Just about everyone who lives with a dog knows they can learn the house rules—and when they break one, their subsequent groveling is usually ingratiating enough to ensure quick forgiveness. But few people have stopped to ask why dogs have such a keen sense of right and wrong.
Chimpanzees and other nonhuman primates regularly make the news when researchers, logically looking to our closest relatives for traits similar to our own, uncover evidence of their instinct for fairness. But research has suggested that wild canid societies may be even better analogs for early hominid groups, and when we study dogs, wolves, and coyotes, we discover behaviors that hint at the roots of human morality.
Morality, as Jessica Pierce and I define it in our book Wild Justice, is a suite of interrelated other-regarding behaviors that cultivate and regulate social interactions. These behaviors, including altruism, tolerance, forgiveness, reciprocity, and fairness, are readily evident in the egalitarian way wolves and coyotes play with one another. Canids (members of the dog family) follow a strict code of conduct when they play, which teaches pups the rules of social engagement that allow their societies to succeed.
Play also builds trusting relationships among pack members, which enables divisions of labor, dominance hierarchies and cooperation in hunting, raising young, and defending food and territory. Because this social organization closely resembles that of early humans (as anthropologists and other experts believe it existed), studying canid play may offer a glimpse of the moral code that allowed our ancestral societies to grow and flourish.
The moral landscape of play: Don't bow if you don't want to play.
Play is a kaleidoscope of the senses. When canids and other animals play, they use actions such as vigorous biting, mounting, and body-slamming that could be easily misinterpreted by the participants. Years of painstaking video analyses by my students and me show, however, that individuals carefully negotiate play, following four general rules to prevent play from escalating into fighting.
The golden rules of fair play include:
1. Ask first and communicate clearly. Many nonhumans announce that they want to play and not fight or mate. Canids punctuate play sequences using a bow to solicit play, crouching on their forelimbs while standing on their hind legs. Bows are used almost exclusively during play and are highly stereotyped—that is, they always look the same—so the message “Come play with me” or “I still want to play” is clear. Play bows are honest signals, a sign of trust.
Even when an individual follows a play bow with seemingly aggressive actions such as baring teeth, growling or biting, their companions demonstrate submission or avoidance only around 15% of the time, which suggests they trust the bow’s message that whatever follows is meant in fun. Trust in one another’s honest communication is vital for fair play and a smoothly functioning social group.
2. Mind your manners. Animals consider their play partners’ abilities and engage in self-handicapping and role reversing to create and maintain equal footing. For instance, a coyote might not bite their play partner as hard as they can, handicapping themselves to keep things fair. And a dominant pack member might perform a role reversal, rolling over on their back (a sign of submission that they would never offer during real aggression) to let their lower-status play partner take a turn at “winning.”
Human children also behave this way when they play, for instance, taking turns overpowering each other in a mock wrestling match. By keeping things fair in this manner, every member of the group can play with every other member, building bonds that keep the group cohesive and strong.
3. Admit when you are wrong. Even when everyone wants to keep things fair, play can sometimes get out of hand. When an animal misbehaves or accidentally hurts his play partner, they typically apologize, just like a human would. After an intense bite, a bow sends the message, “Sorry I bit you so hard—this is still play regardless of what I just did. Don’t leave; I’ll play fair.” For play to continue, the other individual must forgive the wrongdoing. And forgiveness is almost always offered; understanding and tolerance are abundant during play as well as in daily pack life.
4. Be honest. An apology, like an invitation to play, must be sincere. Individuals who continue to play unfairly or send dishonest signals often quickly find themselves ostracized. This has far greater consequences than simply reduced playtime. For example, my long-term field research shows that juvenile coyotes who do not play fair often end up leaving their pack and are up to four times more likely to die than those individuals who remain with others. There are substantial risks associated with dispersal by young coyotes, and violating social norms, established during play, is not good for perpetuating one’s genes.
