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The Difference Between Play Fighting and Real Fighting

Updated: Jan 23


It is very common for dogs to play fight or wrestle, but how do you know if dogs are just playing and not fighting and trying to actually hurt each other? Many dogs, especially large dog breeds, tend to play very rough. This can be worrisome to onlookers who don’t understand the difference between fighting and playing, especially because the sounds dogs make while playing can sound very aggressive. We will go through several characteristics of fighting and playing so that you can recognize problems and know when and how to intervene.


Common characteristics of playing


  • Front play bowing - when dogs are playing, they will drop down on front legs while keeping their hind legs up and head low.

  • Playful look on their face - dogs actually say a lot through their expressions. Dogs who are happy and playing will show expressions that may consist of a raised brow, open mouth, floppy tongue, wide eyes.

  • Wagging tail - usually the biggest tell that a dog is having fun is a “happy tail”. This can be slow sweeps or fast sweeping.

  • Bouncy movements - playing dogs will jump and bounce around.

  • Barking or Play Growling - playing dogs can be very loud. A dog who is playing is going to bark and growl playfully. This growl usually sounds very exaggerated and continuous.

  • Biting - dogs who are playing a lot of times will bite or grab each other but will do so without snapping or aggressively shaking their head while biting. Playing dogs will grab each other or try to bite feet or legs but will do so without hurting the other dog.

  • Showing vulnerability - if dogs are exposing their bellies by flopping or rolling around; this shows they don’t feel any real threat.

  • Both dogs keep going back to each other - if one dog looks like he is trying to get away or hide from the other, this is a good indication that one of the dogs is done or that the play fighting went too far.


Signs that dogs are fighting



  • Facial expression looks very focused and intense - brow is furrowed, head is lowered, mouth is barely open or closed with lips raised to bare teeth.

  • Tail is low and not wagging

  • Neck/back hair is raised

  • While fighting, dogs are snapping at each other. Barking very fast and loud. One dog may whimper if hurt.


How to handle a fight


Usually it is best to just allow dogs to resolve fights themselves then assess the damage afterwards. If a dog’s life may be in danger or the dogs are noticeably hurting each other significantly, below are some suggestions of how to handle the situation.


  • Do not try to pull the dogs away from each other, dogs who are fighting may confuse you as a threat and attack you.

  • Wait a short amount of time to see if the fight concludes on its own.

  • If the fight persists, use a bucket of water or a hose to end the fight safely from a distance.

  • If water doesn’t work, try to use a distraction like a whistle or a dog trainer stick, or a gate you can try to slide between them.

  • If you need to try to intervene by pulling dogs apart, make sure you use proper protection to avoid an unintentional bite.


The best way to avoid fights is to notice personalities that are not working well together and try and keep those dogs apart. Never feed dogs in the same place and always make sure there are plenty of toys to share. Proper oversight and knowing the ques of fights will help to prevent serious injuries and insure your dog is having a good time.

At Backyard Dog Care and Boarding we take care to observe personalities of dogs and we work to separate dogs who are not behaving well together. Your dog’s safety is our highest priority. Dog fights are very common but our highly trained staff is prepared to intervene properly in order to help prevent injuries to your pet.



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