Lots of interesting research is being done on dog behavior and one fascinating field of study is on play.
Play is thought to serve several functions. For dogs, coyotes, wolves and foxes, play is important for the development of social skills, for the formation and maintenance of social bonds, to provide exercise and to teach hand-eye coordination. Play fighting and other play behaviors can provide practice for the real thing (Bekoff & Pierce, 2009).
To solicit play, dogs frequently offer a “play bow” (a pose where the animal crouches down on the forepaws and sticks their hindquarters in the air) during play. Play bows are more likely to occur when two dogs are facing one another than when facing away from one another indicating that dogs are sensitive to whether the potential partner is paying attention. Dogs that are being ignored will try to get the attention of another dog by nipping, pawing, barking, nosing and bumping (Bradshaw J. , 2011). The “play-face”, an open mouth gesture, is also a signal to initiate play and to differentiate between play behavior and a serious attack.
Dogs may solicit play by pouncing on or ambushing another dog. “Pouncing” is a fast and forward movement toward the other dog while “ambushing” is where the dog crouches, creeps forward in the crouch position and then pounces on the intended playmate (Kaufer, 2013). Gestures like the play bow signal that the inviting dog’s behavior is just meant in fun. The play bow preceding a quick approach and contact with another dog avoids the interaction leading to aggression and allows the other dog to agree to play with his or her own friendly gesture in response (Hare & Woods, 2013). Play signals also occur during play, for instance, after a pause in play.
Researchers have observed a sense of fairness when dogs play.
For example, if a dog becomes too aggressive, assertive or tries to mate, the other dog may cock their head to one side and the play only resumes if the offending dog indicates an intention to play through a play bow or other play gesture (Bekoff, 2007),
Subtle behaviors ensure participants have a good time and that no one gets hurt. Infractions can lead to fights and, in the wild, coyotes who don’t play by the rules are ostracized from their pack. Dogs will also avoid a dog who is playing too roughly or who bites.
To keep things even, dogs will “self-handicap” and play at the level of their play partner, taking the partner’s abilities and behavior into account. Dogs who do not follow the rules of play, for example, by barging in on others, are shunned by the dogs who are playing politely (Horowitz, 2009).
Play occurs in situations where the participants feel safe. For puppies of wild dogs, this is within the safety of the mother and the group of dogs they are a part of. Dogs also do what has been referred to as “laugh” during play. It is a form of panting which only happens when dogs are playing or wanting to play. At animal shelters when recordings of dogs laughing are played, there have been reductions of stress signals like barking and pacing in dogs staying at the shelter (Horowitz, 2009).
Sometimes conflict can arise out of play between dogs.
Guardians can reduce the chances of any conflict between dogs by having them play in a neutral area, and avoid interactions between dogs who are mismatched in behavior and who do not adapt to each other.
Owners should intervene if one or more dogs’ level of arousal is too high or when one dog is overwhelmed by another dog or when one dog tries to prevent others from playing. In addition, food should not be in the play area (Kaufer, 2013).
Jane Bowers, B.A., CABC, CPDT-KA
Jane Bowers has been training dogs for over two decades. She teaches people to train their dogs in group and private training courses and has a keen interest in assisting dogs with behavioral issues. Her company is Dogs of Distinction Canine Training Inc.Jane has a monthly newspaper column on dog related topics and is a former host of a live call in TV show on animals. She is a strong advocate for force free and humane training methods for all animals.
Jane has a degree in psychology and is certified as a dog trainer through the Certification Council of Professional Pet Dog Trainers and as a behaviour consultant through the International Association of Behavior Consultants and through the Association of Animal Behavior Professionals. These organizations require a minimum number of continuing education units be obtained to retain certification. She is also a professional member of The Pet Professional Guild, an organization committed to force free training of animals and the Association of Professional Dog Trainers. a professional organization of individual trainers who are committed to being better trainers through education.
Jane is the content creator of the online course Assessing and Interpreting Dog Behaviour, which is a course for law enforcement personnel who meet unfamiliar dogs in the course of their duties. She is the author of Perfect Puppy Parenting, a guide to raising a happy, confident, well-behaved dog.
Jane spent 17 years working for Customs Border Services and in joint teams with US Homeland Security and the RCMP. She spent a further 8 years working as an Animal Control Officer and Bylaw Enforcement Officer.
Jane lives on a small farm with dogs, sheep, donkeys, and chickens. The dogs each came from situations that prevented them from living in their original homes. The dogs range in size and age and with the dog training and behavioral work, whether it’s participating in the development of an online training course, working with a client’s dog or tracking a lost pet or animal.