How to Tell if Dogs are Playing or Showing Aggression

October 3, 2013

By Linda Cole

Two of my dogs, Keikei and Dozer, constantly play in a way that would likely cause someone who doesn’t know them to assume they’re in an all-out fight. There are growls, yips and direct eye contact as they jockey around for good attacking positions. I know my dogs well enough to understand there is no aggression present in what appears to be aggressive tussling. However, even though I know it’s play, I still keep a sharp eye on them when they’re play fighting to make sure it doesn’t escalate to the next level. There are ways to tell the difference between aggression and play.

Play is an important part of a puppy’s education. They learn about bite inhibition, social skills and boundaries by curbing rough play so it doesn’t escalate into a fight. Dogs enjoy playing, and it’s a fun way to get beneficial exercise and bond with us and other dogs – as long as things don’t get out of hand. Our job is to recognize the warning signs of aggression and slow things down or stop play when necessary. We also need to allow non-aggressive actions to continue and let the dogs involved sort things out on their own.

Everyone has boundaries, including dogs. There are some things we let slide, and some things we just won’t tolerate. We have a line that, if crossed, may trigger a forceful reprimand that could turn into a more aggressive response. Dogs can’t sit down and discuss objections, and their only option to make their desires known is by submitting or lashing out. In my dogs’ case, both of them love a full contact, high-paced game of “attacking” each other. Both have dominant personalities, but they know each other’s breaking point and when it’s time to back off. However, there are times I have to step in to control a situation when their body language indicates one of them has had enough, and the other missed or ignored the signals.

Body language is important for us to understand. During play, dogs are their own best umpire and regulate their bite, strength and even speed to keep a game going. When they are playing, their body language is relaxed. There’s no tension in their body, the tail is wagging, there’s lots of play bows, timeouts to rest, open mouth panting that resembles a smile, and relaxed eyes. Red flags during play are raised hackles, curled lip, tense posture, stiff legs, intense stare, standing over a dog in an intimidating way, tail positioned down or held high over the back and ears pulled back closer to the head. Growls will become more insistent, and a dog might snap at the other dog to try and keep his adversary at bay. If a dog becomes overwhelmed with rough play, he can become scared and his body language will show it. He will avoid eye contact, cower and try to find a way to escape from an uncomfortable situation. A scared dog can become aggressive.

Some canines like rough play, but not all of them do. When one dog ignores the body language of another one, that’s when problems can arise, and it’s time to step in. A timeout is needed to calm things down on both sides. When they go back to playing, monitor both dogs to make sure they are playing and both are having fun. If you have to step in a second time, that’s when it’s time to stop their play.

A dog with poor social skills can interpret the interaction of an energetic dog in the wrong way. Mouthing is an acceptable part of playing for most dogs, but an uneducated dog may take it as an aggressive or intimidating act. On the flip side is a dog who is playing rough and misses subtle body language of a dog saying he isn’t happy playing with him, and that’s when a fight is apt to break out.

It’s perfectly acceptable for dogs to put their chin on each other’s back, mount another dog during play, paw, growl or mouth each other. What isn’t acceptable is a growl that isn’t playful sounding, grabbing and shaking, especially if the dog is smaller than the dog doing the shaking. This can easily be seen as intimidating, and could severely injure the dog being shaken. As long as both dogs are relaxed, it’s obvious they are enjoying themselves and you see appropriate playful body language, you are watching dogs having fun.

If you think your dog is getting too rough and the other dog wants the game to end, hold on to both of them for a brief moment, then let the other dog loose. If he runs away, your instincts were correct, but if he comes toward your dog relaxed and showing appropriate body language, they were having fun and he wants to continue.

Top photo by Lennart Tange
Bottom photo by Amanda Michelle Bindhammer

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  1. Good article. My dogs love to play rough and sound like they’re out to kill each other sometimes, but they’re playing and having fun.