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The Power of Play: Dogs Just Want to Have Fun

Fair play by dogs reveals what they know and feel as they frolic.

Dogs just want to have fun and they know how to do it

Jethro bounds toward Zeke, stops immediately in front of him, crouches on his forelimbs, wags his tail, barks, and immediately lunges at him, bites his scruff and shakes his head rapidly from side to side, works his way around to his backside and mounts him, jumps off, does a rapid bow, lunges at his side and slams him with his hips, leaps up and bites his neck, and runs away. Zeke takes off in wild pursuit of Jethro and leaps on his back and bites his muzzle and then his scruff, and shakes his head rapidly from side to side. Suki bounds in and chases Jethro and Zeke, and they all wrestle with one another. They part for a few minutes, sniffing here and there and resting. Then, Jethro walks slowly over to Zeke, extends his paw toward Zeke’s head, and nips at his ears. Zeke gets up and jumps on Jethro’s back, bites him, and grasps him around his waist. They then fall to the ground and mouth wrestle. Then they chase one another and roll over and play. Suki decides to jump in, and the three of them frolic until they’re exhausted. When it’s over, they all look like they couldn’t have been happier. And then, Lolo comes, too, and it all happens once again.

These are some of my field notes, which have been mirrored in thousands of other observations of dogs at play. I’ve been nose deep in dog play for decades, and I never get bored thinking about it or watching dogs romping here and there. Below is a general summary of what we now know about the hows and the whys of play in dogs and other animals. For more specifics about play, please see "How and Why Dogs Play Revisited: Who’s Confused?" and Mechtild Käufer's excellent book called Canine Play Behavior: The Science of Dogs at Play (for a review of this book please see "Dogs at Play: What They Do, Know, Think, and Feel").

We’ve all seen it. When dogs play, they look like they’re going crazy, frenetically wrestling, mouthing, biting, chasing, and rolling over, and doing it again and again until they can hardly stand. They use actions such as those seen during fighting or mating in random and unpredictable ways. Play sequences don’t reflect the more predictable patterns of behavior seen in real fighting and mating. The random nature of play is one marker that dogs are indeed playing with one another. They know it and so do we.

When dogs play they joyfully provide a pretty clear window into their heads and hearts. Play is a voluntary activity, and if a dog doesn’t want to play, he or she can opt out. Dogs can quit whenever they want to, and others often seem to know when one dog has had enough for the moment.

How dogs keep fair play in mind

Dogs play with such reckless abandon that I’m frequently asked how dogs keep play in mind as they fly around, tumble, tackle, bite, and run, often with unbelievable rapidity. It’s really remarkable to watch dogs of vastly different shapes, sizes, speeds, and strengths playing together successfully, without conflict or injury. So, how do playmates not harm one another and how does play remain the name of the game? It’s because dogs’ minds are very active and they process information rapidly and accurately even on the run. Dogs just want to have fun, and why not?

By studying dog play we can learn a lot about fairness, empathy, and trust. Based on extensive research, we’ve discovered that there are four basic aspects of fair play in dogs: Ask first, be honest, follow the rules, and admit when you're wrong. When the rules of play are violated and when fairness breaks down, so too does play. 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.

Along these lines, play only very rarely escalates into real aggression. Shyan, Fortune, and King (2003) 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.

What's happening when dogs play tug-of-war

Many people also are interested in what's happening when dogs play tug-of war with one another, as Molly (left) and Charlotte (right) are doing in the photo below. It turns out that it's not necessarily the case that they're competing with one another. Indeed, competition is fairly rare. (For more details please see "What's Happening When Dogs Play Tug-of-War? Dog Park Chatter" and links therein. Further study revealed the same trends are reported in this essay.)

In addition, tug-of-war between humans and dogs is also not necessarily about dominance. Not only can it be fun, but it also can be important in bonding and maintaining a positive and friendly relationship and training experience with your dog. In her book Play With Your Dog, dog trainer Pat Miller offers, “Tug to your heart's content,” and don’t worry if your dog growls. It’s all “part of the game,” and if the dog’s other behaviors are appropriate, “Let him growl his heart out!” It’s perfectly okay to get down and dirty with your dog. Do some play bows, play tug-of-war, and keep your special relationship alive and growing (for more on this topic please see "Get Down and Dirty With Your Dog: Bow, Hug, and Tug" and a radio interview with Tracie Hotchner where I come in at around 43:00).

To me, studies of tug-of-war are great examples of how we need to observe dogs closely before assuming we know what their intentions are. Tug-of-war looks like a familiar human game, but dogs don’t play by our rules, and we can get into trouble when we presume that they do.

