How to Tell If Dogs Are Playing or Fighting

Golden retrievers playing
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A dog fight is one of the most frightening things a dog owner can witness. Many owners have trouble determining when a dog fight is beginning and how to tell the difference between playing and fighting. It can also be difficult to know when to step in and stop the interaction between dogs. Knowing how to prevent dog fights in the first place is one of the most important things for dog owners to understand.

Understand Dog Play Versus Fighting

Dog play mimics fighting and can sometimes look rougher than it really is. Any play session can escalate to a fight, but it is less likely when there are two well-socialized dogs playing. Adding a third dog (or more) into the mix increases the likelihood of fighting because multiple dogs may gang up on one dog. If one or more dogs are not well-socialized or have a history of aggression toward dogs, a fight is even more likely to develop.

It can be difficult for the untrained eye to determine when play turns to fighting. A good understanding of canine body language is essential while supervising dog play. Most dog play begins with the "play bow." During a play bow, a dog "bows" with his front legs and chest close to the ground while the back legs are straight and the rump is in the air. This is an invitation to play. Vocalization can be a normal part of dog play and should not be confused with aggression. In fact, the worst dogs fights don't tend to be as loud as some heavy play sessions. Playing dogs are loose and flowing. They switch places as the bottom and top dog. They usually respond to sights and sounds around them (or notice them and then purposely ignore them). They bite each other around the neck and head but do not break the skin. When dogs begin to fight, they tighten up and become more focused (even obsessed with one another). The posture becomes rigid and one or both dogs will stand as if trying to appear larger. Sometimes, one dog will be acting more as the aggressor and the other will be pinned down much of the time. They may freeze and stare directly at one another with low head carriage, ears back, low growls, and/or curled lips to show their canine teeth. As the fight escalates, the dogs may begin to bite hard enough to create bleeding wounds. The aggressor may bite and hold on, seemingly locking its teeth onto the other dog. Injured dogs will whimper or cry.

Labradors playing
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Why Dogs Fight

There are so many reasons that a fight may break out among dogs. Play gone too far is just one scenario. When one dog suddenly attacks another, there may be a variety of causes. The attack is sometimes over food, toys or territory. Sometimes, it is a case of redirected aggression (one dog senses a threat and attacks the nearest dog because he cannot get to the actual threat). These situations commonly occur in multi-dog households or at dog parks. Two dogs may be the best of friends until something sets one dog off and instinct takes over. Alternatively, two dogs living in the same home may not get along well in general. This situation is like a ticking time bomb. It may take only the slightest issue to set one of the dogs off. Also, two dogs may fight over attention from their owner or in an effort to protect an owner.

Be aware that fights are more common when more than two dogs are present. Also, dogs that are not spayed/neutered tend to fight more as they are influenced by their sex hormones. Any dog that is poorly socialized is also more likely to be in a fight since they may have trouble reading the body language from other dogs, or communicating their own needs. A dog that has been an aggressor in a fight in the past should be watched more closely in the future, and in a home, two dogs who have been in serious fights at any point in the past should not be left together unsupervised. It is always important to take precautions and be aware of situations that could escalate into aggression so you can protect yourself and your dog.

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