Are my dogs playing or fighting?

two dogs playing in a field

Dog play is based on hunting behaviours so it’s no wonder that it can be tricky for any dog owner or professional dog walker, new or experienced, to try and work out if playtime has suddenly become too rough and if one of them has stopped enjoying it.

Luckily for us, there are some reliable signals that dogs show to tell each other they’re only playing. If we train ourselves to look for them then we’ll be able to spot those moments when we might have to intervene. 

So whether you’ve introduced a new puppy or dog into your gang, or perhaps you’re trying to work out if a dog really likes playing with that one at his daycare group or not, then these top ten tips are for you.

Short of time? Scroll down to number 10 for the gold standard ‘is my dog really enjoying this?’ test.

  1. The Play Bow
  2. Waggy Tails
  3. Mouth
  4. Ears
  5. Floppy Body
  6. Equal Play
  7. Noise
  8. Self-handicapping
  9. Hackles 
  10. Permission Test

silhouette of a dog bowing

1. The Play Bow

If one, or both, dogs are bowing to each other that’s a great sign that they want to play. The play bow is an invitation to the other dog, it’s the equivalent of going to your friend’s house, knocking on the door and asking if they want to come out to play. 

It’s polite body language and one that is commonly spotted by most owners.

A dog might ramp it up a notch by thumping their feet down in the bow if they’re particularly keen to try and get the other dog to play.

If the other dog’s response to the bow is to turn away, move away, start sniffing the ground or sit and scratch themselves, this might be a displacement behaviour. These are things your dog might do if they’re not sure how to respond. It doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t want to play with the dog inviting them to, it just means they’re not too sure. Give them a second to think, don’t intervene just yet, but keep a keen eye on the situation. 

If the inviting dog doesn’t take no for an answer and doesn’t recognise the displacement communication then it has the potential to escalate.

2. Waggy Tails

Probably the MOST misunderstood of all the dog’s body language signals. 

A waggy tail means a happy dog right?

Not always…

A dog has many different types of wag. 

Level and slow = I’m uncertain

Held high and stiff = Alert

Down and wagging = concerned

Short wags = anxious

Broad wags = Happy

Even the side matters. 

More to the left = Unsure, dislike, nervous

Mor to the right = Confident, like, content

3. Mouth

2 dogs bitey face playing

This one can fool new puppy owners!

Open-mouthed, teeth clattering against the other dog’s teeth, usually accompanied with snarly growly noises…welcome to bitey face! 

Things to keep an eye on;

Collars – take them off if your dogs are at home (they can get tangled around the other dog’s jaw)

Over excitement – it can escalate if another dog’s enthusiasm for the game isn’t matched by their opponent

Rules – Puppies may not have the social know-how to realise when the game is over and subsequently get told in no uncertain terms that it’s over now.

Mouths should stay open during play, tongues loose and lolling around and one of them will usually be on the ground. 

All loud, frantic and perfectly normal play.

4. Ears

18 muscles control a dog’s ear enabling them to move independently of each other in all directions. All the better to hear you with and great for communicating. 

Let’s let them keep them. #stopthecrop #flopnotcrop

Up, alert and pointing forward? 

Inquisitive, happy and playful.

Back & flat to the head?

Not happy, time to intervene.

5. Floppy body

Are you looking at silly, gangly, floppy, silly, wibbly, wobbly, bouncy, puppy-like movements?

It’s play.

Did they suddenly stiffen and stop moving?

Be aware of possible escalation.

6. Equal Play

The thing to look for here is the bully (the school type, not the xl bully type!).

Does one dog always do the chasing, the grabbing and the standing over?

Is it always the other dog showing submission, rolling over, appeasing him?

Unless the chasing is equal, the rough play shared between them, then you’ve got a bully or at the very least a dog who is impolite and hasn’t learned any doggy etiquette.

With your own dogs at home, they’re going to need frequent time outs to stop this from becoming normal behaviour

In the park, you need to be picking up your ball and taking it home. It might not be their fault they’re being a bully but I wouldn’t want my own dog to be put into a situation that is constantly uncomfortable for them.

7. Noise

2 dogs fighting

When you pay attention to dogs playing you’ll hear short growls, yaps and barks as the excitement grows.

Silence should be considered a danger signal. It means the play has stopped and one or both dogs have tensed up for some reason. Time to step in (safely).

A long, low growl from one of the dogs should also be taken notice of and the dogs split up before it escalates. Better safe than sorry.

8. Self Handicapping

Self-handicapping is actually a beautiful thing to witness in dog play.

It’s a way of describing the behaviour of a clearly bigger, stronger dog when they allow a smaller, weaker dog to overpower them in play.

For example, an adult dog might lay on their side when playing with a puppy in order to level the playing field.

If you’ve got a puppy then these are the dogs you want yours to be playing with at the park. 

9. Hackles

Also known as a piloerection, this ridge of bristling fur signifies that the dog could enter a flight or fight response and that they are uncomfortable with the current situation they find themselves in.

The most common time to see this is when two dogs meet who don’t know each other. Sometimes the hackles will settle down again but again, it’s sometimes better safe than sorry, especially with an unknown dog. 

10. Permission Test – Are dogs playing or fighting?

Did you skip here from the top? That’s ok, I’ll get to the point.

To do a permission test;

Hold onto the dog who is being the most assertive. (If this isn’t your dog, ask the owner to hold their dog a second)

Watch to see if the other dog moves away from the held dog or if they come closer to continue the play.

Using this method means you don’t have to guess if your dog’s enjoying the rough play or not, they’ll tell you by their actions.

But, you MUST believe your dog.

If they’ve moved away because they weren’t enjoying it then allow them that space. Any sort of encouraging them to play with the other dog will only backfire and will ruin their trust in you. This is especially important if this is in the context of introducing a new dog into your household (or group walk). Forced interaction will always end in tears. 

2 dogs playing

What to do if a fight breaks out.

Maybe you missed a couple of signals and a fight breaks out anyway.

Or perhaps someone else at the park isn’t as informed as you are now and their dogs are fighting.

What should you do?

Firstly, real fights are rare.

Animals have a survival instinct built-in, and avoiding fights is the best way to survive in the wild where there are no vets with sutures and antibiotics.

In my opinion, you’re never going to stop a real fight without getting hurt.

Secondly, scuffles are common.

These are very noisy, over in seconds and no one is bleeding.

In my opinion, the only participants who get hurt in a scuffle are the humans who choose to intervene.

In both scenarios, you can make a noise, flap your arms, throw something at them, spray with a hosepipe, etc. but it’s going to be over when it’s over.

You’ll read other websites describing the wheelbarrow technique, or using a slip lead or a break stick, but in all honesty, unless you’re military / police / professionally working with aggressive dogs, you’re only going to hurt yourself or the dog if you try these techniques. And for the love of God please don’t put a finger in any of a dog’s orifices.

Far better to try and remain calm, get ready for when they stop fighting and assess both dogs swiftly to see if they need veterinary attention.

Thankfully these situations are rare and now you know what to look out for, they’ll be even rarer because you’ll know when to step in.

Prevention is always better than cure.


The dog walking coach website is supported by our visitors. Some of the product links on this website are through affiliate schemes such as Amazon. This means that I earn a small commission if you choose to purchase something at no extra cost to yourself.

Scroll to Top