difference between mouth-on-dog play and a fight is merely the intensity and intent. What you think of as "PLAY" is sparring, brawling an serves to create dogs who get high on arousal.
I teach dogs to interact with me to play.
I teach dog-to-dog play with an object. That requires teaching a dog to "share" toys- like tug ropes.
My professional opinion is that allowing dogs to brawl and use their mouths on each other serves to destabilize dog-to-dog relationships.
I believe more and more professionals are less supportive of PLAYCARE in large groups who brawl and spar all day.
April 2011 APDT journal addresses.
I don't let my dogs or my clients dogs engage in this behavior.

Submitted by Caitlyn | April 11 2011 |

I used to work at a doggy daycare, and if these two dogs played like this in the yards, I would not worry about them, but would proably interrupt eventually to force them to take a break. However the key points are: reciprocation, both are playing equally and neither is trying to get away from the other; they are easily interrupted by the dog on the couch(?) and the shake-off by Jolie at the end shows that they are just playing and it's not too serious business.

I will say that I have seen several dogs (mine included) who engage in this sort of play almost every day at a daycare, and eventually they will develop arrousal issues. I am not saying that the kind of play shown in this video is inappropriate, nor that daycares with playgroups are inappropriate either. But too much of a good thing can be bad in some cases, and people need to look at their individual dogs when thinking about daily/frequent playdates.

Submitted by Anonymous | April 11 2011 |

I don't understand why you allow that behavior in the house.
Play fighting is just that. They are practicing fighting...honing their attack skills. That behavior may serve as a puppy to learn bite inhibition from siblings and mother, but I am puzzled why dog people encourage "play fighting".
My three 80 pound German Shepherds go to their bed and lie there in the house. "House manners" means just that....calm behavior around people.
I can't imagine having children around dogs wrestling like that.
I can't imagine *me* having to be around that.
Our play interactions outside are agility obstacles, engaging in any number of jolly balls, tug toys. "Our" means my dog and me.
I might engage all 3 in a three way tug on long rope lines...or alternate "fetch" the ball. But all "play" involves my participation.
We might play "go find" the toy in the sand pile...go find kibble in the grass...we play scent games and have fun together. We practice sharing and turn-taking and having fun politely without teeth and wrestling.

Submitted by anonymous | April 13 2011 |

LOL. "Honing their attack skills?!" Good Dog. Dogs are not wolves, and they are not like little wolf puppies "practicing" their attack skills. That movie shows typical, happy dogs engaging in totally normal, safe, and fun behaviour. I have rescued, rehabilitated and re-homed nearly 100 dogs, some from severe abuse. Some spent years with no home of their own, and having to hunt for their own food. These dogs eventually learn how to play and enjoy life, just as in the above video. If these dogs don't end up becoming aggressive from such play than a typical breeder-bought dog certainly would not. My dogs would hate it if they could never wrestle, and especially mouth wrestle. That's the most fun of all!

Submitted by Dawg Dr. | April 11 2011 |

I can usually tell a dog who is left in PlayCare all day. They exhibit "Dogginess"- extreme interest in getting to other dogs to rough-house.
This can cause frustration and leash aggression when trying to leash-walk one of these dogs.
The problem escalates as owners tug their dog away from other dogs.
Sue Sternberg wrote a great article for the APDT Chronicle of the dog about body language in dog parks...great deal of conflict in what dogs are telling with their eyes and shying away from other dogs.
I suggest all dog professionals rethink what it is we want our dogs spending so much time practicing. Are honing fighting and competitive skills what companion animals need to spend time practicing?
I don't think your average family with children will tolerate dogs wrestling in the house any more than they would a 5 yr old and 8 yr old pummeling each other with their fists.
More and more early advocates of dog parks and PlayCare are changing their minds about the benefits for our pet dogs.
Heh, heh, dog parks keep us behaviorists in business, though!
Like dogs in dog parks, multiple dog households need to be managed to keep arousal in check and good house manners reinforced!

Submitted by Anonymous | April 15 2011 |

They are so similair in play styles! All the mouthing and sneezing! I love it!!

Submitted by Anonymous | April 15 2011 |

Patricia McConnell has a great seminar where she shows all kinds of photos and video about what is play and what it not. I actually attended twice.

Submitted by danielle | April 15 2011 |

The sneezing kills me! I don't think fighting dogs would be sneezing quite so much! :-) In your observations, does that come up a lot in play?

With the dogs we've owned, I've also noticed a lot more vocalization in play (except in what we call "head wrestling," which is just a lot of mouthing and head moving), while the fighting tends to have a few significant barks or growls and is more silent in intent. But I've also had people terrified for one of our dogs in pure play situations--he just always preferred to play-fight on his back.

