From today’s edition of Discovery News:
It may not be such a dog-eat-dog world after all, at least among our canine friends. A new study has found that young male dogs playing with female pups will often let the females win, even if the males have a physical advantage.
Male dogs sometimes place themselves in potentially disadvantageous positions that could make them more vulnerable to attack, and researchers suspect the opportunity to play may be more important to them than winning.
Such self-handicapping has been documented before in red-necked wallabies, squirrel monkeys, hamadryas baboons and even humans, all of which frequently take on defensive positions when playing with youngsters, in particular.
Chivalry may have largely disappeared from our human world, but it seems our dogs still adhere to a system of virtue and courtly love. I’ve seen it here. When Zip was a tiny (less than 10-pound) puppy Zorro liked to let her win at tug of war games. Zorro was an enormous (120-pound), strong-willed beast. Before we fixed the problem, he loved to fight with other male dogs. But he was a complete and utter pushover for little Zippy. He and Loki (who out-weighed Zorro by 20 pounds) would lie down to entice her to play with them. They’d let her jump on them, nip at them, and tug on their ears. They always let her win.
Now it’s Audie’s turn. Audie’s an intact, teenage goon and he’s twice Zip’s size. It took him a while to figure it out, but he’s learned that if he lies on his back and stays generally horizontal, Zip will wrestle and play tug with him. If he gets rough with her or takes the toy away, she ends the play and stomps off in a snit.
There’s a lot of disagreement in the scientific community about the functions of play. Obvious benefits include skills practice and the development of affiliative bonds. An interesting question regarding the bond-forming functions of play are the extent to which it is “fair.” Some researchers argue that for play to continue over time, winning and losing roles must be generally equal. Others argue that both animals will “play to win,” especially during play-fighting. This new research indicates that, as is the case for most interesting questions, the real answer to the question of how fair play needs to be, is “it depends.”
Dynamic systems theory views social relationships as complex, emergent systems that change over time. Behavior can sometimes be more clearly understood through bidirectional causation, feedback loops and emergent patterns instead of simple reaction chains. What are emergent patterns? According to Wikipedia: “Emergent phenomena occur due to the pattern of interactions between the elements of a system over time. Emergent phenomena are often unexpected, nontrivial results of relatively simple interactions of relatively simple components.” In other words, emergence arises when the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts.
Complex behavior tends to have emergent properties. This is why it is, to a large degree, so unpredictable. So, while playing to win may be a smart strategy when one is play-fighting with someone who may be a competitor, it can be a bad idea when one is playing with a potential mate or ally. According to Discovery News young male dogs will let females win in play because:
They might lose the game in the short run, but they could win at love in the future.
“We know that in feral dog populations, female mate choice plays a role in male mating success,” said Ward. “Perhaps males use self-handicapping with females in order to learn more about them and to form close relationships with them — relationships that might later help males to secure future mating opportunities.”
And it’s not just romance that matters. It appears that many types of social conventions are involved during the role reversals that occur in play. Role reversals occurred frequently during chasing and tackling games, but very rarely during mounting or muzzle biting. This may indicate that mounting and muzzle biting are more important indicators of established dominance roles. The use of signals, like play bows, was linked strongly to self-handicapping behavior (i.e. letting the weaker dog win) but not to chase behavior, possibly indicating that chasing is a very basic form of play behavior that needs no formal introduction.