Understanding Dog Play Behaviors (Part One)
What's Dog Play? And What's its Function?
Cancel your cable TV and put your book down: there's no better entertainment than watching dogs play! The best thing is that dogs seem to never grow up, their Peter Pan syndrome is what makes it so wonderful to own a canine companion which is like a life-time guarantee for loads of laughs and smiles. But what is exactly dog play? And how do dogs play? To each their own! This is what ultimately makes dog play so fun and entertaining, dogs have many play styles and when you put a few canine pals together they are all brought to life.
So what's dog play and what's its function? In a human world, a child often plays to mimic what goes on in the adult world. A child may dream of becoming a teacher, so she will likely have other kids sit down and mimic class. Another child may love to play doctor, and several others play police officer and firefighters. In a similar fashion, you may see puppies play to rehearse hunting, which is what most adult canines would do in the wild, with loads of chasing, head shakes and pinning down other dogs. Lots of predatory drive is seen in canine play, especially with toys. You'll literally see dogs carry out the whole predatory sequence when playing with a toy including searching, stalking, chasing, catching, biting, killing and eating- ever seen a dog gut a stuffed toy and then happily chewing its contents? -and then ending on the surgeon's table for swallowing the squeaker?
Other adult behaviors dogs practice in play is rank-ordering, mating and aggression. You'll see dogs alternate between submissive and higher ranking displays, simulate mating behaviors and practice what looks like aggression, but much more ritualized. However, interestingly even adult dogs play, so to a certain extent, it almost seems like dogs have almost perpetually frozen into a puppy-like state. Neoteny, is the term used to depict both physical and behavioral juvenile traits in dogs. To learn more about read " How Farm Foxes Helped Provide an Insight into Dog Domestication
Play is over all a sign of well-being. In the wild, only animals that are well-nourished, healthy and non-stressed tend to play. You'll see play quickly dissipate when dogs are hungry, in danger and uncomfortable. As a consequence, domesticated dogs may play more because they have much more pent-up energy. Play, therefore, also has the function of "blowing off" energy. Play also is a great opportunity for puppies to learn how to become good citizens of doggy society. Adult dogs may have more tolerance for unruly pup behaviors-even though that's not always the case. Read more on "Puppy Licenses-fact or truth?"
In the next paragraph, we'll see things dogs do to ensure that the game remains play. You may have never heard these terms before, but if you are into learning more about your canine companion, you'll be delighted to discover some very interesting-and intriguing!- behaviors about dogs.
Some Rules of Dog Play
As mentioned, since dogs are spared from the gift of voice, they must rely on several signals to make sure that play remains play. Unlike children, who can say "let's play or let's pretend", dogs need to rely on body language to ensure nothing is taken too seriously. This takes some skill and some good social understanding, which is why dogs should be socialized and used to understand these signals from an early age.
*Note: Please keep in mind though, that not all dogs are social butterflies eager to play at the dog park, some dogs simply aren't dog park material. Please respect that; just as humans, not all like to mingle in a disco and dance together 'til dawn', some prefer to spend the evening alone by a crackling fire while sipping on a hot cocoa!
- Using Meta-Signals
So how can dogs effectively communicate their playful intentions? Since play can at times get rough and resemble aggression, it's imperative to be very,very clear. One way of doing this is through meta-signals. What are meta-signals? Meta signals are simply gestures universally recognized by dogs that signal that anything that follows is not to be taken seriously. A common meta-signal is the play bow. In this position, the dog's head is lowered, the tail is wagging, the butt is in the air and the dog is ready to dart in any direction. Other dogs learn quickly that that's a clear, non-ambiguous invitation to play. Interestingly, play bows are often followed by rough forms of play such as body slamming and biting, which reinforced the notion that it's a clear sign that "anything following is not to be taken seriously."
- Using Cut-Off Signals
How does a dog communicate to another dog that the game is getting a bit too rough and a break is much needed? They use cut-off signals. Cut-off signals are behaviors that seem out-of-context, but have a role in reducing the intensity of play. An example? Two dogs are playing, the game gets really rough and suddenly a dog starts sniffing the ground. What gives? Did Scruffy suddenly get distracted by an irresistible smell? No, most likely he was simply asking for a break. Indeed, the other dog who has a good social understanding, will respect that and slow down until the other initiates play again or responds to his request to play again.
This is seen in many different species and is quite a cute thing to watch. You'll see large, muscular dogs become suddenly soft, gentle players. I remember a large German Shepherd play with a young terrier and it was amazing how these two pals played together. The large GSD inhibited his play, and adjusted it so that he didn't bite as hard and body slam as rough as he could normally do. Some dogs also adjust their speed so it matches the speed of other dogs. Self-handicapping is a form of regulating play so the dog isn't too intimidating and to ensure safe play.
- Role Reversals
When dogs play, you'll often see dogs assuming the top-dog position and then be on the ground belly exposed, first chasing and then being chased the next round, what gives? The great thing about doggy play is that dogs get to practice submissive and not-so-submissive behaviors, but in a ritualized way so that no harm is done. You'll therefore, see a variety of displays but with no consequences, as long as the rules of play are followed.
As seen, it takes some social etiquette for dogs to understand and play the rules of the game. Stay tuned for part two, where we'll discuss some common play behaviors in dogs and signs of play getting a bit too much out of hand. Read here for play behaviors part 2.
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An example of self-handicapping: this large dog can certainly tug stronger!
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