Are We Having Fun?

April 19, 2010 at 11:58 am 8 comments

Over at ScienceBlogs The Thoughtful Animal has a recent post on his excellent new blog on how to tell the difference between real aggression and play fighting in dogs. Thoughtful’s post follows Marc Bekoff’s lead and focuses primarily on play signals. He writes:

Actions called play signals have been observed in many species which appear to engage in play. It is generally accepted that these behaviors serve as signals to communicate the initiation (“I want to play”) of play. One behavior that is used a LOT by dogs (and their evolutionary cousins, wolves and coyotes) is the bow.

Dr. Marc Bekoff (who blogs at Psychology Today) from the University of Colorado, Boulder wondered if the bow was used as a play signal, and how it functioned. He hypothesized that the bow might serve an additional function beyond initiation; it might support the maintenance (“I still want to play”) of ongoing social play.

While I agree that the play bow is an important signal in canine communication, I don’t think it is the only – or even necessarily the most important – signal dogs use to communicate whether they intend their actions to be interpreted as friendly or aggressive.

A signal I see a lot between dogs who want to initiate or continue play is a slow, rolling, side-to-side head shake. The dog smiles as his head makes a smooth figure-eight motion. Sometimes the head roll accompanies a play bow, sometimes it doesn’t. Another play signal I’ve observed is a curving, prancing side-step away from the desired playmate. The step is accompanied by a smile and a toss of the head. A dog that really wants someone to play with him will sometimes make a series of these unmistakably flirtatious steps.

The things that tie the play bow, head roll and flirt step together are the shape and structure of the dog’s movements. A friendly, relaxed, non-aggressive dog (i.e. a dog that wants to play) interacts in smooth, flowing, arcing, rhythmic motions. His body is loose, his movements follow arcs and curves and his expression is soft and relaxed.

The rhythm and intensity of a dog’s movements also tell us a lot about his intent. When a dog is relaxed and ready to play one movement flows into another in smooth transitions. The dog rolls, he lopes, he bounds, he bends. His gestures are a polite blend of approach and retreat. His movements and emotions are in balance.

An over-stimulated, stressed, frightened or aggressive dog (i.e. the dog that isn’t going to play) interacts in more intense erratic and linear motions. His body is stiff, his gaze and expression are intense and he approaches in a direct line, not a polite curve. His legs thrust into the ground like pistons, they don’t sweep along the surface. He stares instead of making quick flirtatious glances.

The over-stimulated dog doesn’t move or react in a smooth, rhythmic way. And as he reaches increasing levels of arousal, the dog’s movements transition quickly from staring to pacing, from relaxing to freezing, or from trotting to bolting. These rapid changes in state are key indicators that a dog has exceeded a threshold in reactivity – and it’s important to be aware of them. A dog in a transitional state has moved from balance to instability.

He’s a hair-trigger just waiting to go off.

That is what I look for when I watch dogs interact. The transition from balance to instability. It’s an enormously important factor and one that a lot of people miss. I believe that this is one why so many people describe dog fights and dog attacks as ‘coming out of nowhere.’

And, while I agree that it is important in canine communication, I don’t believe that the play bow is the only, or even the most important, signal dogs use to indicate their desire to play. And I also disagree with Thoughtful’s notion that:

These findings suggest that the bow is not used to stretch the muscles, or because it is a good position from which to increase the range of movement. Instead, it seems to serve a particular social communicative function.

While in many young dogs the bow may be used most often to indicate a desire to play, sometimes dogs perform the motion simply to stretch their muscles. The lowered position of the stretching bow is generally held a little longer than it is in the play bow, the stretching dog’s neck is often extended upward instead of held loosely or cocked to one side and the dog will also sometimes sigh or groan as his body stretches.

Still – it’s an interesting post and a fine new blog. Go read it.

UPDATED links 4/20/10


Entry filed under: behavior science, dogs. Tags: , , .

One very dead sucker Hakuna matata

8 Comments Add your own

  • 1. retrieverman  |  April 19, 2010 at 12:02 pm

    Not all dogs give play bows or even understand them.

    My goldens and all of my larger dogs have used them.

    But whenever they try to communicate this to JRT.

    The JRT looks at them as if they are mad.

    I’ve never seen a JRT do a play bow.

    The way they learn to play with big dogs is too look for the play face.

    Goldens have the most demented play faces I’ve ever seen. And it’s very obvious.

  • 2. YesBiscuit  |  April 19, 2010 at 12:10 pm

    Ooh – I’m going to watch for that figure 8 head shake. Neat to know!

  • 3. LabRat  |  April 19, 2010 at 2:11 pm

    When we were still going to the dog park, Kodos taught me a lot about the language of dog play. The normal forward-tilting Akita ear set and curly “high” tail tends to intimidate or challenge dogs that have never interacted with a dog that looked like that before. When he really wanted to play with a dog that was intimidated by him, he’d do what you described, all in a very slow and exaggerated manner that made it completely unmissable even to the humans. For small dogs he’d lie down, then do the head roll.

    My favorite was watching him interact with a shy border collie; he’d turn away, then do the prance-dance away every time the BC moved anywhere remotely toward him. Once he got it, that little BC got such a huge kick out of moving the big, scary dog around.

    I wish Kang had half as much social savvy as he did… growing up with a dog quite comfortable with a play style as rough as she liked probably didn’t help there.

  • 4. MizShepherdist  |  April 19, 2010 at 6:54 pm

    Very interesting! Wonderful descriptions of play invitations.

    And I completely agree that dogs will do a stretching bow, as well. I generally see it directed towards me more than towards another dog, for whatever reason. The ears tend to go out perpendicular to the head when stretching, as opposed to up and back or up and forward when inviting play. Stretching bows are almost always followed by a very lazy yawn in my household, as well.

  • 5. Rob McMillin  |  April 19, 2010 at 11:16 pm

    Hm. Looks like the original link is vanished.

  • 6. SmartDogs  |  April 20, 2010 at 9:14 am

    Thanks Rob. I fixed it.

  • 7. Viatecio  |  April 20, 2010 at 3:10 pm

    It’s interesting to watch my golden mix get ready to play. I wish I could get it on video, but it seems more catlike: she’ll stare, stalk and finally run/pounce. I rarely see the play bow, but it happens. Probably is two-fold in meaning as well in the morning, since she has to stretch, but darn if she doesn’t want to playplayplayplay.

    I’ll have to keep a closer eye on play communication now to see some of these little intricacies now!

    I see plenty of play behavior with the school dogs, but they are not allowed to interact with each other at all…two-year (minimum) mandatory social isolation and then they wonder why we have so many “aggressive” dogs… 😦

  • 8. H. Houlahan  |  April 20, 2010 at 9:22 pm

    I must get video of Cole and Moe.

    Each of them dogs who have had anger management problems, their play-signaling with one another is highly exaggerated, and the energy is cranked up. There’s an edge to their interactions that adds a thrill of danger to the play. Yet I’ve never seen them cross the line with one another. Nor do we see the hackles of ambivalence. They will each displace play onto one of the girls if things seem to be getting too exciting.

    Cole is the only dog who was not raised from a pup here (i.e. Sophia, Rosie, and former foster Spike) who Moe plays with intimately. He will play chase games with the adult fosters after he’s known them for a couple months or more, but never wrassling. And he no longer plays that way with Sophia.

    I do think Moe recognizes himself in Cole.

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