Dog Play vs. Fight: 12 Clues to Tell the Difference

It can be tough to tell the difference between dogs who play rough and are fighting, but these quick clues can help you keep the peace.

Updated January 18, 2024
Dogs strolling and playing in a public park

It's a super common question — is my dog playing or fighting? Rough play, especially with dogs unknown to you, can be hard to distinguish from the beginnings of a dog fight. And, even if your dog is just playing, play can quickly become aggressive if one or both of the dogs become overwhelmed. As a canine behaviorist, I've pulled together some things to look for with images and videos to help you understand when to "break it up" and when it's all in good fun. 

What Dog Play Looks Like

Think of what it looks like when two dogs are just goofing around and wrestling with each other. They might make big, dramatic moves and even let the other dog pin them down for a sec before they switch it up. There may be loud growling at times. But watching their overall body language can help you tell when they're both into it or when it's time to take a break.

Dogs Who Play Often Bow & Bounce

hound and corgi playing together, dog play bow

When your dog hops into the play bow stance (like in the photo above), it's a strong indicator that they're thoroughly enjoying themselves. This particular posture is characterized by their front end lowering towards the ground while their back end is up in the air, creating a distinctive, playful arc in their body.

You might also notice what appears to be a smile on their face as they're getting ready to pounce on their doggy friend. Their movements tend to be exaggerated and bouncy, often appearing somewhat comical and over-the-top.

Look for the Tail Wags

While not all tail wagging is a good sign, a wagging tail (like seen in the image above and video below), plus other excited body language, can be a good sign your dogs are playing together. 

And You Want to See Give and Take

Playing dogs will often switch roles or take short pauses in play where both dogs stop for a moment. The video below shows a good example of two dogs engaging in rambunctious play, but pausing with relaxed body language between spurts of high-energy wrestling.

Tip: Not All Growls Are Aggressive

Don't panic immediately if you hear some growling. Many dogs growl during playtime. Usually, it's a high-pitched growl accompanied by other signs of play, whereas an aggressive growl is low in tone and intense enough to be intimidating. (You can learn about over 18 different sounds dogs make here.) Play growls can be relatively quiet or super loud — it all depends on how excited your dog is. 

Need to Know

Dogs may gently bite or mouth each other, but this is non-aggressive and doesn’t lead to injury.

Look for Apologies, if Things Get Rough

According to Marc Bekoff, a scientific researcher at the University of Colorado and author of A Dog’s World: Imagining the Lives of Dogs in a World without Humans, "when an animal misbehaves or accidentally hurts his play partner, he apologizes — just like a human would. After an intense bite, a bow sends the message, "Sorry I bit you so hard — this is still play regardless of what I just did. Don’t leave; I’ll play fair.” For play to continue, the other individual must forgive the wrongdoing. And forgiveness is almost always offered; understanding and tolerance are abundant during play as well as in daily pack life." 

Quick Tip

If one dog is having fun and the other isn't, it's time to separate them until both are ready to play. 

The Signs of Dog Fights

In a more intense scenario, their body language becomes very different when dogs are engaged in a fight. Dogs who feel the need to protect themselves often have:

  • Stiff bodies
  • Ears will be pinned back to their heads
  • They may display raised hackles (raised fur)
  • Growls may have the mouth pulled back to expose the teeth

  • Growls will be deep and intimidating unless you have a small dog (their growl may sound higher pitched than others)

  • Quick and efficient movements instead of the exaggerated and more leisurely movements of play

  • Bites during fights are more forceful and aimed at causing injury

two dogs looking aggressively at eachother

During the Dog Fight

Dog fights are super scary. They're loud, and instinctively, we may panic as we wonder if they're both going to be okay. Luckily, most fights are over pretty fast, and dogs work things out themselves (but this isn't always the case). Learning how to react and what to do during a dog fight will keep you safe and help the dogs that are fighting. The wrong move could mean a serious injury for you or both dogs. 

Don't Try To Pull Them Apart

We want to protect our dogs, and our first instinct is to jump in and grab them. But it's super important not to do that. If you try to step in between two angry dogs, you could end up getting severely hurt. Think about how you feel when you're angry. Do you think clearly? I know I sure don't. Neither do your dogs.

Ask Them to Come to You

If your dog is fighting with another, stand back and say their name calmly. Try not to scream—this could result in your dog getting even more stressed than they are already. Calmly stating their name will let them know you're right there and they can come to you. It could bring their heightened emotions down enough to pull them away. 

Look For a Distraction

Distracting two dogs with some sort of extremely loud noise during a dog fight could help break them up. Ideally, an air horn could be the best option, as long as you don't push the button near anyone's ears. A spray bottle may also be helpful. A distraction may redirect their attention long enough to get them away from one another or for one of them to back down. 

Quick Tip

If the fight is outdoors, honking your car horn could work to redirect their attention. 

What To Do After a Dog Fight

After the fight, even if your dog appears to be fine, you should bring them to the vet. They could have injuries you don't see, like internal bleeding or a broken rib. If you missed any external injuries, your vet may also be able to see those upon closer inspection. It's always better to be safe than sorry. 

Need to Know

Puncture wounds are hard to spot at first but become infected easily. Your veterinarian is your best resource to help you find and clean puncture wounds before they become inflamed.

Should Dogs Be Allowed to Play?

Yes, dogs should play, especially as puppies, as long as it's a mutually agreed-upon action. Play is one of the many ways to socialize your dog and help them understand the world around them. To them, they're just having a good time. But looking deeper, engaging in play allows dogs to learn social skills that are vital to their development. Through playful interaction, they also learn how to communicate and respond to cues from other dogs. This helps them become more outgoing and well-rounded.

Play also provides dogs with mental stimulation to keep their minds engaged. The mental side of play is equally as important as the physical exercise they get from it. Both mental and physical well-being are necessary for a healthy dog (or even a healthy human). 

Learn Your Individual Dog's Cues

Once you get to know your dog, you get a feel for what makes them upset or angry. For example, there are many dogs who are food-aggressive and will guard their food like it's their job. If this is your dog and your friend brings their dog over and they start playing near the food dish, it could quickly take a turn for the worse. It's important to put your dog's food away so they don't feel the need to keep it protected.

Use Your Own Judgement and Always Supervise

You may not be able to prevent every single fight if your dog is around other dogs often. But by understanding the cues your dog gives before they get super angry, you can prevent most (if not all) fights from occurring. Make sure your dog and the other dog both want to play, that they're matching one another's energy, and remember to never get in the middle of a dog fight. 

Dog Play vs. Fight: 12 Clues to Tell the Difference