When dogs play fight, it can look a lot like real fighting. Knowing how to tell the difference, though, can be a matter of keeping your pooch safe in a dangerous situation. When you can read the signs of play fighting, you can let her have her fun without intervening.
Body Language of Play Fighting
Read the dogs' overall body language. When dogs play fight, they assume positions that they never would in a real skirmish. Most commonly, this means "bowing" to each other by keeping their rears in the air while dipping down with their front legs. This type of bowing can be sustained or quick, so pay attention. A comparable behavior is flopping onto her side to expose her stomach, which a dog engaged in a real fight would not do. Another is allowing herself to be caught by the other dog when they are running around.
Also, look at how she moves. When a dog displays bouncy movements, she is typically engaged in play fighting. A dog in a real fight will move directly toward the other dog stiffly and swiftly, without bounding around.
Signs of Aggression
Watch her face for signs of aggression. A dog engaged in play fighting will often have an open mouth that looks almost like a grin, while an aggressive dog will bare its teeth and keep its lips pulled tight. A dog in a state of genuine aggression will also bear a direct and steady stare toward the other dog.
Try Restraining Your Dog
Attempt to restrain your dog. Whether your dog appears to be the aggressor or the submissive, hold her back momentarily. If either dog is hesitant to return to the fray, this is a sure sign that it's a real fight -- or that the play fight has gone on long enough. If both dogs seem content to keep going, it's likely no real harm is being done.
Warning: If you suspect that your dog is engaged in a serious fight, keep your hands away from its mouth when separating the dogs. Use a hands-off approach if you can, like spraying the dogs with a hose to distract them while you pull them apart. If you have to physically pull the dogs apart, do so by grabbing the back legs or hindquarters.
By Tom Ryan
About the Author
Tom Ryan is a freelance writer, editor and English tutor. He graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with a degree in English writing, and has also worked as an arts and entertainment reporter with "The Pitt News" and a public relations and advertising copywriter with the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.