Dog Play Is Socially Contagious and Now We Know Why

Dogs play vigorously and share intentions via mimicry and emotional contagion

Posted Dec 23, 2015

Dogs just "wanna" have fun and know how to do it: Fine-tuning play on the run

When dogs and other animals play they are able to "fine tune" what they're doing on the run to maintain the "play mood." Also, play is very contagious and when dogs see other dogs playing they often want to jump into the fray, as do I. And now, a new research paper by Elisabetta Palagi, Velia Nicotra, and Giada Cordoni titled "Rapid mimicry and emotional contagion in domestic dogs," explains why this is so. The entire essay is available online for free and summaries can be found here.

Social play in dogs can be a high energy activity during which the players often "go crazy" running here, there, and everywhere, with wrestling, mouthing, and biting accompanied by head-shaking thrown into the mix. And, only rarely, does this kaleidoscope of different behavior patterns that we call play escalate into aggression. I've detailed some of the very interesting aspects of dog play in earlier essays called "How and Why Dogs Play Revisited: Who’s Confused?" and "Butts and Noses: Secrets and Lessons from Dog Parks" and links therein. And, for those interested in some very detailed and up-to-date discussions of different aspects of nonhuman animal (animal) play, please see a special issue of the journal Adaptive Behavior edited by Jeffrey Schank called "The Evolution and Function of Play."

Take a bow

An action called the play bow is very important in initiating and maintain the "play mood," and in a summary of the above study by Jennifer Viegas we read, "The researchers documented that in less than one second, many of the dogs would copy the expressions and behaviors of other dogs. For example, if one dog would position his body in a play bow, indicating readiness to play, another would do so near instantaneously. If a dog exhibited a relaxed, open-mouthed face — signifying friend not foe among canines — then the other dog would tend to do the same."

Marc Bekoff
Source: Marc Bekoff

When I was asked to comment on the study by Dr. Palagi and her colleagues, I wrote that this is a very important study because not only does it extend the taxonomic distribution of rapid mimicry and emotional contagion to a species in which they have been inferred but not adequately demonstrated, but also because it explains a wealth of data showing that dogs (and other animals) can engage in high intensity social play and "fine-tune it on the run." During decades of detailed research on dog play by my students and I, we hypothesized that dogs were somehow empathizing with their play partners and that this was one of the reasons that even high intensity play only rarely escalated to "true aggression," but we hadn't invoked mimicry as one reason they could vigorously play and share intentions to play and maintain the play atmosphere. Now, Dr. Palagi and her colleagues have shown that the ability to maintain a "play mood" most likely rests on rapid mimicry and emotional contagion.

Furthermore, as I've noted elsewhere, there are data that show that there is a good deal of rapid thinking and feeling on-the-run based on what Harry (a dog) thinks and feels Mary (another dog) is likely to do during an on-going interaction (and vice versa). These sorts of interactions make it clear that play is also a good place to observe and to study what researchers call a “theory of mind,” because Harry and Mary need to pay very close attention to what each has done and is doing, and how that will influence what she or he is likely to do in the future (for further discussion please see Alexandra Horowitz's essay called "Attention to attention in domestic dog (Canis familiaris) dyadic play"). There is a good deal of mind-reading going on here as Harry and Mary make careful and rapid assessments and predictions of what their play partner is likely to do. 

One interesting aspect of Dr. Palagi's study is that "the distribution of rapid mimicry was strongly affected by the familiarity linking the subjects involved: the stronger the social bonding, the higher the level of rapid mimicry." Along these lines, a study in progress is showing that play among dogs who are familiar does indeed differ from play among dogs who haven't previously played. We've also noticed that play in large groups of dogs breaks down more rapidly than play in smaller groups, not because it escalates into aggression but rather, we argue, that the dogs can't read one another as well in large groups. This is an on-going study so please stay tuned for more information on this aspect of social play in dogs.

Please also stay tuned for more on dog behavior, cognition, and emotions, because there is a lot of research being done by research groups around the world, and we still have a lot to learn. Dogs are amazing sentient beings who challenge us in many different ways. 

Marc Bekoff's latest books are Jasper's Story: Saving Moon Bears (with Jill Robinson), Ignoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate ConservationWhy Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed, Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence and The Jane Effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson). (; @MarcBekoff)