A Guide to Canine Play Behavior: What’s Normal and What’s Not

by | Jan 25, 2024 | General Information, Home

In the delightful world of dogs, play is more than just a game; it’s a dog’s “body” language, a dance of sorts that reveals their unique personalities and preferences.

Just as people have different hobbies, dogs, too, have their own play styles, ranging from the boisterous wrestler to the solitary lone wolf.

Each style of dog behavior is a fascinating glimpse into how our canine friends socialize, express joy, build friendships, and navigate their environment.

This article will take you on a tail-wagging journey through the various play styles of dogs, shedding light on the ways our furry companions choose to have fun, from play fighting to nuzzling.

Understanding these styles of play behaviors not only deepens our bond with our pets but also helps us ensure their playtime is as fulfilling and safe as it can be.

So, let’s dive into the playful universe of dogs and discover what makes each wagging tail and playful bark so wonderfully unique.

Dog playing

How Do Dogs Play?

A dog’s play style is a diverse and vibrant universe, each style as unique as the furry friends who exhibit them. Let’s delve into the seven distinctive play styles of most dogs, understanding how each one adds a splash of joy and energy to their lives.

Understanding these styles not only helps us appreciate the diversity in canine behavior but also guides us in providing the right kind of play and interaction they need for a happy and healthy life as well as corrective lessons where necessary.


First up is the Wrestler. This play style is all about physical engagement. Wrestlers love a good, friendly scuffle, often engaging in mock battles with their playmates. They’re masters of the play bow, a stance where they lower their front legs and raise their hind legs, signaling their eagerness for some rough play. While it may look intense, for Wrestler dogs, this is the height of fun.

Lone Wolf

Next, we have the Lone Wolf. Contrary to what their name might suggest, Lone Wolves aren’t antisocial. They simply prefer playing more independently. You might see them happily chasing their tails or amusing themselves with a favorite toy. They may not initiate play with other dogs as frequently as other puppies, but their self-contained play is a joy to watch.


The Chaser is a more play-through style that thrives on movement. Think of a dog who loves chasing after balls, frisbees, or even a leaf blowing in the wind. For them, the thrill is in the pursuit, and they’ll often invite others to join in on the fun with enthusiastic barks and playful nudges.


The Cheerleader is the most vocal and expressive of the play styles. These dogs don’t just play; they celebrate every moment of play, the fun of it, with barks, yips, and howls. Whether they’re in the midst of play or encouraging others, their enthusiasm is contagious, often motivating other dogs to join in the fun.


Tuggers are all about the game of tug-of-war. They relish the challenge of pulling on toys, ropes, or even a stick they found in the last dog park somewhere. This play style involves a lot of back-and-forth action, a physical test of strength and endurance, often accompanied by a lot of tail wagging and excitement.

Body Slammer

The Body Slammer is for those who love physical contact. These dogs initiate play by gently bumping or body slamming into their playmates. It’s a boisterous and energetic style, where the dog uses its body to express its playful intentions. Don’t be surprised to see a lot of bouncing and leaping from these playful pooches.

Soft Toucher

Lastly, there’s the Soft Toucher. These dogs are the gentle souls of the play world. They engage in play with a soft, delicate touch, often using their paws or noses to nudge their playmates. They’re careful not to be too rough, making them great companions for smaller or more timid dogs.

8 Signs of Appropriate Play Behavior in Dogs

Signs of Appropriate Play Behavior in Dogs

  1. Play Bow
    This is the classic, “Let’s play!” pose. The dog lowers its front legs and raises its hindquarters. It’s like a doggy invitation to a fun party!
  2. Relaxed Body Movements
    Watch for loose, fluid motions. A dog that’s enjoying playtime moves in a relaxed manner, without stiffness or tension.
  3. Wagging Tail
    A gently wagging tail, especially in its natural position, shows contentment and excitement. It’s a green light that says, “I’m having a blast!”
  4. Playful Vocalizations
    Barks and playful growls can be part of healthy play. These sounds are typically higher-pitched and shorter in duration, quite different from aggressive growling.
  5. Taking Turns
    In the dog world, fair play means taking turns. You might see them switching roles during chase or wrestling games, ensuring everyone gets a turn to be “it.”
  6. Mouthy Play Without Pressure
    Dogs might gently gnaw or mouth each other during play, but watch out for biting. It should look like they are mouthing rather than biting with pressure.
  7. Brief Pauses
    Healthy play often includes short breaks, allowing each dog to catch its breath and assess the situation. These pauses are a good sign that the play is mutually enjoyable.
  8. Friendly Facial Expressions
    A relaxed, open mouth, often described as a “play face,” is a good indication of happy play. You might even spot a play ‘smile’ on some dogs.