The landscape of play: Don't bow if you don't want to play

When we carefully study the landscape of play we learn that dogs know very well how to tell other dogs “I want to play with you.” They use a number of different actions to signal their desire to play. These include bowing, face pawing, approaching and rapidly withdrawing, faking left and going right, mouthing, and running right at a potential playmate. Bows also can be used to tell another dog, “I’m sorry I bit you so hard, let’s keep playing.”

Marc Bekoff
Source: Marc Bekoff

Top left: Two dogs, Molly (left) and Charlotte, playing tug-of-war. This game went on for more than five minutes and was interspersed with social and self-play. Top right: Three dogs (left to right), Yekeela, Charlotte, and Molly, playing, during which they rapidly changed positions and used a variety of actions including bows, biting accompanied by head shaking, and body slamming. Bottom left: Ruby (left) performing a play bow in front of Scone. Bottom right: Scone (right) mounting Ruby.

I haven’t met anyone who hasn’t seen a dog do a bow—crouching on forelimbs and perhaps wagging their tail and barking. Bows essentially are contracts to play and they change the meaning of the actions that follow, such as biting and mounting. They also serve to reinitiate play after there’s a pause in the action. Bows also allow dogs to perform a wide variety of different actions as they spring up after bowing.

How do they do this? Dogs and other animals know they must “play fair” for play to work, so bigger, stronger, and more dominant dogs hold back through role-reversing and self-handicapping. These trade-offs help to maintain fair play. Role-reversing occurs when a dominant animal performs an action during play that would not normally occur during real aggression. For example, a dominant or higher-ranking dog would not roll over on their back during fighting, but they will do so while playing.

Theory of mind and "moral mutts": Having fun on the run

A “hot topic” in ethology and animal research today is trying to figure out if nonhuman animals have what is called a “theory of mind” (ToM). That is, do animals know that other individuals have their own thoughts and feelings, ones that may be the same or different than their own and that they can anticipate and account for?

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 is increasingly showing 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.

There are no data that support the belief that dogs are confused when they play. However, there are data that show that there is a good deal of rapid thinking and feeling on the run based on, for example, what Harry (a dog) thinks and feels Mary (another dog) is likely to do during the 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 the strong possibility that dogs possess a “theory of mind.” This is 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. During 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. For them to know what playmates want, they need to mind-read their friends.

All in all, fair play by dogs reveals many aspects of what they know and feel as they have fun on the run. They need to know what playmates want, and data show they mind-read them accurately. Without mind reading, empathy, and trust, fair play wouldn’t happen. Most dogs are “moral mutts,” and when fairness breaks down, so too does play. (For more details on theory of mind in nonhuman animals and why animals other than nonhuman primates possess the ability to mind-read, please see "Theory of Mind and Play: Ape Exceptionalism Is Too Narrow." And, for more on why humans might not be so unique, please see "New Study of Ape Cognition Shows We're Not All That Unique.")

The future of play research and insights in the minds and hearts of dogs

What's so incredibly exciting about the study of play behavior and the cognitive and emotional lives of dogs and other animals is how much we're learning about how individuals negotiate challenging and complex social and non-social situations by carefully analyzing what's happening and by using hard-wired actions when needed (for example, when they need to do the right thing instantaneously or the first time they are faced with a specific situation and there's no room for error), along with behavior patterns that require careful thought and flexibility motivated by what individuals are feeling about the situation in which they find themselves. Play is fertile ground for such inquiries.

Please 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 in the field called cognitive ethology, and we still have a lot to learn. Dogs and other animals are amazing sentient beings who challenge us in many different ways. Almost daily we learn not only something new about how they live in a wide variety of social environments, some of which change rapidly over time, but also about the cognitive and emotional capacities/adaptations that allow them to do so.

This is a very exciting time to study animal minds and what's in them.

For more on dogs in the news, please see:

Dog Bites: Comprehensive Data and Interdisciplinary Analyses, Companion Animals Need Much More Than We Give Them, Dogs, Cats and Scapegoats: Messes We Make With Companions, Dogs: When They Smell Their Pee They Know It's "Me", and How We Can Become Better People Through Teamwork with Dogs.

Marc Bekoff’s latest books are Jasper’s Story: Saving Moon Bears (with Jill Robinson); Ignoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate Conservation; Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation; Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence; The Jane Effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson); and The Animals’ Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age (with Jessica Pierce). Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do will be published in early 2018. Learn more at

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