The Intricacies of Canine Play: An Insight into Dog Behavior


Play, a cornerstone of canine behavior, is a multifaceted activity providing multiple benefits to dogs and their human companions. The high levels of play in dogs, a product of domestication and selection for playfulness, are integral to their physical, cognitive, and social development, and continue to be an enduring trait into adulthood. The core focus of this entry is to delve into the nature and nuances of play in dogs, examining its forms, its communicative aspects, and its implications for canine welfare.

Forms of Play

Play in dogs manifests in three primary forms: locomotor-rotational, object, and social play. Locomotor-rotational play involves movements like running, spinning, and jumping, stimulating a dog’s physical agility. Object play encompasses interactions with toys or other items, often reflecting predatory instincts. Social play, the most complex, involves interaction with other dogs or humans, facilitating social skill development. While the structure and motivations behind dog play with humans and conspecifics (dogs of the same species) differ, both serve to enhance their social intelligence and relationship-building capabilities.

Play Behavior and Behavioral Repertoires

The actions dogs perform during play often mirror those used in other contexts such as predation, fighting, and mating. These mimicry behaviors are crucial, providing dogs with a safe platform to practice and hone these skills, preparing them for real-life scenarios. The significant difference, however, lies in the consequences of these actions. In a real fight, for instance, a bite can lead to serious injury. In play, the bite is inhibited and harmless, emphasizing the importance of distinguishing between play and aggression, primarily for the safety and welfare of the dogs involved.

Communication in Play

To differentiate play actions from potentially harmful ones, dogs rely on ‘play signals’. These are explicit behaviors primarily used during play to communicate the dog’s playful intent. Two widely documented visual play signals in dogs are the play face – a relaxed, open-mouthed expression, and the play bow – a specific posture where the front end is lowered, and the rear end stays up. In addition to visual signals, acoustic play signals also hold relevance. These play sounds differ from their counterparts used during aggressive situations, further distinguishing play from potentially harmful interactions.

Metacommunication in Play

Play signals don’t just communicate the intent to play; they are a part of a metacommunication system where the signals define the context for interpreting other actions and behaviors. This concept, initially proposed by Bateson (1955), allows dogs to display actions that might seem aggressive in other contexts without escalating into actual aggression.

Strategies to Instigate Play

Dogs often resort to strategies such as self-handicapping and simple contagion to instigate and facilitate play. Self-handicapping involves a dog intentionally putting itself at a disadvantage to keep the play fair, such as a larger dog letting a smaller one ‘win’. This strategy helps maintain the positive, reciprocal nature of play, building social bonds, and learning social skills.

Simple contagion refers to the tendency of dogs to mimic the behavior of their peers. Observing other dogs play might entice a dog to join the fun, spreading the playful behavior like a ripple effect in a social setting. This ‘contagious’ nature of play underlines its role in strengthening social cohesion.

The Play Bow

One classic example of metacommunication in dog play is the “play bow.” This is a specific posture where a dog lowers its front legs and chest while keeping its rear end in the air. It’s a signal that’s almost universally recognized among dogs and is used almost exclusively in the context of play.

The play bow serves a dual purpose:

  1. Solicitation: It is used to invite another dog to play. When a dog performs a play bow, it’s essentially saying, “I want to play with you.”
  2. Metacommunication: It helps set or maintain the playful context for the subsequent actions. If a dog play bows and then performs an action that could otherwise be interpreted as aggressive (like a mock bite or a chase), the other dog understands that this is a part of play, not a real threat. The play bow is communicating about the nature of the interaction—”This is play, not a fight.”

So, in this way, the play bow serves as a metacommunicative signal, defining the context of the interaction and helping to prevent misunderstandings that could escalate into actual aggression.

Ontogenetic Ritualization

Ontogenetic ritualization is a process that explains how certain communicative behaviors can develop between two individual animals over time. Imagine two puppies from the same litter who spend a lot of time together. Over time, they begin to develop a unique set of play behaviors and signals that they consistently use when interacting with each other. For instance, one puppy might develop a unique wag of its tail that it only uses when it wants to play with its sibling, and the other puppy learns to recognize and respond to this signal. The signal is not a hardwired, instinctual behavior (see phylogenetic ritualization) — rather, it’s a product of their repeated interactions and mutual feedback. The consistent use of these specific signals in their interactions can be seen as an example of ontogenetic ritualization.


Play in dogs can take various forms, including locomotor-rotational, object, and social play. These types of play enhance physical agility, fulfill predatory instincts, and facilitate social skill development, respectively.

We discussed how play actions often mimic behaviors used in other contexts such as predation, fighting, and mating, but in a safe and harmless way. This is achieved through the use of play signals, which help differentiate playful actions from potentially harmful ones. Play signals include both visual cues, such as the play face and play bow, and acoustic signals.

We touched on the concept of metacommunication, where play signals also help define the context of interpreting other behaviors during play. This system allows dogs to display actions that might appear aggressive without escalating into actual aggression.

Strategies such as self-handicapping and simple contagion were discussed as methods dogs may use to instigate and maintain play. We also elaborated on the topic of ontogenetic ritualization, which explains how unique communicative behaviors can develop between individual animals over time.

Further Reading

  1. Käufer, Mechtild. 2014. Canine Play Behavior: The Science of Dogs at Play. Wallingford, Oxfordshire: CABI. book offers a comprehensive look into why dogs play, detailing various forms of play and explaining play signals dogs use.
  2. Miklósi, Adám. 2015. Dog Behaviour, Evolution, and Cognition. Second Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press. book is a fantastic resource for understanding various aspects of dog behavior.

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Tony Bierman, "The Intricacies of Canine Play: An Insight into Dog Behavior," OBTESA, Accessed July 12, 2024,