Telling the difference between proper dog play and play that crosses the line into trouble isn’t always easy. Chasing, growling, tackling and biting can be part of normal fun — or part of conflict between dogs. Animal behavior researchers refer to social dog play as “play fighting” for good reason. Dog play includes many of the same behaviors seen during real fights.
Dogs have ways of communicating with each other that tells their playmates when they’re having fun and when they’re serious. But unless you’re into dog behavior, you may miss these subtle cues. What looks like a deadly fight could, in reality, be two pups having great fun.
Knowing what appropriate dog social play looks like is important to figuring out when play is escalating and getting closer to a fight. And it lets you know when to step in before someone gets hurt.
What does appropriate dog play look like?
Loose, relaxed and bouncy bodies
Dogs at play are relaxed and floppy in their movements. Their movements are also big and exaggerated during play. Playing dogs will happily fall down and make themselves vulnerable to their playmates. You know dogs are comfortable when they don’t worry about exposing their bellies.
According to Cathy Madson, a certified dog trainer, dogs produce exaggerated vocalizations during play, too. Play growling and snarling is extra loud, prolonged and often punctuated by medium to high-pitched barks.
In contrast, if your dog is making quick, efficient movements without bouncing around, he or she may be taking playtime too seriously. Pinned ears, a closed mouth or a curled lip are also warning signs that a dog may be on the verge of aggression.
Play bows are an invitation to play
Similar to the downward dog pose in yoga, a play bow occurs when a dog “bows” — front legs on the floor and their butts in the air — to another dog. This signal invites another dog to play. Or a dog may use it during play as a way to say, “I’m still playing; you’re still playing, right?” Play bows also allow both dogs to catch their breath.
Happy playmates switch roles
During appropriate dog play, playmates switch roles throughout play. For example, one dog might be chased first, only to turn around to become the pursuer.
Plenty of pauses pressed
Social play includes brief pauses that help prevent play from escalating into a danger zone. Taking pauses during wrestling and chases help dogs manage their own energy levels, and may occur so quickly that you might miss them. Pauses can also be longer if the dogs feel play is becoming too rough.
Bite inhibition necessary for a good time
Dogs use their mouths and teeth a lot during play. So a dog’s ability to inhibit bites or keep their mouthing behavior from hurting the other dog is necessary for everyone to have fun. Bite inhibition is something dogs learn from their littermates, parents, unrelated dogs and even us.
If a dog bites too hard during play, the other dog typically communicates by yelping and stopping play. If a dog doesn’t comply with their playmate’s correction, a fight may break out. Needless to say, we need to supervise our dogs during playtime to make sure dogs are listening to each other.
Know what’s normal for your dogs
Every dog has a different play style, so you’ll need to learn what’s “normal” for your dogs. Knowing what’s normal play lets you recognize when your dog is getting overly excited or becoming aggressive and stop playtime before things get out of control.