How Does Dog Play Turn Into a Fight? 10 Problems to Watch For

When dogs go from playing to fighting, it may be difficult pinpoint the exact trigger. As upsetting as this is, taking a break from the dog park may be the most important step.

How Does Dog Play Turn Into a Fight? 10 Problems to Watch For

When dogs go from playing to fighting, it may be difficult pinpoint the exact trigger. As upsetting as this is, taking a break from the dog park may be the most important step.


How Do You Know When Dog Play Turns Aggressive?

When dog play turns into a fight, the experience can be very upsetting and even scary to witness.

One moment the dogs are playing, the next, teeth are clashing in the midst of harsh barks and growls. But is there a way to stop the aggression before it starts? How do you know when play is about to turn into real fighting?

Ignoring the problem and hoping it's just a one-time ordeal or letting dogs "work it out" is not wise advice considering the risks for injuries to other dogs and people benevolently trying to separate the dogs.

Why Do Dogs Go From Playing to Fighting?

The reasons why a normal play session turns into a fight are various, and it's not always possible to correctly identify the exact culprit. Oftentimes, play turns into fighting at the dog park, where a bunch of dogs with different play styles are put together in hopes of wearing out the dogs and letting them "have fun."

However, not all dogs have really fun at the dog park. This is especially the case when dogs are bullied or put into overwhelming situations.

Frequenting a dog park without seeing what is really going on risks reinforcing many negative play behaviors in dogs over and over. Even just allowing dogs to arrive at the park in a hyper, hysterical state is reinforcing this mindset.

10 Reasons Dogs Start Fighting Instead of Playing

Following are some general reasons that could potentially lead to a fight:

  • Building arousal and overexcitement among the playing dogs
  • Bullying behaviors causing dogs to become defensive
  • The addition of another dog
  • Dogs playing the "fun police" role
  • Play signals being misinterpreted
  • The phenomenon of predatory drift
  • Puppies developing and reaching social maturity
  • Tendencies towards guarding recourses
  • And more...

Let's take a closer look.

1. A Matter of Overexcitement

It can happen at times that dogs get kicked out of daycare because when they play, they get overly excited and aroused, to the point where it turns into aggression.

Some mild cases of overexcitement can get better by removing the dog from the play group and allowing the excitement levels to go down before being re-introduced again. It's important to interrupt play before the dog gets too overstimulated.

Such dogs, with time, may learn to moderate their play or go on their own to a quiet area to relax before getting overwhelmed.

If dogs arrive at the park or daycare in an overly aroused state, it may help to do some heeling exercises by the area before allowing play so as to not reinforce leash pulling and high arousal.

Play can sometimes get rough among dogs.

2. Defense From Bullies

When you put several different dogs together, it's easy to encounter some dogs who play too rough or engage in bullying behaviors. This can happen at dog parks or daycares where there's not much management going on.

Not all dogs do well with rough play or certain play styles, and these interactions may lead to fights.

A dog may therefore play well until another dog does something that the dog dislikes or perceives as "pushy," such as trying to mount, placing a leg on a shoulder or not respecting the need for a break.

The dog may rebel against this type of play, and soon the dogs are fighting. In these cases, it may help to skip the dog park or unmoderated daycare and opt instead for organized play sessions picking only appropriate playmates.

Another option is using a daycare run by dog trainers who can moderate play and pick suitable playmates.

Bullying dogs may be helped by letting them play with good teacher dogs who can teach them to slow down and play in more appropriate ways.

3. A Third Intruder

Often, dogs play with a playmate and enjoy their time until a third dog may want to join in. This third dog is not always welcome, so it's important to keep an eye on the interaction, as things can sometimes escalate into a fight.

It can happen that one dog may be protective of his playmate, and both dogs may signal to the "intruder dog" that they don't wish for this third dog to join them in play. A dog who ignores these requests to not join in can cause a reaction that may turn into a fight.

Tension can also take place when several dogs have been playing in the play area for a while. In these cases, it is possible for territorial tendencies to pop up when a new dog enters the play area.

It's therefore important to carefully monitor play when there are two parties playing and enjoying the interaction and a third dog tries to join in, and when a new dog enters the play area after dogs have been playing there for some time.

Dogs may "gang" up against another dog, which can cause trouble.

4. Dog Ganging Up

Sometimes, a shy dog may join the playgroup and other dogs start "ganging up."

The shy dog may not feel comfortable enough to play (often carries the ears back and tail tucked), so it starts moving away; soon there are two, three or even more dogs chasing this dog.

The dog eventually may hide behind a bench or behind the legs of the owner and may react defensively if the other dogs get in his face, blocking his escape route. This can sometimes lead to fights erupting. When a fight starts, other dogs may feel compelled to join in as well.

