What is Good and Bad Dog Play?

What is Good and Bad Dog Play?

We've all been there before. We see two dogs start off playing nicely only for the situation to quickly turn into what seems like a vicious fight. Either the dogs start biting each other too hard, or one dog will growl while the other yelps. This is probably one of the most common things people see with dogs and it's completely natural. Dogs play-fight to practice their predatory instincts as well as social skills; however, there are definite differences between good and bad play. Let's explore what makes the difference between good and bad play.


How Can You Tell if Dogs are Playing or Fighting?

This is a common question and it's not as easy as you would think. There are some big differences between dogs playing and fighting, but the ways they show those differences aren't always easy to spot at first glance. Learning how to spot the differences can help keep your dog (and the people around the dogs) safe. 


What Does "Good Dog Play" Look Like?

If you've been around dogs for a while, you probably have an idea of what a dog playing looks like. Dogs will bark, run around and even jump on each other. They may growl or snarl while doing this, but the sounds are not threatening. If anything, the sounds they make are playful. Here are some quick ways to know if dog play is really just playing, or something more serious:


  • Good Play Body Signals - Open mouth, grinning face, bright eyes, bouncing, tail wagging, barking and yelping that sounds silly and light-hearted. 
  • Reversing Roles - If one dog is constantly dominating the other dog and not allowing it to get up, that may not be a good sign. In healthy play, both dogs will take turns chasing or playfully biting the other. 
  • Self-handicapping - This often happens when one dog is much larger than the other. The larger dog may allow the smaller dog to "dominate" it by rolling over and allowing the smaller dog to stand on its back. While this is a normal part of play, watch carefully to see if the larger dog is tolerating it, or truly enjoying it. If the larger dog looks stressed out or tries to escape from under the other dog frequently, that may not be good play. When dogs of significantly different sizes play together, it can still be dangerous even if the large dog is not playing aggressively. For example, the large dog may try to do a role reversal and chase the small dog, but the sheer weight of the larger dog can severely hurt or kill the smaller dog.
  • Time-outs - You may notice that playing dogs will stop and stand perfectly still for a moment, often looking at one another before continuing their play. This is a good sign that it is good play as it is often done just before the dogs change roles. Dogs that are fighting will usually continue to bite and growl through a time-out.
  • Unnatural postures - Playing dogs may put their heads or limbs in unusual positions, but they will make sure not to put them in a position that could result in pain or injury. For example, the dog may lay on its back and turn its head into a seemingly unnatural upside-down position.
  • Coming back for more - Dogs that are playing may move away from one another, then come back for more.  If one dog seems reluctant to come back to play, but the other is overly eager, that can indicate bad play.


What Does "Bad Dog Play" Look Like?

Bad play happens when one dog is doing all of the chasing and attacking. The other dog takes a submissive role and often shows signs that he or she wants it to stop. There are some very clear signals that the bad play will continue unless something is done to interrupt it:


  • Intense growling and barking -  This may be accompanied by snapping and biting. 
  • Eyes showing white - This is a common sign of fear, not good play. 
  • Avoiding eye contact or turning away - This may indicate that the dog doesn't want to continue the play session and is trying to get out of it.
  • Stress signals - The mouth will be closed, ears will be back and there may be a tucked tail. 
  • Unnatural postures - Similar to good play postures, but the dog will show more stress signals.
  • Cowering or submissive urination - These are very clear signs that this is not good play. This type of behavior can quickly escalate into something much worse.
  • Lack of response - If the dog being chased is not responding, even to encourage play, the other dog may be playing too roughly. 
  • Forcing a dog who wants out to continue - This is where one dog won't leave the other alone and refuses to quit. At this point, you have two aggressive dogs on your hands instead of a play session.


How Do You Tell if a Dog Fight is Serious? 


Dog fights are always serious, but it's important to know the difference between a serious fight and two dogs playing too roughly. If you see blood or any wounds on either dog, this is a very clear sign that something bad is happening. Other signs of serious dogfighting can include yelping,  a break in a dog's natural body posture, and running away. 


