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When playing, dogs inhibit the force of their bites and sometimes voluntarily give their partner a competitive advantage (self-handicap) by, for example, rolling on their backs or letting themselves be caught during a chase — behaviors that would never happen during real fighting.
In addition to inhibited bites and selfhandicapping, dogs clearly demarcate play by employing signals, such as play bows (i.e., putting the front half of the body on the ground while keeping the rear half up in the air) and exaggerated, bouncy movements.
Dogs will also hip check or slam, mount, rear up, bite, stand over, sit on, bark, snarl, growl, bare their teeth and do chin-overs (i.e., place the underside of their chin over the neck of their partner).
However, despite the overlap in behaviors, some clear differences exist between play fighting and real fighting.
No sooner would Sam stand up than Sage would neckbite him and flip him on his back again.
At first, we thought that Sage might be too rough for Sam, so we would intervene by holding one or both of them back.
Close attention to the context, however, can help us differentiate between play aggression and real aggression.
Even though play fighting is very different from real fighting, people often feel the need to intervene.
An interaction like the one just described is straightforward and easy to read.Sometimes it is obvious at the beginning of a bout that two dogs are playing, but once the dogs start growling or their arousal intensifies, observers may no longer be sure that the dogs are still playing.After all, humans instinctively avoid a dog who is snarling or baring his teeth, and it is natural to think that our dogs should do the same.Meta-communication allows humans and dogs to pretend — that is, to perform actions that appear to be one thing but actually mean something completely different.
To people unfamiliar with the notion that some nonhuman animals have this ability, play that includes archetypal aggressive behaviors, like snarling and growling, can be quite confusing.For example, are traditional “no-no’s” like neck biting, rearing up, body-slamming and repeated pinning by one dog ever okay when two dogs are playing?