Submitted by Julia Kamysz Lane | April 15 2011 |

Danielle, yeah, they do tend to sneeze (we call it "snorty snort") a lot while playing. What's interesting is that snorting while playing was a learned behavior for both girls. Our late Catahoula, Desoto, was a snort master while playing; he taught them well! :)

I think you're right, that typically, dogs will be noisier while playing or if they're worried about another dog, doing a lot of "trash talking" so as to scare the other dog away with a physical confrontation.

Submitted by Team Bat Pack | April 15 2011 |

Great essay! I have two very high energy herding breeds and they play very roughly with one another. My Border Collie "stalks" my Cattle Dog...then pounces on her hard so she'll chase him. Then my Cattle Dog tackles him to chew on his hind legs. HE LOVES THIS GAME. They growl and snarl and throw each other around.. taking a break every few seconds for a sneeze, then POUNCE, ROLL, SNAP, GROWL, TUG, CHEW. When they are wrestling around, if you touch my cattle dog she gets even louder with her growling and barking.


Although, it looks like my Cattle Dog is being a bully to my Border Collie in this particular video, trust me - he's usually the instigator. :)

Submitted by Michelle | April 15 2011 |

People have a hard time telling when my girl is playing sometimes because she growls CONSTANTLY. This big deep growling noise. But her face is relaxed and she sort of tucks her lips around her teeth. You can tell if you look at her and see the play bows and the relaxed ears and lips and eyes.

Her usually play style is chase, however. She loves to chase and will happily run after any dog who wants her to and sometimes even entices dogs to chase her. She also loves TUG and will growl most ferociously while playing.

Submitted by Kara Dannenhold | April 15 2011 |

It's simple! Just look for pauses/breaks in their play. Dogs trying to actually kill each other won't do that. GREAT topic! Too bad most of The Bark readers already know this - it's like preaching to the choir. This article should be posted at dog parks everywhere!

Submitted by Jackie | April 15 2011 |

Our Golden & Collie have a play style very similar to this. We know it's still play by the more open-mouthed approach - and tails basically in "wagging mode." Our Collie in particular, however, can sometimes get overly excited and slip into a more seriously aggressive mode. As others have mentioned, we watch for the open-mouthed approach changing to more snapping, changes in the "tone of voice" and generally more frenzied pace/pitch of things. Our Collie is a rescue who had been abandoned out in the countryside. We suspect she had to learn to do some serious fighting in that situation, in self defense. I suspect that's what causes her to sometimes slip into a more dangerously aggressive mode when she gets overly excited. Otherwise, the Golden is her best friend - she would never purposefully hurt him.

Submitted by Tracy Graber | April 15 2011 |

This is great, I am going to share this! As a dog training instructor for a major pet supply store chain, I find that many people panic when they see any teeth action or hear any growling during dog-play. I run a "Puppy-Play Social Time" (free) every Sunday, and teach people about "puppy -play body language", so this is perfect! Thank you for sharing!

Submitted by oc dogman | April 15 2011 |

this is great and I think I will start to incorporate videos like these in my upcoming group training classes. This is a hot topic for many and I get called for aggression cases where, like here is just good solidly matched dogs having a good play. thank you! www.occaninecoaching.com

Submitted by Rachelle W. | April 15 2011 |

My dog Bailey (GSD/lab/husky/??? mix)'s favorite play activity is wrastlin', just like the dog's in the video. She's relaxed, tail is wagging, and she's "smiling". She might flash her teeth and "tag" her opponent with them, but she (and the dog she's playing with) never ever hit hard enough to break skin. The motions are also much slower than actual fighting. The dominance scuffles I broke up during the 1st couple of days I had my 1st foster dog in the house were faster and louder, and you could tell Bailey meant business...but she still held back from actually breaking skin with her teeth. (BTW, dogs will be dogs, and this is how pack order is normally established, but she got a correction every time, and after 2 days, figured out a more "civil" way to communicate that she was the top dog).

Real fighting is truly scary - and there will be actual blood. That's your dead giveaway. :)

Submitted by Anonymous | April 22 2011 |

My dogs play loud. They do like your dog. The teeth showing sometimes, But my demon is a lot louder during play. He sounds evil but is gentle.
I've had people mistake it for fighting. My other dog is a puppy 11 weeks old now. When they see them playing together like that I'm often told that my pup will get killed.

At the dog park I have to explain to people that it's all play. It's healthy for them to wrestle. Wears them out, builds up their muscles.

The difference between play and fight is easy for me. a fight- hackles up, tail either right above back not moving or tucked between legs and the dog is in the face of the other dog with teeth bared.
play- tail wagging, can be loud can be quiet depends on the dog.

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