Although play is fun, it's also serious business. When animals play, they are constantly working to understand and follow the rules and to communicate their intentions to play fairly. They fine-tune their behavior on the run, carefully monitoring the behavior of their play partners and paying close attention to infractions of the agreed-upon rules.
Fair play can be understood as an evolved adaptation that allows individuals to form and maintain social bonds. The parallels between human and animal play, and the shared capacity to understand and behave according to rules of right and wrong conduct, are striking. Canids, like humans, form intricate networks of social relationships and live by rules of conduct that maintain a stable society, which is necessary to ensure the survival of each individual. Basic rules of fairness guide social play, and similar rules are the foundation for fairness among adults. And it may have been just this sense of right and wrong that allowed human societies to flourish and spread across the world.
Dogs keep track of what is happening when they play and fairness is the name of the game. They can read what other dogs are doing, and they trust that they want to play rather than fight. When dogs play, and for them to know that their playmate wants to play rather than fight or mate, they need to know what others are thinking and what their intentions are. Each needs to pay close attention to what the other dog has done and is doing, and each uses this information to predict what the other is likely to do next. With dogs, evidence increasingly shows that they probably do have a theory of mind, and one of the main ways we’ve discerned this is through research on dog play. (See Canine Confidential).
A few people have asked me if dogs always play fair, mentioning a few examples in which play escalated into an encounter that seemed to be aggressive or it seemed like this was going to happen. I explain that this is extremely rare, and tell them about a study by Melissa Shyan and her colleagues in which it was reported that fewer than 0.5 percent of play fights in dogs developed into conflict, and only half of these were clearly aggressive encounters.
Their data agree with our own observations on wild coyotes and free-running dogs at play. I remember when I was watching three dogs playing on campus and they were jumping on one another's back and biting and head-shaking rather vigorously. The guy who was with them told me that they play like this all of the time and never once has it escalated into an assertion of dominance. To the untrained eye, it looked as if they really were beating the hell out of one another. I've seen interactions like this among young and old dogs in dog parks, on campus, and among wild coyotes, wolves, and red foxes. When left on their own, dogs and many other animals have a way of sorting things out as they engage in rough-and-tumble play.
Unleash your dog and let them play to their heart's content.
In many species, play is a foundation of fairness and there is a good deal of cooperation among the players as they negotiate the ongoing interaction so that it remains playful. So, unleash your dog whenever possible and let them play to their heart's content. When they're playing, see if you can recognize the golden rules of fair play. It's not that hard to do, and it's a lot of fun to try to do so. And, if your dog isn't a player, find something they like to do and let them indulge as much as possible.
Stay tuned for more discussion of fair play in dogs and in a wide variety of other animals. When dogs play they typically follow the golden rules of fair play, and so should we when we zoom and romp around with them on their terms, not ours.
Thanks to Jessica Pierce for her ongoing discussions on this and many other topics about everything dog.
Bekoff, Marc. Play Signals as Punctuation: The Structure of Social Play in Canids. Behaviour, 132, 419-429, 1995.
_____. Social Communication in Canids: Evidence for the Evolution of a Stereotyped Mammalian Display. Science, 197(4308), 1097-1099, 1977.
_____. Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2018.
_____ and Michael Wells. Behavioral Ecology of Coyotes: Social Organization, Rearing Patterns, Space Use, and Resource Defense. Zeitschrift für Tierpsychologie, 60(4), 281-305, 1982.
Bekoff, Marc and Jessica Pierce. Unleashing Your Dog: A Field Guide to Giving Your Canine Companion the Best Life Possible. New World Library, Novato, California, 2019.
_____. Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2009.
Burghardt, Gordon M. The Genesis of Animal Play: Testing the Limits. Cambridge, Massachusetts, A Bradford Book, 2005.
Shyan, M. R., Fortune, K. A., and King, C. "Bark parks"--a study on interdog aggression in a limited-control environment. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 6(1), 25-32, 2003.