How Can I Tell if my Dog is Playing or Fighting?
Owners of single dogs or people who don't own dogs are often worried when they see dogs play fighting because there is a lot of noise and a lot of visible teeth.
It is helpful to know when your dog is playing nicely and when your dog is being either a bit over the top with another dog or being roughhoused and would rather the game stopped.
The play bow is the classic initiating signal for dogs wanting to play. A play bow is where a dog lowers its front legs and raises its bottom in the air. The tail is usually up and may be waving. It is a manoeuvre that says 'everything I do from now on is a game'. It can mean that a dog who is normally dominant may play at being the submissive one or that all the dogs in the game can show their teeth without the others mistaking it for real aggression.
In play there will usually be some role reversal, so whilst one dog may spend more of the time on the floor rolled on its back, the other will sometimes offer itself as the victim. A dog who is skillful at playing who is in the dominant role will give other other one plenty of opportunities to get up if it's been rolled on the floor.
In the video which follows you can see that when Bob the terrier and Bruno Labrador play, their mouths stay open a lot of the time, so although there is a lot of showing of teeth, it is play aggression and there is no biting. The dogs also use their bodies a lot, barging and pushing each other. Bob happily turns his back on Bruno which wouldn't happen if they were fighting or Bob was feeling uncomfortable with the game.
There is a low key growly moany sound from Bruno, but this is ongoing and at a steady level, so indicative of a game.
Terrier and Labrador Playing
It can be hard to monitor what is going on when dogs are playing out doors because the action can move very fast. Chase games usually involve dogs alternating between being chased and being the chaser. Some dogs love being chased and may usually take this role. A dog who is happy to be chased will usually have its tail curved down, but held slightly away from its body. If the dog being chased tucks its tail between its legs it has become unhappy with the game and is time for the owners to intervene. Running games can also involve dogs keeping pace with each other and body barging and sparring with their teeth, but all at speed!
In the first picture below, a glance at the show of teeth could alarm you, but the snarls are made with very open mouths and the postures are relaxed with Jake's tail lowered but away from his body. Even though these two are ill matched size wise, they are still able to play well together. In the second picture you can see Roger, enjoying the thrill of being chased, is running full pelt. Jake, able to run much faster, has modified his pace to run behind him.
Roger - terrier cross and Jake - Groenendael play chase
End the Game
Every so often a game will turn a little intense or one dog will start to feel intimidated and tuck its tail in or be bowled over once too often. Time for the owner to step in and recall or distract the dogs, give them a little break and then allow the game to resume when they have been calm for 5 minutes. Play is really fun for dogs and a dog who is initially rough at playing, can learn to modify its behaviour simply by the owner stepping in to stop the game when it becomes too rough. The reward for appropriate playing is longer play time which is a win win situation for the dogs having fun and the owners being entertained by the antics.
Behavioural Cues to Help you Sort Playing from Fighting
Time to end the game
Action initiated by a play bow
Intensity of noise increases
Snarling reaches a crescendo
Mouths showing teeth but mostly kept open
Tail of one individual tucked between its legs
Dogs locked onto one another attempting to shake the opponent
The larger or stronger dog allows the other opportunities to get up if rolled on the floor.
No opportunity for the weaker dog to recover or get up
Losing dog is held on floor by the throat
Role reversal - the participants swap roles during the game
One dog is repeatedly bowled over
Teeth showing but mostly clenched or biting
Some Interesting Additional Reading
A very accessible book written by a respected veterinarian.
A good photographic guide to dog behaviour
A meatier tome worth reading if you want in depth information on why dogs behave as they do and how they've been shaped by evolution.