Are We Having Fun?
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