Play between Dogs

Lots of interesting research is being done on dog behavior and one fascinating field of study is on play.

Play is thought to serve several functions. For dogs, coyotes, wolves and foxes, play is important for the development of social skills, for the formation and maintenance of social bonds, to provide exercise and to teach hand-eye coordination. Play fighting and other play behaviors can provide practice for the real thing  (Bekoff & Pierce, 2009).

To solicit play, dogs frequently offer a “play bow” (a pose where the animal crouches down on the forepaws and sticks their hindquarters in the air) during play. Play bows are more likely to occur when two dogs are facing one another than when facing away from one another indicating that dogs are sensitive to whether the potential partner is paying attention. Dogs that are being ignored will try to get the attention of another dog by nipping, pawing, barking, nosing and bumping (Bradshaw J. , 2011). The “play-face”, an open mouth gesture, is also a signal to initiate play and to differentiate between play behavior and a serious attack.

Dogs may solicit play by pouncing on or ambushing another dog. “Pouncing’ is a fast and forward movement toward the other dog while “ambushing” is where the dog crouches, creeps forward in the crouch position and then pounces on the intended playmate (Kaufer, 2013). Gestures like the play bow signal that the inviting dog’s behavior is just meant in fun. The play bow preceding a quick approach and contact with another dog avoids the interaction leading to aggression and allows the other dog to agree to play with his or her own friendly gesture in response (Hare & Woods, 2013). Play signals also occur during play, for instance, after a pause in play.

Researchers have observed a sense of fairness when dogs play. For example, if a dog becomes too aggressive, assertive or tries to mate, the other dog may cock their head to one side and the play only resumes if the offending dog indicates an intention to play through a play bow or other play gesture (Bekoff, 2007),

Subtle behaviors ensure participants have a good time and that no one gets hurt. Infractions can lead to fights and, in the wild, coyotes who don’t play by the rules are ostracized from their pack.  Dogs will also avoid a dog who is playing too roughly or who bites.

To keep things even, dogs will “self-handicap” and play at the level of their play partner, taking the partner’s abilities and behavior into account. Dogs who do not follow the rules of play, for example, by barging in on others, are shunned by the dogs who are playing politely (Horowitz, 2009).

Play occurs in situations where the participants feel safe. For puppies of wild dogs, this is within the safety of the mother and the group of dogs they are a part of.  Dogs also do what has been refer_HAS5491red to as “laugh” during play. It is a form of panting which only happens when dogs are playing or wanting to play. At animal shelters when recordings of dogs laughing are played, there have been reductions of stress signals like barking and pacing in dogs staying at the shelter (Horowitz, 2009).

Sometimes conflict can arise out of play between dogs. Guardians can reduce the chances of any conflict between dogs by having them play in a neutral area, and avoid interactions between dogs who are mismatched in behavior and who do not adapt to each other.  Owners should intervene if one or more dogs’ level of arousal is too high or when one dog is overwhelmed by another dog or when one dog tries to prevent others from playing.  In addition,  food should not be in the play area (Kaufer, 2013).

Dog Emotions are Similar to Human Emotions

Many people have experienced behavior in their dogs that leads the owner to believe that dogs are capable of feeling emotions similar to those felt by humans.
Not only do dogs appear to experience a wide range of emotions, studies show that dogs recognize emotions in other dogs and in humans.
The results of a study by a team of animal behaviour experts and psychologists from the University of Lincoln, UK, and University of Sao Paulo, Brazil led the researchers to believe that dogs truly recognise emotions in humans and in other dogs and can discriminate between positive and negative emotions in both humans and dogs (Albuquerque, et al., 2015).\
In another study, researchers from the University of Mexico studied how dogs pay close attention to human faces to guide their behavior (for example, by recognizing their owner and his/her emotional state using visual cues). They trained dogs to stay still and awake inside an MRI scanner and showed the dogs pictures of human faces with different expressions along with pictures of inanimate objects.
They found that when the dogs looked at the facial expressions, the same areas of the brain were triggered in dogs as in humans in terms of reading and understanding facial cues (Cuaya, Hernández-Pérez, & Concha, 2016).

An earlier Hungarian study also using MRI also showed similarities in how dogs and humans process emotions. (Andics, Gacsi, Farago, Kis, & Miklosi, 2014)

A 2014 study on jealousy in dogs found that, when owners gave attention and affection to another person or animal, dogs seemed to engage in attention seeking behavior like pushing between the owner and the rival and or vocalizing (Harris & Provoust, 2014).
The idea that dogs are capable of jealousy relates to the newer research on animal social cognition that reveals that dogs have sophisticated social-cognitive abilities (Harris & Provoust, 2014) and have been shown to use social cues better than chimpanzees, who until now have been generally thought to be the animals most like humans in their social abilities.
Dogs have been shown to have symptoms similar to peoplecropped-img_0206-22.jpg suffering from clinical depression, anxiety and neurosis. Service dogs who were retired from the US military when they could no longer carry out missions have been found to suffer from a condition now referred to as Canine Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (CPTSD). After having suffered at least one traumatic event may exhibit distress and a number of behavioral problems similar to their human military counterparts. (Cheney, 2012)

Recognizing that a dog’s emotional state may impact learning and that a dog’s body language reflects their emotions, researchers evaluated the posture of dogs while learning through operant conditioning and concluded that dog’s body language during operant conditioning was related to their success rate during training.

These researchers found that dogs who displayed behaviors such as wide-eyes, closed mouth, erect ears, and forward and high tail carriage, without wagging or with short and quick wagging, related to high achievement results. The findings suggest that certain postures were related to the dog’s learning level during operant conditioning and that being aware of these postures could be helpful in understanding canine emotion during learning. (Hasegawa, Ohtani, & Ohta, 2014)

The Importance of Playing with your Dog

Play is often used as a reward in the training of working dogs who do detection, seeing eye or search and rescue work.  We know that social interactions with familiar humans are highly rewarding for many dogs and that dogs whose owners play with them have been found to score higher in obedience tests than those whose owners do not play with them  (Bradshaw, Pullen, & Rooney, 2015).
The owners of pet dogs can use play as a powerful reward in training. Play is associated with a reduction in the stress hormone “cortisol”. To get the most out of play, keep things positive. The benefits of play are reduced if the dog receives a verbal correction from the owner and dogs who have been trained with punishment-based methods are much less interactive during play than dogs who are trained with rewards (Bradshaw, Pullen, & Rooney, 2015).
Initiating play with many dogs is easy but some types of invitation are better than others. Studies on play between dogs and humans showed that when humans run toward or away from a dog, the human was effective at initiating play with their dog but when humans tapped the floor in a common method of attempting to initiate play, the dogs showed a much lower rate of responding playfully to the human behavior (Rooney, Bradshaw, & Robinson, 2001).
Studies have shown a correlation between playing games with physical contact between dogs and owners and lowered rates of separation-related behavior such as vocalizing in the absence of the owner or staying by the door the owner lefIMG_2950 copyt by (Rooney & Bradshaw, 2003). Physical contact should always be gentle.
Play  works as a reward because it is fun for the participants. Play is a cooperative pastime and MRI’s (magnetic resonance imaging) on humans show that the brain’s pleasure centers are activated when people cooperate with one another (Bekoff, 2007). Studies at Colorado State University revealed that oxytocin levels in women increased by 58% when women played with their dog (Hare & Woods, 2013). Oxytocin is an important hormone for women promoting mother-child bonding amongst other functions and has been referred to as the “cuddle” hormone.