When Dog Play Turns into Fighting

What starts as a cheerful play session can sometimes take an unexpected turn into a more serious scuffle. It’s crucial to differentiate between whether dogs are playing playing or fighting.

Just like in a superhero movie where the scene shifts from friendly banter to an intense battle, dog play can escalate into a dog fight. Understanding these signs helps prevent a playful romp from turning into an actual fight and leading to aggressive tendencies.

8 Signs That Dog Play Has Escalated to Fighting

8 Signs That Dog Play Has Escalated to Fighting

  1. Stiff Body Language
    Unlike the relaxed, fluid motions in play, a dog gearing up for a fight will display a stiff, tense posture. It’s a clear shift from being carefree to being on high alert.
  2. Intense Staring
    A fixed, intense stare between dogs is a red flag. In the dog world, this is like throwing down the gauntlet, signaling a challenge or threat.
  3. Raised Hackles
    The hair along a dog’s back standing up, known as hackles, is a sign of arousal and can indicate aggression. It’s like their own version of putting on armor.
  4. Loud, Continuous Growling
    While playful growls are common, growls in a fight are deeper, longer, and more intense. It’s the soundtrack of a serious disagreement, not playful banter.
  5. Baring Teeth
    If a dog shows its teeth, especially in a snarl, it’s a warning sign. Think of it as their way of saying, “Back off!”
  6. Lunging and Snapping
    When play turns to fight, you might see lunging or snapping movements. These are not the gentle, controlled motions of play but rather quick, aggressive actions.
  7. Pinning Down
    If one dog forcefully pins another to the ground and the other dog isn’t bouncing back up, it’s moved beyond play. It’s a power move, signaling dominance or aggression.
  8. Yelping or Whining
    Unlike the occasional yip in play, continuous yelping or whining can indicate distress or pain, a sign that things have gone too far.

Recognizing these signs is vital in preventing dog fights. It’s about being a good referee, knowing when to step in, and calmly separating the dogs before a playful tussle turns into an actual fight.

By keeping an eye on adult dogs and their interactions and understanding these signals, we can ensure that our furry friends continue to play safely and happily.

How to Stop Two Dogs from Fighting

Stopping a dog fight requires quick thinking and safe tactics, ensuring both the dogs and you stay unharmed.

First things first, avoid jumping into the middle of the fray. While your instinct might be to physically separate them, this can lead to injury. Dogs in a fight are in a heightened state and might accidentally bite you, even if they’re the friendliest pooch on a normal day.

One effective method is making a loud noise to distract the dogs. This could be a loud clap, a shout, or banging something nearby. The idea is to startle the dogs just enough to break their focus on each other.

If noise alone doesn’t work, try finding something you can safely insert between the dogs. A large piece of cardboard, a chair, or even a trash can lid can act as a barrier.

Another technique involves using a leash or a rope. Loop it around one dog’s waist, near the hind legs, and gently pull them back. This method—often called the wheelbarrow method—helps separate the dogs without putting your hands near their heads. Make sure to approach the dog from behind to minimize the risk of getting bitten.

If there’s another person available to help, each of you can wheelbarrow a dog, pulling them away in opposite directions. Once they are separated, don’t release them immediately. They need a moment to calm down.

After the fight, check the dogs for any injuries. Even if they seem fine, a vet check-up is a wise idea, as some injuries might not be immediately visible. It’s also important to understand what triggered the fight in the first place. Like detectives, we need to piece together the clues to prevent future scuffles.

Unleashing Fun: Exploring the Diverse Play Styles of Our Canine Companions!

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