This paper's primary purpose is to compare the 2D and 3D analysis methodologies in investigating the performance of a concrete faced rock-fill dams under dynamic loading conditions. The state of stress on the face plate was obtained in both cases using a total strain based crack model to predict the spreading of cracks on the plate and the corresponding crack widths. Results of the 2D and 3D analyses agree well. Although significantly more demanding, 3D analyses have the advantage of predicting the following: (i) the opening of the vertical construction joints; (ii) the cracking at the valley sides; and (iii) the crushing of the plate during the seismic action. During the earthquake loading, the cracking predicted at the base of the face plate after the impounding spread significantly towards the crest of the dam; however, the crack widths are obtained relatively small. Crushing of the face plates at the construction joints is the primary cause of the large scale cracking predicted on the face plate for high intensity earthquakes. Earthquake induced permanent deformation of the fill increases the compressive stresses on the face plate, thereby reducing the minute cracking on the plate. However, this effect also leads to significant increases in the residual openings at the construction joints and at the plinth level. Copyright (c) 2013 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.