Should I Let My Dogs Play Fight?

Dogs can learn a lot of lessons through play, including teamwork, communication, and problem-solving. However, it's important to watch them closely so that you can tell if they are rough playing or fighting. When done properly, dogs learn how to keep themselves and others safe through play. There are many things that you can do to encourage good play between your dogs, including:


  • Allowing the dogs to take turns chasing one another
  • Letting them work out their own dominance issues
  • Ensuring dogs have enough toys to go around


You should not allow dogs to play fight if you don't know their boundaries or if they are too young for it. Letting your dogs play fight may result in a more trusting relationship between them, but it can also quickly escalate into a bad situation. That is why good play manners are so important. If you find that the play gets too rough or your dogs do not have good boundaries, they should be separated immediately and called back when they have calmed down.


How to Safely Break Up Fighting Dogs

There is no safe way to break up a dog fight. You're likely going to get bitten. That is the hard truth. Dog fights should be avoided at all costs, and the best way to avoid any fighting is to not introduce the possibility into their lives. Although all of the above must be stated, the simple truth is, that dogs were not meant to just ''hang out'' with other dogs. As domesticated as they are, dogs have retained certain wolf-like pack structures from their ancestors. Wolf packs don't play together. Wolf packs fight or flight and the fighting part is avoided at all costs as injuries could be life-threatening.


This being said, I am a strong advocate for shutting down all dog parks. Dog parks are for lazy owners who do not want the responsibility of exercising and training their dogs. The end result is a group of adults either socializing or on their phones, while packs of dogs form, and those packs subsequently target and bully other dogs. The consequences of a group environment with much pent-up energy, often result in dangerous dog fights.


Keeping in mind the above position, there are many things you can do to break up a fight between your dogs, but it's important to minimize the risk of anyone getting hurt as much as possible. You should never put yourself in a position where one dog will turn on you if you try to separate them. If you have more than one person who can help, that's excellent - have one person distract the dogs while another safely seizes them. If not, you may have to take a chance and come between them as quickly as possible. Remember, your goal is to break up the fight and not hurt or punish either dog; that will only make matters worse.


Tips for Intervening:


  • Make sure that you are calm and confident, but also very quick. Once you get hold of one dog's collar or harness, do not let go until the other dog is completely separated from him.
  • Be forceful and decisive in your actions while calmly holding onto both dogs' collars.  
  • Although, it may be hard to do, try not to get physical with the dogs by hitting, kicking, or knocking them over. Use only the amount of force necessary to get control of both dogs and separate them from each other.


After the Fight:


Once the fight is broken up, you should keep your dogs separated so they do not have the chance to regroup. If you are concerned about further violence, take them to neutral corners where they cannot see each other. It's important to clean any wounds immediately, even if they are minor. Watch for signs of infection over the next few days and take your dog to the veterinarian if you see anything suspicious. Your dog can be reintroduced later on, but only if it is securely on a leash and in a pack walk vs just giving the dog free reign. This is where being a pack leader matters and has to be implemented.


Dogs can fight for many reasons, including over food or attention. Before you let your dogs play together again, it's best to know what was behind the fight so that you can avoid it in the future. This can be difficult to do if you don't know your dogs well, but it's the only way to create a harmonious household. 

Always remember that the best way to prevent dog fights is to give your dog the best training, socialization, and care possible. Proper training can help your dog have the confidence to ignore provocations, and socialization can help your dog understand how to appropriately interact with other dogs and humans.

To learn more, sign up for The Beacon Dog Academy's training course. Trainer Daniel Barrett will give you actionable insights on how to prevent aggression and solve problem behaviors.

Become close with your Dog

Daniel Barrett’s emotionally intelligent approach to dog training has created a large following of dog owners who feel that their relationship with their dog has transformed substantially.

Become close with your Dog

Daniel Barrett’s emotionally intelligent approach to dog training has created a large following of dog owners who feel that their relationship with their dog has transformed substantially.

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