Roughhousing Among Dogs

Roughhousing Among Dogs

In this post:

  1. How can you tell if dogs are fighting or playing?
  2. How can I create a safe environment during play?
  3. Is mouthing during play allowed?


Please Note: If you are ever unsure about your dog playing too rough speak to a trainer or a behaviorist. They will be able to help you in making that determination and can give you advice.

Play fighting or roughhousing is how dogs play with each other. They can also play with each other through chasing and tug-of-war. That’s really it. They can’t go have a tea party or play dress up, go to the park together and play on the swings, they roughhouse with each other.

Wag play fighting 1

Roughhousing builds confidence in your dog and helps him for a better relationship with other dogs. They also learn bite inhibition during play fighting. Bite inhibition is where the dog learns how to bite without hurting the other dog or person. Dogs use their mouths as hands. So, just like with children when we tell them to not grab or be too rough with their hands, dogs have to learn the same thing. Play fighting lets them do that.

If you ever suspect that one of the dogs is starting to get a little too aroused during the game and might turn into being aggressive, simply stop the play and give the two dogs a break. They can return to play after a couple of minutes. 

How can you tell if dogs are fighting or playing?

First and foremost get familiar with dog body language. Here are some helpful sites for that:

Signs your dog is playing: The dogs should be able to stop when you interfere or when the other dog decides. If the dogs can release quickly, then the physicality is purely recreational.

  • Play bow: when dogs bow their head at the other, they seem to open their neck to attacks. This is them instigating, as if to say to the other, “come on!” Exaggerated, bouncy movement. The dogs are acting silly.
  • Relaxed tails and faces: if the dogs seem relaxed, they are. They do not see their opponent as a threat. A big, silly open-mouthed grin.
  • Rolling over and self-handicapping: this is when the dogs voluntarily make themselves vulnerable by “falling” down and exposing their bellies and allowing themselves to be caught when playing chase.
  • Vocalization: expect your dog to make some noise. Growling and barking are completely normal if both dogs remain comfortable. Play-growling may sound scarier than serious fighting.
  • They take turns: both dogs should be taking turns at who is falling down and who is biting and chasing. They will probably take turns with most play-fighting behaviors.
  • They keep going back for more: even the dog that ends up on his back doesn’t want to stop playing.
  • Dogs should turn their side or back on each other: when dogs face away from their opponent during physical playing, they indicate that they are comfortable. They trust that the other dog will not cause serious harm to them when their back is turned
  • Hackles: they might be standing up during play to make one dog appear bigger than the other.

Just like with children (and a lot of adults) fun can quickly turn into something else! Watch out for shifts in body language, specifically: stiff bodies, high tails, chests out, and an unwillingness to turn around. These are signs that the dogs are shifting from playing to fighting.

Behaviors that tell you this is not a game: The biggest tell that dogs are not playing is that they will have a harder time separating and the aggressor will keep trying to fight and the other dog will try to run away.

  • The dogs’ bodies get very stiff. Hackles (the hair on a dog’s upper back) are raised. You may not be able to see this if the dog has long hair.
  • Closed mouth, curled lip, low warning growl.
  • Movements will be quick and efficient – no bouncing around, no taking turns.
  • Ears will be pinned flat and lips curled back and snarling. No big silly smiles.
  • If the dogs get into actual combat, hopefully, it will be a short encounter, and the “loser” will try to leave the area. There won’t be going back for more play.
  • The dog is trying to get away from the other one, and her body language is not happy and bouncy. The tail is tucked. She isn’t having fun.
Wag scared dog 2
Wag scared dog1

“If your dog is scared, get him away from what scares him; it may be time to leave the park” – IAABC 

Forcing a dog to stay to “get over his fears” is never a good idea. Work with a trainer or a behaviorist instead.

Wag pushy dog0 1
Wag pushy dog1

Pushy dogs aren’t listening to other dogs’ signals! Give him a time-out on a leash or outside the park until he has calmed down and can show good manners.” – IAABC

How can I create a safe environment during play?

Make sure that all dogs are comfortable during the play session! If you think someone is not enjoying themselves, just separate the dogs and give them a moment to catch their breath. If they were enjoying themselves they will go right back to playing with each other.

Keep in mind that some breeds have more delicate skin that can rip and tear easily, so no holding should be allowed. Even when everyone is having fun accidents can occur.

  • Not every dog is meant for the dog park, and that’s OK. They may be better off playing at home with you or with a dog buddy they know well.
  • It’s okay for your dog not to roughhouse or wrestle with other dogs. Find other things your dog enjoys.
  • Don’t allow a puppy or dog to be ganged up on by other dogs.
  • Keep food and toys out of the picture. Most dogs are possessive of their food and their stuff. To them, it’s worth fighting for.
  • NEVER let your dog wrestle with a dog wearing metal collars like chockers, prong, or pincher collars. During play, their teeth or tongue can get caught in the metal and you will not be able to separate them. Them pulling to get out of the chain could strangle the dog wearing the chain collar. – Unless you have bolt cutters ready…
  • NEVER let children join in between two dogs playing. Someone can get hurt.
  • If dogs are not being supervised REMOVE ALL COLLARS to prevent one of the dogs from getting caught in the collar and strangling the other dog on accident.

Is mouthing during play allowed?

Many dogs will bite or mouth when playing. In the dog world, mouthing is natural and acceptable as long as no one is getting hurt. Mouthing should be light and quickly released once contact is made. 

If raised properly, your dog should know good bite inhibition. A lot of dogs can sound and seem like they are being aggressive when playing, but these sounds are perfectly normal. 

However, it is your responsibility to make sure both dogs are comfortable when playing and that one dog does not escalate to the next level. If your dog is causing damage to other dogs or is being too aggressive, call a professional trainer to evaluate your dog.

Final Thoughts

Puppies will often bite when they are first learning to play. Anyone who has raised a dog from a pup will remember the bites on their fingers from a dog not knowing their own strength or what is acceptable for playing. This is the key reason why social acclimation at a young age is an integral part of the training. 

Dogs who learn how to play early learn these social rules. Older dogs unfamiliar with playtime conduct may be misunderstood by other dogs as aggressive or unfriendly. Watch how your dog plays and be ready to interrupt if need be. Know the difference between your dog having fun and your dog getting ready to escalate. 

Aly DelaCoeur, UW-AAB
Aly DelaCoeur, UW-AAB is one of the founders of Wag Enabled (originally Why Does My Dog). Aly has a certificate in applied animal behavior through the University of Washington and is a certified veterinary assistant and AKC Evaluator. She aims to provide an unbiased perspective on dog training by providing practical, intelligent, and caring advice for people to impart on their canine companions