Monday Pets: Are Those Dogs Playing or Fighting?

The party continues! Today you get a double-dose of Monday Pets. Here's one from the archives. Later today, you can expect a new one.

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.orgResearchBlogging.orgI often write about animals that the average person does not interact with all that much on a day-to-day basis. Today, I introduce something I like to call "Monday Pets". The focus of Monday Pets will be the animals that we intentionally bring into our lives as pets. Sometimes those animals are even considered part of the family. Ever notice some weird behavior that you notice your pets doing? Want to know more about it? Email me. Always wanted to know if your pet goldfish can count? Ask me. If there's research out there, I'll do my best to find it. If there's not, I'll make something up.

I hope that reading about the cognitive lives of these animals make your Mondays just a little bit happier. Not that you should be reading blogs at work! know who you are.

So, without further ado. Consider the dog.

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Figure 1: The family dog, Argo.

You might be walking the dog or taking the dog to the dog park, and your beloved Border Terrier (or whatever) meets another dog. They carefully inspect each other. They sniff each other's butts, because that's what dogs do. And then the fight begins.

But is it really a fight? Is it just rough play? How can you tell the difference between play and true aggression? When is it okay, and when should you pull your poor dog out of there? And - forgetting about you for a moment - how does your DOG know whether or not he or she is engaged in play or in a brawl? Seems like pretty important information to know.

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.

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Figure 2: The bow, more or less (it is surprisingly hard to get a dog to pose for you).

Argo is crouching on his forelimbs, the hindlimbs remain fully extended, and he wags his tail and barks. Typically the head is lower than Argo's head is in a formal bow. The bow is a stable posture from which the dog can move in multiple directions. It also allows for the stretching of the leg muscles before and during play, and places the dog's head lower than the head of the other dog, in a non-threatening position.

The types of actions used in play are also used in other contexts, such as during aggressive, predatory, or sexual behaviors. Dogs engaged in play often bite and shake their heads back and forth, like Argo does to his toy squirrels. (Dude! I've bought him new squirrels like EVERY week!) Sometimes they mount the animal from behind, as they might in a sexual encounter.

At first glance, the use of bows in play may appear random. They do not occur every N actions, or every N seconds. But it turns out that the bow has a very important function: the bow is regularly used before and/or after other actions that could be misinterpreted by the other dog, and could disrupt the social play. For example, bows were used either immediately before or after bites during play 74% of the time in infant and adult domesticated dogs, 79% in infant wolves, and 92% in infant coyotes.

In addition to communicating "I want to play," bows performed during the play sequence itself seem to mean "I still want to play despite what I am going to do or just did." It's like what your Mom used to tell you - it's always fun until someone gets hurt. The dogs seem to have internalized that rule, and continually make it clear that any damage done was all done in good fun. No hard feelings. (What I learn from this is: if my brother had simply bowed to me when we were kids, there wouldn't have been any fights in the first place. Right?)

Why do the coyotes seem to need to use the bow so much more often than the dogs and wolves? Bekoff thinks that social play in coyotes - different from dogs and wolves - happens only after dominance relationships have been firmly established, and it is clear which individual is dominant and which is submissive in a given pair. Coyotes, therefore, need to make a greater attempt to maintain the play atmosphere, and also need to communicate the intention to play more clearly before the play begins in the first place.

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. Social play depends on the mutual sharing of the play mood between both participants; when there is a greater chance of play-fighting escalating into real fighting (as with infant coyotes, especially), the bow is used more often to maintain playtime.

In a sense, the dogs' use of the bow functions as social punctuation - behaviors that clarify the meaning of subsequent or previous behaviors.

Bekoff, M. (1995). Play Signals as Punctuation: the Structure of Social Play in Canids. Behaviour, 132 (5), 419-429. DOI: 10.1163/156853995X00649

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But, but, I thought if they wagged their tail it always meant they were happy and playful! ;) Kidding, I learned that lesson pretty quick when working at a vet's office, wagging tail = doggie poker face. Just saying welcome and I'll be back, just from the title of the blog I'm sure it'll be full of interesting stuff. You and EMJ of The Primate Diaries could probably do some interesting joint posts if you run low on ideas.

By Rob Monkey (not verified) on 12 Apr 2010 #permalink

I always wonder about the dogs that race up to my placid and gentle dog and bark, growl, bump into her and try to bite at her when we first arrive at the dog park, while their owners smile, and say, "that's just what dogs do".

I'll look for the bow, now.


I like this new feature - looking forward to Mondays a little bit more now...

Absolutely dogs are great communicators.

We've learned a lot by co-evolving with them.

Great article, and cute pictures of the pooch. Looks very intelligent, perhaps like his owners.

Well maybe it's just my dog, but I've always noticed the bow as a prelude to play. It's almost as formal as the beginning of a sumo wrestling match, and offers the opponent a chance to decline to play. So I'm glad there's science and observations to back up my casual analysis.

