Normal Dog Play vs. Aggression – Know the Difference and Keep Your Dogs Safe


I remember back when I was about nine years old, “play fighting” with my friend Jerry. I think that’s something that most kids do, saying “Hey, let’s pretend we’re fighting!” and just going from there.

The trouble with my “play fight” with Jerry was that things kind of went south. I’m not sure why. At some point, Jerry reacted badly, and I thought we were still playing. Jerry ran off, and I said, “So are you still coming back after supper?” and Jerry said “I don’t know if I can. I don’t know if I want to!”

I came in for supper feeling totally bewildered. Then my mom gently pointed out that at some point, the “play fighting” must have become real to Jerry.

But at what point? Even to this day, I don’t know what went wrong, why it went wrong, or when it went wrong.

Who was at fault? Maybe me, maybe Jerry, and maybe nobody at all. But somewhere along the line, it went wrong.

This can happen with dogs, too. Sometimes, dogs will engage in play fighting, and then it turns into something else. I’ve seen it happen in my dogs from time to time, and sometimes it’s hard to know if they’re just playing, or if things have tipped over into aggression.

Let’s talk about it.

How Do Dogs “Play Fight”?

Sometimes, it’s hard to determine what’s “normal dog play fighting” and what’s the real thing. Even in play fight, a dog might bark, growl, snarl, bare his teeth and even grab another dog by the neck in order to make him submit. Sometimes, “play fighting” and genuine aggression can look very similar. So how do you tell the difference?

Look at the intensity. When a dog is “play fighting,” he’ll “pull” his bites in the same way that a pro wrestling entertainer pulls back on his moves. Nobody with a working brain believes that pro wrestling of the WWE variety is genuine, and if you’re really close to the ring, you might even hear a wrestler whisper to another, “Okay, you can body slam me now.”

When Does It Escalate?

By the same token, sometimes, guys take grudges into the ring. Then if you listen closely, you might hear something along the lines of, “Buddy I know we fought in the bar last night over that woman, but I’m not mad at you anymore, so let’s keep this civil.”

Dogs really aren’t much different from humans in this regard. Dogs will engage in normal dog play fighting vigorously, but sometimes, things change. Maybe there’s a bit too much of a nip, or resentment due to other causes, and the “nippee” gets mad at the “nipper.”

So, it’s up to you, as the person who’s supervising the “normal dog play fight” to watch for signs that it might be tipping over into something more serious. If you see a dog grabbing another by the neck, it’s probably not a big deal unless it’s accompanied by shaking. By the same token, if a dog rolls over on his back in a submissive pose, it doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s really submitting – it might just be something along the lines of “Okay, you got me, hahaha! Now let’s try it again!”

Most of the time, too, a dog will recognize the point where another dog is going to misinterpret the behavior, and will back off. It can be hard for a human, though, to identify the point in the behavior where a dog is saying “Okay, dude, take it easy; I’m still playing here!”

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What’s the Difference?

Normal dog “play fighting” is very different from “real fighting,” but honestly, sometimes it takes a dog to know the difference. Dogs will use all the same gestures in a play fight that they will in a real one – they’ll growl, snarl, bark, show their teeth and flip one another over into submission. Sometimes, when humans see this behavior they think they have to intervene. And then, when they do, the dogs are like “WTF? We were just having fun!”

So, how do you know if you’re mistaken?

Look at the Signals

When dogs are “play fighting” as opposed to “real fighting,” they’ll do certain things. Usually they’ll “puppy bounce” from time to time – this is when a dog lowers his front end down to ground level and looks relaxed. He’s saying “Come and play with me!” If he’s playing, he’ll probably hold the position for a bit. If he goes down but doesn’t hold the position, that could indicate aggression.

A dog that’s presented with a “puppy bounce” has two choices – he’ll either engage by moving forward, which means he’s accepted the invitation to play, or he’ll move backward, meaning that he thinks he’s under attack. So watch for those signals.

“Body slamming” is another activity that could mean both “normal dog play” and “aggression.” If one dog is repeatedly slamming another, and not being slammed in return, that might not be play. So, should you allow it?

Well, some dogs enjoy taking the submissive role in play, and if it looks like everything else is going okay, this is probably not something to worry about. On the other hand, if the constantly “slammed” dog seems to be nervous or otherwise agitated, it would probably be a good idea to bring the play to a halt.

Keep in mind that “play fighting” doesn’t have to be balanced, and it doesn’t have to be fair. It’s probably best if the dogs take turns being “predator” and “prey,” but if they’re happy with the arrangement as it exists, don’t sweat it. Most of the time, when it comes to normal play vs. aggression, everyone gets a chance to dominate.

Sometimes, dogs would actually prefer to take the submissive role – “OMG, you’re killing me, I’m dying here, oh, you’re hurting me, please stop, LOLOLOL!!!” Some dogs will naturally take the “top” role while others want to be the “victim.” Hey, it’s just play, so let them do what they want.

When Should You Intervene?

If nobody is being killed, leave it alone. A lot of the time, people misinterpret the way that dogs play, and they break into what is perfectly normal because they’re afraid the dogs are going to get hurt. The reality, though, is that vigorous play hardly ever escalates to the point where a dog is going to get hurt.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that normal dog play is a precursor to genuine fighting. If this were really the case, then dogs would end up getting killed on a pretty much daily basis. Just keep an eye out. If the dogs are very different in terms of age and size, you might have to be a bit more vigilant, but in most cases, you can just let them do their own thing.

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The Final Word

When it comes to normal dog play vs. aggression, use your common sense. Dogs love to play rough, and most of the time, it doesn’t mean anything other than that they’re having a good time. If you think things are getting out of control, by all means, separate the dogs, but don’t be too eager to do it. Even biting and snarling can often mean nothing more than “We’re having a blast here!”

There’s a huge difference between “pretend mean” and “real mean.” It’s up to you to know the difference. Most of the time, you should just let them play.