Playing Or Fighting? Your Dog’s Body Language5 min read

During their first 8 weeks, puppies are exposed to volumes of information on social and coping skills from their mother and siblings. Puppies separated too soon from mom and littermates, usually are severely socially handicapped in the fine art of being a well-adjusted, well-mannered dog. Deficient in coping skills and doggie manners, many suffer their entire lives with serious anti-social behavioral problems. Sadly, they are not happy dogs.

Dogs usually communicate non-verbally. It’s all about body language. During those first 2 months, two of the most important things puppies learn are how to initiate play and when and how to defend themselves. Mom usually stays out of things, and lets the kids figure it out for themselves. However, a good mom will step in and referee, if the kids start to get out of control. It is during these little lessons in manners; a puppy learns how to play and more importantly gains the knowledge and skills on how to peacefully and confidently find their place in the world of dogs.

Invitations to play are obvious to well-adjusted puppies and dogs that have gone through “basic training” with mom and siblings. They can read the invitation sent by another dog. They know when they are approached with a play bow, demonstrated by the other dog’s butt in the air, front legs extended, a verbal message through a playful bark or growl, tail high and wagging, they have just been invited to play. The invite may also include a few pawing motions, and a teasing poke or two

While extending the invitation, some dogs are known to make a “funny face”, often mistaken by inexperienced dog owners as threatening. In reality, it’s a dog’s way of adding a goofy grin to the request. It’s their way of saying, “Ya want to play?” or “Come on, let’s wrestle or chase each other.”

When dogs play, size usually doesn’t matter. It is an astute well-mannered larger dog, that has learned to make themselves appear smaller, so as not to appear threatening to smaller dogs. Typically, they will self-inhibit, and take on the submissive role, by rolling over on their backs, to show the smaller dog, “Look, I’m vulnerable…play with me!”

Many a dog park patron has been embarrassed when his or her dog mounts another dog…especially if they are of the same sex. Relax. It’s not always a sexual thing. It’s a normal part of playing and showing the other guy. “I’m a legend in my own mind.”

Puppies and dogs equipped with adequate social skills usually know, when it is time to de-escalate a situation if it starts to get too rough. They display a self-inhibiting manner by rolling over on their back and acting submissively. This display sends the message, “OK, I’ve had enough, you win! Let’s go have a drink.”

Two dogs that know each other well, will often take turns being submissive. Watching then play together is like watching a soap opera! There is lots of drama, no substance and a ton of fun. The best part is, they go home tired and happy!

One of the most interesting behaviors between two dogs that know each other well, is when rough play slips into bite wrestling, where they drag each other by the skin, tail or ears, they suddenly stop, wander off together for a quick drink to cool off, and then resume the game where they left off.

Watching the silliness and fun two dogs share playing together, is excellent laugh therapy. One hour at a dog park is probably more beneficial than ten with your therapist!

In fact, dogfights are not as common an occurrence as most think. Most dogs find some sort of common denominator to have a reason to play with each other, rather than fight each other.

That is not to say some dogs aren’t bullies or just plain mean! Just as with socially handicapped people, there are dogs that like to pick fights. Their body language is quite clear. They want to appear as big and as threatening as possible. They stand tall and stiff, feet firmly planted on the ground. Hackles are up. Ears are either pinned back, or pointed forward. There is an intense stare, eyes narrowed. Lips are drawn to a curl, showing bared teeth. Some may make a low growl. The tail is straight out, and full. This is a dog that is looking for a fight!

If it is your dog displaying this behavior, get them under control immediately! If it is not your dog, do not make any quick movements. If your dog has ample social skills, they will instantly display a submissive posture. More often than not, their behavior is enough to defuse the situation. If your dog challenges the other dog, or their display of submission is not enough, you may have a dogfight on your hands.

Never reach in between fighting dogs, to grab their collar or scruff of their neck. When your dog is in a survival mode, they will not see you as their protector.

Instead, each owner should grab their dog by the rear legs, and separate them by “wheel-barreling” them away from each other. After separating the dogs, each owner needs to start turning in a circle, or if possible, slowly swinging their dog in a circle, while backing away from the other dog. By doing this swinging motion, it makes it difficult for your dog from curling around and misdirecting their aggression to you!

Do not release either dog! Get them out of each other’s sight, as quickly as possible.

Bottom line: By learning to read your dog’s body language you will learn to tell the difference between play postures and fight postures. Learn to read their posture, tail, head, ears, mouth, and eyes. Learn to read the difference between their different barks and growls. Learn to tell if your dog’s body is relaxed and open to the invitation. Learn to know when your dog is ready to have fun or start a fight!



by Karen Soukiasian

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