dog fight play puppy park

Is my dog playing or fighting?

  • By Jane Sigsworth

    Action Petz Newport Dog Trainer and Behaviourist

Dog-dog play can look and sound dramatic. All that chasing, pinning, biting and growling can sometimes appear like dogs are fighting.

So, how can you tell what’s really going on?

Assess for MARS!

The answer lies in being able to spot MARS! Not the planet Mars, but the system of communication that dogs use to tell the other dog that their behaviour is play, and to ensure that the rules of fair play are followed.

MARS! Stands for:


Activity Shifts.

Role Reversal.


These are the 4 Pillars of Good Play and their presence is vital to ensure that all participants are actually playing and having fun.

As dog owners, we need to know how to recognise the 4 Pillars of Good Play. We also need to know what our particular dog’s play style is.

Different dogs have different play styles. Some are quiet and gentle in their play, rarely making contact. Others have a robust play style, literally throwing themselves in. When play is barky, growly, and fast moving it can be very difficult to tell what is really going on.

Learning to recognise MARS can really help you to decipher the play language of dogs. Want to learn more? Watch this video Dog-Dog Play MARS!

Playing or fighting? Robust players enjoy a tussle, but you need to know what to look for, to be sure that it is play.

Some dogs have rusty social skills or need help to improve their use of MARS! Some dogs, particularly those that are boisterous players can get into arguments by inflicting their play style on dogs that prefer more sedate play.

One dog Play Bows to the other to invite play.

Dog owners feel embarrassed and upset if their dog gets into arguments, and then avoid it happening by stopping their dog having contact with other dogs. In some cases, this can lead to other behaviour problems such as barking and lunging on lead.

Many play problems can be resolved with appropriate training and both you and your dog can then relax and enjoy those dog-dog interactions.

If you have concerns about your dog’s play skills, book an appointment for a Behaviour Assessment at our behaviour clinics run by our behaviourist. Read more about behaviour assessments and book an appointment online.

In Part 2, we’ll show you how to check if your dog is actually playing and whether both dogs are having fun.

Click HERE to go to Part 2.