So how to tell if your dog is playing rough? If two dogs are struggling and it seems too rough to you, with all that growling and snarling, body-slamming, and biting off each other’s necks, should you intervene? Can you tell the difference between playing and fighting?
This is regular dog play. Puppies play with their littermates regularly. From around two weeks, when their eyes open, until they go to their own homes, they spend almost all of their waking hours wrestling with each other. It’s a critical time for social development because it is when they learn bite inhibition and good dog manners. It is good exercise and socialization for them and fun for us to watch. But you should learn how to tell the difference between playing and a real fight when adult dogs are involved.
Behaviors that say it is all good fun
1. The play bow front end down, back end in the air. Sometimes the dog trying to initiate play will slap his front legs down on the ground repeatedly.
2. A big, silly open-mouthed grin.
3. Exaggerated, bouncy movement. The dogs are acting silly.
4. Loud, continuous growling and snarling; again, exaggerated. Play-growling may sound scarier than serious fighting.
5. The dogs voluntarily make themselves vulnerable by “falling” down and exposing their bellies and allowing themselves to be caught when playing chase. They take turns chasing each other.
6. They keep going back for more. Even the dog that ends up on his back doesn’t want to stop playing. They will probably take turns with most play-fighting behaviours.
Behaviors that tell you this is not a game
1. The dogs’ bodies get very stiff. Hackles (the hair on a dog’s upper back) are raised. You may not be able to see this if the dog has long hair.
2. Closed mouth, curled lip, low warning growl.
3. Movements will be quick and efficient – no bouncing around, no taking turns.
4. Ears will be pinned flat and lips curled back and snarling — no big silly smiles.
5. If the dogs get into actual combat, hopefully, it will be a short encounter, and the “loser” will try to leave the area. There won’t be going back for more play.
6. The dog is trying to get away from the other one, and her body language is not happy and bouncy. The tail is tucked. She isn’t having fun.