What I'd really like to see is a further refinement of the study and look at vocalizations during play. When is the growl just a play-growl and when is the growl more seriously aggressive? It seems harder to tell in mid-chase, even when it started off with a bow.

Mark N: I actually covered a paper on dog growls at the old blog. I'll repost it here at some point, soon. You'll just have to sit on the edge of your seat until then :-)

It's a doggy smiley! :-)

By John Carter (not verified) on 12 Apr 2010 #permalink

Marvelous information! Thanks! And welcome :)

By aratina cage (not verified) on 12 Apr 2010 #permalink

I had a nice discussion with Ray Coopinger about the play bow. Play bows might actually be two behaviours. 1. An invitation to play. 2. A calming/avoidance signal.

The difference is the distance between the front paws. A play bow would have a slightly larger distant between the front paws, allowing for free movement of the shoulder blades. In the calming/avoidance signal, or stretch, the front paws are stuck together allowing very little movement from the shoulder blades.

One signifies "Let's play!", the other signifies "Were cool! "I'm no threat!" "Don't sweat the small stuff!" I think Dr. Bekoff is right, but would add they are 2 separate behaviours with two different meanings.

A lot of people can not tell the difference between playing and fighting of a dog. Sometimes when I go to the dog park I see people freak out when their dog starts to play with another dog. Its interesting to watch my two dogs rough play and seeing peoples faces. Hehe. Dont worry they are playing even if they sound so vicious.

Knowing about the bow got me out of a jam some years back. A new roommate had moved in while I was at work. I came home to find his big dalmatian/something mix in the house alone. The dog was in a new place and had never met me, so she was understandably nervous. She was barking up a storm, and was guarding the hall that led to the bedrooms. I got down on my knees, and gave her a bow. The barking stopped, and she came trotting over for some sniffing and neck scratching.

I have never seen my extremely playful pup do the 'bow.' I had always assumed that it was because she was a rescue dog that may have not had appropriate interaction during her developmental phase (like my rescue cat who has no idea how to cover her business in the litter box). However, reading this post makes me think that maybe she just never needed to; she is rarely the dominant dog in play and even avoids mouthing during play (mostly bunting with her nose and pawing). Maybe she just never needed to say "it's cool, it's just play."

By Stephanie (not verified) on 13 Apr 2010 #permalink

Very interesting post. The discussion in Gregory Bateson's Steps to an Ecology of Mind is probably the most fascinating analysis of dog play I've read, though some aspects of it may well be out of date now.

From its essay on redundancy and coding, also ch. 22 in Animal Communication (1968, ed. Thomas Sebeok): "Many of the curious interactions of animals, called 'play,' which resemble (but are not) combat are probably the testing and reaffirmation of such negative agreement [as 'I will not bite you']."

Lorenz was fascinated by this activity too.

My dog bows to me all the time, and there is no mistaking that it's when he wants to play, because if I react AT ALL, he goes zipping off in any number of random directions (his idea of playing is to run around really fast and have me try to catch him; he's not terribly interested in balls or frisbees). If I don't want a giant cloud of dust kicked up in my yard at that particular point in time I have to completely ignore him and calmly walk somewhere else.

By Uncephalized (not verified) on 13 Apr 2010 #permalink

It is amazing to see how powerful the bow position is in iliciting play behavior in dogs. Very aggressive dogs have a difficult time remaining aggressive when you get down on the ground with your butt in the air and your forearms on the ground (mind you, the owners look at you funny). I've done this with snarling guard dogs and even they have a hard time acting as guard dogs when you present them with the play position (although I don't know if I would do this if I thought the animal could actually get through he fence).

The "play bow" appears to be just that, a bow for play. Though our analysis shouldn't end there. The context of the display must also be considered. The context parameters should also include age of the dog. How puppies behave will be different than adults, AND adolescents.

A play bow may be a "measuring" of the other animal in the dog displaying the play bow. Why and for what would a dog measure the other for? Too play? Maybe. Not always. But the play bow tends to be part of a broader tool set of a dog to "test" the other for like or different beahviors.

There will be a difference of opinion between them at times and play (hard or soft) can help give the dogs a valuation and hopefully come to a consensus. Sometimes dogs "play" sometimes not.

But, all dogs will measure the other whether at a distance, or in close proximity. The choices of the dog are many, but will tend to be that with which they are familiar. So, if a dog hasn't had any experience they may tend to behave in an extreme fashion. Dogs with experience tend to display more moderate displays of measuring.

Lastly, when viewing our dog(s) behaviors, is our viewpoint skewed by previous labels given to a dog? "Bully", "rescue", "lovable", "playful", "aggressive", etc..

Often, I hear a dog owner describe their dog, only to end up with my own opinion concerning its behavior.