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Playing by the rules

Updated: Jul 3

Hello and welcome to the new AniMate blog! I thought I’d begin this with a topic that has been coming up in conversation both at home and with my clients a fair bit recently: dog-on-dog play.


Play in dogs can really vary depending on the individual characters involved in the game, and without an understanding of canine behaviour, it can be quite misleading. To ensure that play is healthy and fair, human intervention may sometimes be needed, but knowing when to act can be tricky.

Trainer Jane Sigsworth developed the concept of MARS, an acronym that is easy to remember and is a great way of checking that all dogs involved in the game are happy.


M – Meta-signals

A – Activity shift

R – Role reversal

S – Self-handicapping


Meta-signals are signals that dogs use during play to show that they have friendly intentions. Play bowing is a well known meta-signal, but there are less obvious ones, such as the expression of the dog’s face: a relaxed jaw with an open, ‘smiley’ mouth is a good indicator that the dog is playing. Bouncy, inefficient movements are also indicative of play.

‘Activity shift’ means that the dogs do not stick to one activity during their play: they will usually mix it up, such as alternating between chasing each other and rolling around on the ground with one another. Throughout these changes in activity, the dogs should still be displaying meta-signals to communicate their friendly demeanour.


Role reversal is all about the play not being one-sided. All dogs involved in the game should take turns to play each role, such as a dog both being chased, and chasing the other dog.



Self-handicapping is where a dog that is much larger or stronger than its play partner will refrain from using its full power in the game, maintaining a gentler approach than it might use with a dog of similar size.


In the photo below, Rusty (the border terrier) is playing with Alfie (the Weimaraner). There is no role reversal in this game, and Alfie never self-handicaps. While he does show meta-signals when interacting with Rusty, and there are activity shifts, this was not healthy play because Rusty spent the majority of her time in the position shown and quickly became uncomfortable with the encounter. As a result, we removed her from the situation on this particular day.



Vocalisation during play is completely normal, but is another factor that can make a dog’s intentions misleading. Some friends of mine had two rottweilers when I was a teenager, and their play was always boisterous and loud, but never unhealthy – both dogs shared roles in the game and communicated such that they both enjoyed the experience.


Monitoring dog play and checking for MARS gives owners a chance to intervene if their dog is either uncomfortable or too rough for its partner, and prevent more serious problems such as aggression from arising in the future.



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