Is Your Dog Angry, Or Just Playing? This Is How You Tell The Difference

***This BarkPost article in no way constitutes medical advice. We are not, nor do we claim to be, veterinarians. If this article raises questions about your dog’s behavior, consult with your veterinarian or a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist.***

When dogs play, they go all out. There is no ball thrown too far, no rope tugged too hard, and no wrestling match they can’t win. In short, playing with dogs is awesome. But dogs can also play pretty rough, making all sorts of grunts and growls which sound like signs of aggression when they really aren’t.


Since dogs communicate largely through barks and growls, it’s a challenge to interpret the meaning of the signals our dogs send to us. These signals sound inherently aggressive to the human ear, which is accustomed to communication through speech. But to dogs, a bark or a growl could just be their way of trying to get your attention or initiate play.

So how do you know when they’re just playing and when they’re becoming angry?

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For the best way to determine if your dog is playing, watch for a play bow—the lowering of the front of the body. Studies have shown that the play bow comes before during, and after play to communicate that all nibbles and ear pulls to follow are meant in the spirit of fun.

Many people assume that a wagging tail is also a good indicator of a happy, placid dog, but this isn’t necessarily the case. Tail wags can communicate a variety of dog emotions, including fear and aggression. So don’t rely solely on an active tail, make sure you look for the play bow.

To tell if your dog’s behavior has turned towards the aggressive, there are a few more indicators. If growls and barks are not accompanied by a play bow, the dog may be expressing frustration. Also look for still, rigid posture. A relaxed body normally indicates a relaxed dog. Tense muscles suggest otherwise.

Keep in mind, that if your dog does become aggressive, that does not mean your dog is unstable. Dogs, just like humans, experience a wide range of emotions based on the stimuli they encounter. According to the ASPCA, dog aggression can be classified in a variety of contexts, including fear, possessiveness, territorial inclinations, defensiveness, medical ailment, or social competition.

Being aware of the signals your dog sends you will only contribute to a healthier rapport between you and your dog, so it’s in both your best interests to learn as much about how your dog communicates as possible. After all, communication is the key to a good relationship.

Featured image via Animal Life

Brandon Rhoads

7 years ago

Toothbrush-free dental care for dogs.

Fresher breath in 1–2 weeks.