Dog play fighting: everything you need to know about the behavior

Dog play fighting
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Dog play fighting often mystifies owners. As much as we love dogs, they don't express themselves like us, so many owners may get alarmed if they see dogs wrestling, body-slamming and mouthing each other. They may intervene, worrying that the dogs are trying to hurt each other, when in fact it's most often normal dog play.

Puppies play fight with their littermates all the time, starting as early as two weeks old. In fact, they spend much of their time eating, sleeping, going to the bathroom, and wrestling with each other. For humans, learning how to play with a puppy will help you understand the importance of play, even play fighting , which helps them get socialized with other dogs - and is also quite entertaining to watch. But if you recently adopted more than one doggy or added another dog to the family, you may be unaccustomed to dog play fighting. 

How do you know what is dog play fighting and what is examples of genuine dog aggression? We're here to help you tell the difference...

Is it okay for dogs to play fight?

Dog play fighting is a very natural way for canines to communicate, socialize, and get out some pent-up energy. Play fighting may seem intense, especially for new or relatively inexperienced dog owners, but it should be allowed. Play fighting dogs are getting exercise and socialization, while play fighting puppies are learning important adult dog behaviors, so try not to discourage them.

However, it's important to be able to tell the difference between play fighting and a real fight, especially when introducing dogs for the first time. We'll teach you how to recognize signs of potential conflict and walk you though how to calmly de-escalate and separate. Play time is important for dogs, as is keeping your puppies safe. 

What does it mean when my dogs play fight?   

Dog play fighting is just socialization made a bit more physical. Since dogs can't talk, they communicate with body language, and play fighting is akin to having a light ribbing session with a good buddy. Young puppies play with their littermates all the time, which helps with their social development by teaching them about dog manners and bite inhibition, according to the AKC (opens in new tab)

An unsocialized dog may not know the difference between a playful nip and a painful bite, or may not understand when to give another dog space. That's why dog play fighting is so important at a young age and beyond. 

 Play fighting in puppies

puppy play fighting

(Image credit: Getty Images)

If there's more than one puppy in a room, chances are they're play fighting. This is a good thing! Remember, puppy play fighting is crucial to their socialization and growth and will help them become better behaved adult dogs that understands boundaries and bite inhibition. It's adorable to watch and it's good for them. 

How do you tell if dogs are playing or being aggressive? 

As mentioned earlier, it's incredibly important that you recognize warning signs of aggressive behavior so that you can tell the difference between dog play fighting and an actual dog fight. This will help keep your dogs safe and healthy, not only by ensuring they don't get injured, but also by ensuring you don't anxiously stop them play fighting and cut off important socialization time. We've pulled some tips from the AKC (opens in new tab) to ensure we're giving you the best info on how to discern play fighting from real fighting. 

Dog play fighting behaviors

Dog play fighting

(Image credit: Getty Images)
  • Open-mouthed grinning
  • Bouncy, exaggerated, goofy movements
  • Play bowing, or putting their front end down and their rear end up in the air - dogs trying to initiate play may slap their front legs on the ground a few times
  • Loud growling and snarling that is exaggerated
  • Returning to play fight over and over again

Dog behaviors that are aggressive/real fighting

  • Stiff bodies, raised hackles (hair standing up along their spine)
  • Quick, stiff, efficient movements - no bounciness or exaggeration
  • Closed mouth with a curled lip
  • Low, grumbling growl that acts as a warning
  • One dog trying to get away from the other

 How to stop dogs fighting 

If, unfortunately, you do witness your dog getting into an actual physical altercation, hopefully it will be a short fight. Often times the "losing" dog will attempt to leave the area to avoid further altercations. If this happens, check to make sure your dog is okay, and if you have any doubt bring your dog to a vet immediately. There could be internal injuries, especially if there is a big size difference between dogs.

If, however, you witness a dog fight that clearly needs to be broken up, do not try to grab them by the collar or use your body to break them up. This could easily result in you getting bitten. Physically breaking up dogs is a last resort, and it has to be done so with care.

The AKC has great tips on how to break up a dog fight from a certified professional dog trainer. Here are some:

  • Distract the dogs with noise or water or other modes of distraction. This could mean banging pots together, blowing an air horn, spraying them with a hose, throwing a blanket over one, or even spraying their face with a bad-tasting spray.
  • Use an object to separate them, like a broom stick, a baby gate, a chair, or anything you can wedge in between them. 
  • If you must physically separate them, AKC suggests the wheelbarrow technique, with one person assigned to each dog approaching them from behind and lifting their hind legs. Walk the dogs backwards away from each other and into separate spaces until they can no longer see each other. 

The final word on dog play fighting

Dog play fighting is an important part of socialization and a great physical activity for dogs. While it may initially be alarming, know that it's all in good fun and maybe you'll learn to enjoy it as much as your dogs do. 

Hopefully you and your dogs will only ever experience play fighting, but it's important that you can recognize the signs of serious fighting and are prepared to break it up. However, most of the time dog play fighting is just that: play.