How Can You Tell When Dogs are Playing or Fighting?
Common dog-park scenario number 1:
Hooper and Lola are playing in the backyard. Suddenly, the dogs are snapping and snarling at each other. The dispute ends quickly and nobody gets hurt, but the humans are shaken. None of them saw that canine argument coming.
Common dog-park scenario number 2:
Hooper and Lola bounce and wrestle. They never stop moving, flashing their teeth at each other, snarling, growling. Their people watch them anxiously, then wade in to break up the “fight.”
Can You Tell if Dogs are Playing or Fighting?
In the first scenario, the humans missed the signs of escalating tension between their dogs.
In the second scenario, they missed the dogs’ mutual signals that all the roughhousing and horrible noises were play.
This week, play–how dogs communicate playful intentions, what play styles different dogs enjoy, and how to tell when the game may be about to go awry.
How Do Dogs Signal They Want to Play?
Most of you probably already know that play often starts with a “play bow”–front end low, butt wiggling in the air, goofy openmouthed smile.
Behavior nerds call the play bow a metasignal, meaning it tells the recipient how to interpret what comes next.
When Lola offers Hooper a play bow, she’s communicating that subsequent lunges, growls, bounces, and snaps aren’t real threats.
When two dogs know each other well, they may barely sketch the play bow. The wonderful researcher and writer Alexandra Horowitz calls the result a “play slap”–exactly what it sounds like, a fast slap with the forepaws of the ground in front of the dog.