Studying Play Behavior Proves Dogs Are Mindful of Others

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The fact that dogs play comes as no surprise — it makes up a large part of our everyday interactions with them. That being said, there’s a lot to be learned about how our dogs perceive the world simply from observing them at play.

The Study

Marc Bekoff, a professor at UC Boulder, has been studying animal behavior since the early ‘70s, and in that time, has amassed a large amount of footage of dogs, wolves, and coyotes interacting within their communities. In that footage, Bekoff notes some interesting behaviors exhibited by these naturally social creatures.

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For one, those cartoon-esque dust balls of claws and teeth our dogs consider “play” can, in fact, be construed as something more akin to a dance, with agreed upon steps and etiquette. During play, dogs have been observed as bowing to initiate, giving up a clear advantage in size to level the playing field (e.g., a Rottweiler laying on his back so a Yorkie might stand a chance), and ostracizing dogs that disregard the agreed upon rules (playing too rough).

In the Beginning…

Dogs play instinctively, and a large part of playing is the facilitation of the development of pups — teaching them skills they will later use while hunting or defending their den. And though there are numerous practical applications for playing that are visible on the surface, to say that those are the only reasons our canine compatriots play turns out to be a bit shortsighted.

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Pack culture, in many ways, resembles a rudimentary society — there is a hierarchy (alpha dog), a sense of community (social grooming, playing), as well as borders and boundaries. Playing exists in part to train and prepare pups for adult life, but if survival was the only endgame, why would these social creatures continue playing into adulthood? In play you expend energy, open yourself up to an injury, and leave yourself open to an attack. So why do adult dogs play?

It must be fun!

What We’ve Learned

Not only do dogs play for fun — they adhere to a specific code of ethics that separates play from fighting, showing that dogs are capable of expressing their intent as well as understanding the intent of others. For example, when a dog “bows” before a game, they are showing others that they are looking to play.

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Bekoff also noted other, less readily observable behaviors he discovered from watching his tapes. A subtle narrowing of the eyes during play says to the other dog, “You’re playing a little too rough,” at which point the other dog either takes the hint, or the squinting dog stops playing. Also, dogs typically won’t start playing with another dog until they have their attention and approval, which shows that, not only do dogs want play to be a mutually agreed upon sport, but they also have a surprising awareness of whether someone else is paying attention to them.

This type of communication shows that dogs are truly aware, in no small part, of other animals’ thoughts and emotions — a trait previously thought to be reserved for humans. “That’s why we can have such a deep relationship with them,” says Bekoff, “When we study play in dogs, we study ourselves.”

What do you think? Can dogs understand how others are feeling? Do dogs show signs of morality? Leave a comment and let us know, and consider signing up for PetPlus, a benefit program for pet owners that provides member-only access to medications at wholesale prices, plus discounts on food, supplies, boarding and more. 

Source:
Washington Post – In dogs’ play, researchers see honesty and deceit, perhaps something like morality

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