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Are My Dogs Playing Or Fighting?

dogs play fighting

When your dog plays, they might growl, jump, pull ears and nip at necks. Puppies are often engaged in this activity – with you, and with other dogs. But sometimes this play-fighting begins to look a bit dangerous, and it’s natural to worry. Why do dogs engage in play-fighting? Can they self-mediate their behavior? What are the signs that the game is getting more threatening? And how can you stop dogs who are seriously fighting? We will explore these questions below. 

What Do Dogs Do When They Play Together?

Play-fighting is most commonly seen in puppies and young dogs. And you’ll be glad to hear that it’s completely normal. 

They’re learning how to behave with other animals and they use play-fighting to burn energy but also to discover their limits. Pups who pull too vigorously on another dog’s ears will hear about it!

But it can be very stressful if you visit another dog-owner, or take a walk, with your young dog, and they initiate a fight with another dog. 

To the untrained eye, it can appear quite violent – but the dogs might be engaging in perfectly normal play. Are you worried the play seems to have become too boisterous? How can you tell? 

Here are the signs that dogs are playing, not really fighting.

  • They won’t bite. They’ll “mouth” (putting jaws around the other’s face) or nip, maybe pulling ears, but they won’t break skin.
  • The dogs will swap roles – one will be on top, then the other! There is no real tussle for dominance.
  • If you speak (or shake the food box), the dogs will notice you. They might not turn to you, but you’ll see their ears raise!
  • Sounds will be playful. There won’t be deep snarling or anxious, high-pitched yelps.
  • Both dogs will be bouncy and joyful. They might display the “play bow” (with front paws and head lowered to the ground). 
  • They’ll both initiate play-fighting after short breaks in the activity. This is a sign that they’re both enjoying the brawl!
  • They’ll stop on their own. Or, if you like, you can call a halt by distracting them with your voice or food.
  • Sometimes an older dog will scold the younger dog, if the latter becomes too bold or rough. They might continue playing or stop after that. This is actually useful (as long as the older dog isn’t hurt) – it’s how dogs naturally learn self-restraint.

What Do Dogs Do When They Fight?

Real fighting still happens among dogs, of course. It might be provoked by fear, jealousy, or protectiveness. Here are the signs that the fight is serious.

  • Dogs will bite one another with intent to cause injury.
  • Their approach becomes more confident. Their posture will be more rigid as they try to make themselves look bigger and more threatening.
  • Their growls and snarls will become deeper.
  • Movements will be intensely focused, rather than playful.
  • If one dog pauses or pulls back, the other may continue to pursue them, rather than taking a break.
  • One may injure the other, causing yelps.

How To Raise A Confident And Peaceful Dog

If you want a dog who is calm and confident when they’re out walking, and less likely to engage in play-fighting, socialization is the key. 

Socialization is the most important part of puppy-training and the good news is: it’s easy. All you have to do is take your puppy to meet people and dogs, allowing them to learn about the environment. Through meeting other dogs and people they’ll get practice in behaving, learning what’s acceptable with their contemporaries as well as humans young and old.

Try not to act worried or nervous when your pup meets people. Be cool! Warn the people that your pup might tumble or nip, but don’t restrain your puppy unless necessary. And if your pup approaches another dog who issues a short growl, don’t panic. That’s just the dog’s way of saying “don’t mess with me”. Many dogs will do this, without any intention of starting a fight or harming your pup. Your puppy is likely to hear it, understand it, and walk away (... or run off to find another dog to greet!).

If you haven’t already planned to neuter or spay your dog, it is widely thought that spaying or neutering dogs helps to prevent dogs from fighting. It’s not a simple solution, because it doesn’t always have the desired effect, but neutering does reduce some hormones which can cause aggression. For some dogs, neutering makes a huge difference. They will probably make fewer attempts to mate with other dogs – and neutering can also prevent testicular cancer. 

Do Puppies Grow Out of Play-Fighting?

Puppies will play-fight with one another, with older dogs, and with you. It can continue for months or even up to a year. Play-fighting with an older, familiar and trusted dog can be a way for the puppy to build a relationship. The puppy will learn what’s acceptable in a safe atmosphere.

“Our dog is an elderly Golden Retriever. He’s never really scolded a younger dog and our son now has a young German Shepherd. When the puppy comes over, our Golden Retriever will roll around and play-fight, holding his own against the (very large) puppy... he seems to have endless patience, and will never scold his companion, even though our dog’s legs are stiff and he will become completely worn-out after playing!”

Well-socialized dogs are less likely to play-fight as they get older. This doesn’t mean an older dog won’t respond to a younger dog who wants to play – depending on their mood, they might indulge them. The older dog understands that it’s part of the canine learning-curve. So if the young dog oversteps the boundary, your older dog will reprimand them.

You can play a part in this early training, as well. If your pup hurts you when they’re playing, try removing the “reward” (the game). Stop playing and exclaim. The pup will associate the sound with their bite, and this is how they can learn bite-inhibition. If their play becomes too rough, direct them to toys or chews; they should learn there is a difference between biting people and toys!

Make sure that your puppy has the chance to play with other dogs, too. If you don’t have another dog in the house, arrange to meet friends with dogs so that your puppy has some older pals.

Why Do Adult Dogs Fight?

If your dog is involved in a fight, it can be terrifying. 

For years it was believed that dogs fought for dominance. But that’s something of a misconception. It has recently been shown that wolves live in family groups rather than hierarchical packs. The parents are indisputably head of the pack; so if siblings fight, it’s likely to be for reasons other than “dominance”. And those reasons are generally the same among dogs who fight.

They might be fighting over food, territory or possessions. Or they may be attempting to defend you. Dogs have an intense sense of loyalty, and even peaceful pups can get into a fight to protect their owner. If a threatening dog approaches, your dog is likely to get between it and you.

There can be other, unseen, reasons for dogs to fight. For example, a stressed dog may lash out. And dogs can be stressed by loud noises, changes in your household, or pain. Unwell dogs may also lash out at a dog that comes onto their territory – and ill dogs are more likely to come under attack from another dog, too. 

Some health conditions (like hyperthyroidism) cause a surge in hormones that make dogs defensive or aggressive. 

And finally, your dog could simply be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

What to do when dogs fight

If your dog is in a serious fight, what should you do?

Firstly, try to stay calm. Don’t start shouting because your anxiety might exacerbate the situation, particularly if the dog is likely to come to your defence anyway.

  • Don’t grab your dog. It’s an instinctive move, because you want to rescue your dog from injury. But putting yourself between two fighting dogs can cause extremely serious injuries to you. Dog bites can be surprisingly powerful. 
  • Let your dog know that you are there. Call their name calmly so they are aware that you are there and they can come to you. It might be enough to distract them for a moment so they pull away.
  • Distract your dog or both dogs. Loud noise can distract dogs from a fight for long enough for owners to pull them both away. You can also use water to distract dogs from their intention.
  • Use something to separate them. If there is anything nearby that you can use to separate the dogs – and keep yourself safe – then try that. The American Kennel Club suggests a broom or bin lid. Alternatively, you and the other owner can pull your dogs apart from behind (keeping clear of teeth).