How do I know whether dogs are playing or fighting?

Hello Dr. Barchas - I am a new pet owner, and I am unfamiliar with the behavior of dogs. For example, how do I know...


Understand Your Dog’s Body Language

Hello Dr. Barchas – I am a new pet owner, and I am unfamiliar with the behavior of dogs. For example, how do I know when dogs are playing compared to fighting? Please help… I am afraid to take my sister’s dog, Buster, to the dog park.


You are wise to be concerned about taking Buster to the dog park. My practice is very close to one of San Francisco’s most active dog parks, and there are days when I spend hours on end patching up dogs who get into fights there.

Dogs have a complex system of body language. Signs of good humor include a raised, wagging tail, alert but comfortable ears, and a stance with the head held high. Signs of fear (which frequently precede a fight) include a head held low, a tail tucked between the legs, an averted gaze, ears held back, bared teeth, or growling. Overtly aggressive dogs that may start a fight without provocation frequently bark, act agitated, and wag their tails.

Although the behaviors listed above may give a general sense of a dog’s temperament, it is not safe to rely upon them completely. Some dogs do not display typical behaviors. As well, dog fights can break out very rapidly between two dogs who seemed to be getting along well at first.

I have two recommendations. First, before you set your dog loose with another dog, get to know the other dog. Watch him for a while to get a sense of his behavior. Also, become acquainted with the other dog’s owner. Try to determine whether he or she is a responsible dog owner. A disproportionate number of dog fights are caused by dogs whose owners have not properly socialized them.

If you take these steps, Buster will be less likely to get into trouble at the park.

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