Dog fighting and dog playing look so similar to me — how can I tell the difference?
Great question! You are right, sometimes dog play can look like dog fighting because many of the behaviors used during play are also used during fighting, except during play, these behaviors are modified so that they don’t inflict injury. For example, during both fighting and playing, dogs jump on one another and sometimes try to “pin” or force the other into a down position. Dogs bite, they chase, they snarl and show their teeth, and they vocalize. These similarities are why we sometimes refer to rough and tumble play between dogs as “play fighting.”
Even though on first take, play fighting and real fighting may look similar, there are some key differences between the two. For example, during play, dogs often engage in self-handicapping behavior. Self-handicapping occurs when one player voluntarily puts herself in a vulnerable or disadvantaged position in order to give her partner a competitive advantage.
One example of a self-handicapping behavior that dogs use during play is the voluntary down, where one player falls to the ground (without assistance from her partner) and may flip over on her back and expose her belly. This type of behavior would never occur during a real fight. Dogs also use play signals during play, and one of the more commonly seen signals is the play bow. The dog doing a bow will face her partner and crouch down with her forelimbs nearly touching the ground. At the same time, the hind end is high in the air, and the tail is often wagging. In our research on dog play*, we found that play bows and voluntary downs tend to occur in conjunction with one another and that they may work together to help keep play fun and encourage the participants to continue with the game.
Dogs who are playing, as opposed to fighting, will also sometimes display a characteristic play face (also seen in wild canids and primates), which looks a little bit like a relaxed open-mouth smile. Unfortunately, we don’t know if it has any communicative function during play or whether it simply is an outward expression of an internal emotion (i.e., joy, happiness), or maybe it serves both functions. Research on the play face in dogs would make a great scientific research project!
*Ward, C., Bauer, E.B., & Smuts, B. 2008. Play partner preferences and asymmetries in social play among domestic dog (Canis lupus familiaris) littermates. Animal Behaviour, 76: 1187-1199. See www.AboutDogsLLC.com (click on “Dog Science News”) for more information about the study.