Why Do Dogs Sneeze When Play Fighting? Two Leading Theories

I can’t be the only one that finds it extremely entertaining to watch two dogs play with each other, right?!

Have you ever wondered why your dog sneezes when play fighting with another dog? Here's why

It’s funny to watch how they interact and communicate with each other. When two dogs play, you’ll see them bow down, sniff the ground, roll over, jump up and down, and so on. But have you ever noticed that some dogs sneeze when playing? And not just one time, but multiple times throughout the play session.

Why do dogs sneeze when play fighting? We can’t say with 100% confidence that we know the exact reason dogs do this. We know with certainty what some body language cues mean. For example, the tail wag means they’re happy or excited. Rolling onto their back implies submission. When it comes to sneezing, we have to take an educated guess.

Turid Rugaas wrote a great book called “On Talking Terms With Dogs: Calming Signals.” In this book, Rugaas suggests that play sneezing is a calming signal all dogs understand and that it’s their way to remind the other dog they’re having fun but remembering that it’s just play, not a real fight.

Ever since that book was published, most dog experts tend to agree with that theory. However, a new theory is floating around that is gaining in popularity. We will discuss both theories below and let you decide. Keep in mind, since the theories don’t contradict each other, both can still be correct.

The Rugaas Theories

Most experts agree on the following two theories and believe they are both valid.

Having Fun, But It’s Just Play

The first theory is when dogs are in the middle of playing with each other. You’ll notice that when things get a little aggressive, one or both of the dogs might play sneeze. This is their way of reminding each other that they’re buddies, not enemies. They’re essentially saying, “Hey, I am having fun, but let’s make sure we don’t get too aggressive.”

You’ll see this a lot in dogs who are playing with each other for the first time. Since they don’t know each other, they’re being safe/cautious. Once they’ve built trust after a few play sessions, you won’t see them play sneeze nearly as much.

Invitation to Play

The second part of the Rugaas theory is that dogs will play sneeze in front of another dog (or human for that matter) as an invitation to play. It’s just like one kid calling another kid to ask if he/she wants to come over and play. When a dog play sneezes before the play begins, they’re essentially saying to the other dog, “Hey, want to come and play?” They’re letting the other dog know they don’t want to start a fight, they just want to run around and play.

The New Theory – The Nose Tickle

Although most dog experts agree that play sneezing is a body language cue dogs use to communicate with each other, Bruce Fogle (Veterinarian and author) isn’t buying it. Fogle believes dogs sneeze when play fighting because when they get excited, they wrinkle their nose, which causes a tickle. Dogs have extremely sensitive noses, so this tickle is all that’s needed to get them to sneeze.

He went on to say that it doesn’t even have to be the dog wrinkling the nose that causes the tickle. It could be things like the other dog brushing up against the nose or dirt/grass irritating it. In his words, “A kiss is just a kiss, a sneeze is just a sneeze.” He doesn’t believe dogs are actually trying to communicate anything.

Which Theory Do I Believe?

I believe both theories are valid. And no, that’s not a cop-out answer…let me explain.

I don’t think Fogle is incorrect when he says that dogs sneeze when playing because there’s a tickle in their nose. I’m sure this happens a lot. However, I do believe he is incorrect when saying dogs don’t play sneeze as a way to communicate.

The reason I believe dogs DO communicate with each other through a play sneeze is because when you watch dogs play, there’s a clear difference between a real sneeze that comes from deep within the chest and a play sneeze, which is a quick, forceful exhale through the nose.

I tend to believe that more often than not, the sneezes that happen during playtime are a form of communication, but every once in a while, you might get a real sneeze that’s caused by an irritant/tickle.

Play Sneezing Usually Followed By:

The book “On Talking Terms With Dogs: Calming Signals,” Rugas goes over multiple body language cues dogs use to avoid conflict and invite play. As already discussed, play sneezing is one of the primary cues dogs use to express the fact that they’re having fun and not actually fighting.

Since it’s very rare for a dog to demonstrate just one calming signal, you can usually tell if it was a play sneeze or a real sneeze by watching to see if the sneeze was followed (or preceded) by one of the following:

Yawning

When you see your dog yawning, it doesn’t always mean they’re tired. Dogs use the yawn as a calming signal around other dogs. This lets the other dog know it’s ok to approach and play. Dogs also yawn at humans if they sense something is wrong. This is their way of trying to calm down the human.

Bowing

We have all seen dogs do the play bow. Heck, we have even named a yoga pose after it called “downward dog.” This is when the dog raises their rear end and lowers the face to the ground. This is almost always accompanied by a rapid tail wag. Dogs play bow when they are excited. It’s rare for them to drop to a bow when they’re in a real fight.

Sniffing Ground

This usually happens right before play, but can also occur if one dog feels like the play is getting a little too rough. Next time you watch two dogs play with each other for the first time, watch how they’ll quickly sniff the ground around the other dog. Again, this is the dog’s way of saying, “let’s be friends and play.”

Lip Licking

Although this one isn’t quite as common, you’ll see some dogs lick their lips as a calming signal to another dog. This could be as little as one quick lick or many licks.

Paw Raise

This is one of my favorites to watch (for some reason, I find it super cute). When a dog raises one paw, they’re putting themselves in a vulnerable position. This communicates to the other dog, “I am not a threat.”

If you notice one or more of those five other body language cues precede or follow a sneeze, there’s a good chance your dog was play sneezing.

Play Sneezing More Common in Smaller Breeds

One of the things that has convinced me that play sneezing is real and is a dog’s way of communicating that it’s all for fun is that it’s much more common in small dogs. Not saying medium and large breeds don’t play sneeze, they do. But if you ever watch a small dog play with a larger dog, you’ll notice the small dog usually does it much more often than the larger dog.

This is likely a defensive mechanism by the small dog. They realize the size difference and know if it turned into a real fight, they wouldn’t stand a chance.

Next time you watch two dogs play, notice how it’s probably the smaller one who play sneezes the most. They need to ensure everything is just “fun and games.”

Play Sneeze Back At Your Pup

There’s a good chance your dog will only play sneeze in front of other dogs, but if they ever do it when you’re playing with them, play sneeze back at them. I know it sounds funny, and you might feel a little silly doing it, but your dog will get SO EXCITED if you do it back.

Dogs put in a lot of effort to understand humans. They sit when we ask them to sit, lie down when we ask them to lie, and come when we ask them to come. Dogs really do have a desire to bridge the communication gap. When you play sneeze back at your dog, they’ll get so excited that you understood what they were communicating.

Communicating back with your dog in a way they understand is one of the best ways to build a strong bond. It doesn’t just have to be sneezing. You can yawn when they yawn and bow when they bow. Have fun with it, and watch your pup get super excited.

Hopefully, you can now see why dogs sneeze when they play fight. I believe both theories we discussed are valid. Either way, I think we can all agree that watching two dogs play and communicate with each other is adorable and fun to watch!

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