Sometimes, it may not be clear whether the dog being chased is having fun. After all, healthy play often features dogs chasing and being chased with frequent role reversals.

In these cases, a "consent test" can be helpful. The dog being chased is removed from the group and observed to see if he or she has the desire to join the group again. If the dog shows no intent, it most likely feels relief, so it's important to respect that. If the dog tries to go back, it most likely was having fun.

5. Misinterpretation of Signals

It can't be emphasized enough how vital early socialization is in puppies.

The breeder should start socializing puppies from a young age, but then it's the new puppy owner's turn to further socialize their pup. Pups should be socialized to all different types of people and environments in a structured, careful manner ensuring the puppy is never overwhelmed.

In the same way, puppies should also be socialized with other dogs in a safe and structured way. Many puppy owners are concerned about their pups contracting infectious diseases, but risks can be minimized if taken to puppy classes where trainers sanitize their areas and only accept vaccinated puppies.

Puppies who miss out on early socialization risk not learning important body language cues and may grow up socially "illiterate," meaning that when they meet other dogs, they may misinterpret their friendly intentions and react defensively, which can lead to fights.

These dogs are best helped out when still young, through a structured remedial socialization program under the guidance of a dog behavior professional.

6. Predatory Drift

Sometimes play may turn into predatory behavior, such as when large dogs are playing with smaller dogs. It can happen that the smaller dogs start escaping or emitting yelps that mimic a hurt animal, and this can trigger predatory behavior in certain predisposed dogs.

While predatory drift is not really a scientific term and has not been studied in depth, it's a phenomenon that has been reported by many dog behavior professionals.

Ian Dunbar coined the term, and Jean Donaldson discusses it in her book: Oh Behave, Dogs from Pavlov to Premack to Pinker.

These risks can be minimized by creating separate play areas for large and small dogs. More about this phenomenon is covered here: Predatory Drift in Dogs.

7. Cases of Resource Guarding

Toys such as balls, stuffed animals, tug toys or Frisbees can appear to be a great addition to a dog's play area, but they can lead to significant conflict.

Dogs may play with them one moment and then become possessive over them in a snap, leading to dogs who attack any other dogs who try to come too close to their beloved "possession." The term for this is "resource guarding."

For a good reason, many dog parks prohibit the use of toys like balls and Frisbees. These stir up conflict, especially in dogs prone to resource guarding.

Some dogs may take the "fun police role" and closely monitor other dogs' interactions

8. Dog Playing the "Fun Police" Role

Sometimes, certain dogs may take an overly "controlling" approach when dealing with a bunch of dogs playing. This often happens when a dog assumes the so-called "fun police" role, getting in the middle of dogs who play too rowdy for their taste and attempting to moderate play.

These dogs can end up stirring things up, especially when other dogs aren't willing to have their movements and play styles micromanaged or when the fun police dogs impose themselves in a bullyish way. Fights may eventually ensue.

These dogs should be carefully monitored, and they should respond promptly to their recalls when they start putting too much pressure on the playing parties.

9. Onset of Social Maturity

Many dogs enjoy interacting with other dogs as puppies, but as they mature, they start getting more and more aloof and less tolerant of other dogs.

The typical situation involves a dog who was doing fine at the park, but around the age of 12 to 36 months, they may start getting into "squabbles."

At this stage, it may be best to select playmates that your dog is comfortable being around. However, if your dog is not really into engaging in willy-nilly play, you can still socialize him by offering more structured encounters such as organized walks and hikes.

10. Sudden Sensation of Pain

If a dog has always played without problems and now suddenly got into a fight, there may be chances he's not feeling well or even is suffering from some type of pain.

It's always a good idea to see the vet in these cases just to be on the safe side.

Dogs who act out of character may be suffering from painful conditions such as joint problems, ear pain or other conditions that can cause behavioral changes such as low thyroid levels.

There can be several medical causes of aggression in dogs that need to be considered and ruled out, especially if your dog is acting out of character.

How to Tell If Play Is Getting Aggressive

Following are several warning signs that may indicate that play is starting to get out of hand. Early warning signs include the following:

  • The dog's body becomes more tense
  • Ear position shifts (ears are often flattened)
  • Dilated pupils
  • Raised hackles (not really a sign of aggression, but a sign of increased arousal levels, which may lead to aggression)
  • Deeper growling
  • Aggressive barking
  • Increased vertical play (standing on back legs)
  • A dog being repeatedly chased
  • A dog trying to hide
  • Tucked tails
  • Snapping repeatedly directed towards head and neck area

In order to better tell whether dog play is getting aggressive, it helps to also familiarize yourself with the signs of healthy play. This is covered in more depth here: The Signs of Normal Healthy Play in Dogs.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2023 Adrienne Farricelli

(Excluding for the Headline, this article ("story") has not been edited by MiBiz News and is published from a web feed or sourced from the Internet.)