How Play Might Turn into a Fight

Most dog owners know what a "play bow" looks like.  If you don't – here's a picture of a play bow –

 How Play Might Turn into a Fight


Have you ever given any thought to the purpose of play bows and how they might have evolved?  The play bow is a ritualized display behavior, meaning it has communicative value and is fairly stereotypical, meaning there is little variation in the form of a play bow from one individual to another.  

Dogs use play bows to initiate social play.  In this context, the meaning behind the play bow is “don’t take what I do next seriously, I’m only playing”.  Play bows occur not only at the beginning of play bouts, but also in the middle of them.  If dogs are already playing, why would they do this?

In a study of play behavior, ethologist Dr. Marc Bekoff found that play bows occurring during play bouts did not happen randomly.  Instead, play bows were repeated both before and after other behaviors that could easily be misinterpreted. For example, play bows were more frequent both before and after biting that was accompanied by rapid side-to-side head shaking.  The communication seemed to be “I’m still playing despite what I’m about to do or just did”. 

What’s interesting about play, and what hasn’t been studied in domestic dogs is what goes wrong when interactions that seemingly start out as play escalate into a fight.  We've had cases in which clients tell us the dogs seemed to be playing and all of a sudden the play turned into a real fight.

Could it be that the dogs involved aren’t play bowing as often as they should be?  If they fail to play-bow before biting in play, does this make it more likely their play partner will misunderstand, feel threatened, and respond with aggressive rather than play behavior? 

Another explanation, and one we've witnessed, is that what owners think is play really isn't.  Play is mutual – with each dog initiating and ending play bouts.  When "play" consists mostly of one dog chasing the other one around  –  that's not play, that's intimidation.  

A final possibility is that some dogs may not interpret the play bow correctly. This is much less likely, because the play bow has evolved to be such a distinctive signal.  It’s hard to confuse it with other body postures. 

Have a question about play between your dogs?  Post a video on YouTube and let us take a look!


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