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Animal Behavior

Dogs Engage in Playful Teasing to Play Fair and Have Fun

Great apes aren't the only animals who engage in playful teasing.

Key points

  • Using teasing to get an otherwise reluctant dog to play is a good strategy for breaking the ice.
  • It's important to study teasing in different animals to learn more about the taxonomy of teasing.
  • Dogs and other animals just want to have fun, and science shows this is so.
This post is in response to
Teasing Apes Suggest Humor Has Deep Evolutionary Roots

Dr. Mary Bates' excellent summary of a recent study by Isabelle Laumer and her colleagues called "Spontaneous playful teasing in four great ape species" was all it took to motivate me to offer some pilot data my students and I have collected over the years on teasing by free-running dogs. Bates writes:

Like joking, ape teasing is intentional, provocative, persistent, and includes elements of surprise and play. Teasing requires sophisticated socio-cognitive abilities and may be a precursor to joking behavior in humans. The cognitive prerequisites for teasing may have evolved in a common ancestor of humans and apes.

Playful teasing behaviors in apes had some key features in common: They were provocative. Teasers led the interactions by directing hard-to-ignore behaviors at their targets. They were intentional. Teasers approached specific targets and persisted when they were ignored, by either repeating or increasing the intensity of the behavior or switching to a different behavior. They were playful, but not “play.” While teasing is a playful activity, it differs from play. Teasing was more one-sided than play, and apes rarely used play signals when teasing. They occurred in relaxed contexts. Teasing mainly occurred when apes were relaxed, suggesting that it may happen during moments of neutrality or boredom.

What about dogs and other animals whose playful behavior fulfills these criteria?

Marc Bekoff
Source: Marc Bekoff

For decades, my students and I collected detailed data on different aspects of social play in dogs that most frequently occurs when they are relaxed. Here is a summary of some observations that center primarily on dogs approaching and rapidly withdrawing (A/W, which isn't a formal play signal), which involved a dog slowly decreasing the distance between themselves and another dog using a loose gamboling gait and then running away to most likely get them to chase them. Feinting right and going left (and vice versa) also was observed.

  • There were no differences in male->male or female->female interactions. Likewise there were no differences male->female or female->male encounters (-> stands for the individual who approached the other individual). There also were no notable differences among different breeds or mixes.
  • Building off data that showed that unfamiliar dogs tend to face-bump more than familiar dogs, most likely to "get to know one another" before playing, we expected that there might be differences in patterns of teasing when comparing familiar with unfamiliar dogs. We found that there were differences when comparing dogs who were familiar with one another and dogs who didn't know one another. Unfamiliar dogs tended to tease more than familiar dogs, most likely to get to know one another, even during time intervals as short as 5-10 seconds, but there were no differences in male->male, male->female, female->female, or male-> interactions. We all agreed that for dogs we were able to follow over time, there was less teasing after the first or second encounter, suggesting that as they got to know one another they were more comfortable jumping right into chasing one another, zooming around, and engaging in play-wrestling (rough-and-tumble play).
  • Size differences between the dogs had some effect on teasing patterns. When the difference was estimated to be around 10-15 pounds, when the smaller dog approached a larger dog there was slightly more teasing than when a larger dog approached a smaller dog, but the differences in the frequency of teasing and the intensity of the teasing (how often and how vigorously A/Ws were performed) weren't all that large. Not surprisingly, unfamiliar dogs who differed in size showed more teasing than familiar dogs who hadn't seen one another for a few days.
  • When possible, we also did some rough estimations of a dog's personality. We knew some dogs better than others and scored them as extroverts, introverts, and bold or shy. We also asked some of the humans who were with dogs we didn't know that well about their dog's personality. As far as we could determine, the extroverts who tended to be bolder teased less than the introverts who behaved more timidly.

Dogs and other animals just want to have fun, and teasing is a good way to break the ice and get to it

These observations show that animals other than great apes, in this case dogs, engage in playful teasing that shares the four key features displayed by apes, noted above. No single variable seemed to have much influence on the use of A/W other than perhaps familiarity and perhaps future research will clarify whether this is so.

In their only mention of dogs, Laumer and her colleagues note, "In studies of social play, initiating play is usually positively correlated with receiving play (e.g. western lowland gorillas [51]; dogs [5254]). This suggests that play is a highly reciprocal behaviour, whereas most teasing events in our sample were largely one-sided." They also write, "Given that in 74% of teasing events, the target showed neutral or negatively-valanced behaviour towards the teaser as a first response, playful teasing seems distinct from attempts to initiate play."

I don’t see why a target (a recipient of playful teasing ) showing "neutral or negatively-valanced behaviour towards the teaser as a first response" rules out that teasing isn't an attempt to initiate play. Using teasing to get an otherwise reluctant dog to play is a good strategy to stimulate play and it wouldn't be surprising to see that it's commonly used in many different species.

The best estimate that I could come up with was that A/W resulted in play around 70% of the time. Gordon Burghardt suggested to me that teasing might be a form of reciprocal play and on occasion it might be a form of bullying. Whether A/W was used to relax and humor another dog indicating something like, "All is okay, let's play!" is difficult to know with certainty but I don't think more than 5-10% of dogs who were teased were even slightly intimidated. Most of those who didn't play simply ignored the teaser or strolled off unfettered. I hope others will follow up on Laumer and her colleagues’ study and our observations.

Bates quotes Erica Cartmill, senior author of the great ape study, as follows: “If you’re a social animal, understanding how others will respond to your behavior is an important skill...You have to monitor their behavior and know what your relationship is like in order to know how far to push.” I couldn't agree more. Cartmill also notes, "Playful teasing is a behavior we absolutely see in humans, but it is not because we are different, but because humans are fundamentally the same, in many ways, as other social animals.”

Dogs and other animals just want to have fun and science shows this is so. Using teasing to get an otherwise reluctant dog to goof off and play is a good strategy to use to increase the likelihood that fair play occurs and the golden rules of play and mutually agreed upon codes of conduct are followed.

Perhaps the most important thing to come out of Laumer and her colleagues’ research is that it would be wonderful to see more formalized studies of teasing in a wide array of animals, social and nonsocial, to get a better handle on the "taxonomy of teasing." It's unlikely that teasing to humor only evolved in non-human primates, and I look forward to learning more about teasing in animals other than great apes and mammals.


When Dogs Play, They Follow the Golden Rules of Fairness; Dogs Just Wanna Have Fun: Birds, Fish, and Reptiles Too; The Power of Play: Dogs Just Want to Have Fun; Goofing Off: Psychological & Physical Benefits of Having Fun; Do Animals Play for the Hell of It? Watch This Fox.

Bekoff, Marc, Dogs Demystified: An A-to-Z Guide to All Things Canine. New World Library, 2023.

_____. The Emotional Lives of Animals: A Leading Scientist Explores Animal Joy, Sorrow, and Empathyand Why They Matter. New World Library, 2024.

Biology of Fun, 25th Anniversary Special Issue. Current Biology. January 5, 2015.

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