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Do Dogs Understand Play Signals Given by Humans?

Dogs only recognize a small set of human signals as invitations to play.

SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd
A human gives a play bow to a dog
Source: SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd

I was watching an advanced dog obedience class that was being taught by a well-organized and knowledgeable instructor. At one point, after the dogs had done a series of exercises which required them to stay in one place and not respond to a series of distractions, this instructor told class to release their dogs and to play with them for a minute or two. The idea was clear; the dogs had shown admirable restraint and they were to be rewarded by a short interval of play. The response of the class was interesting. One student clapped her hands, another patted the floor, another shoved her dog with her knee, and several used verbal encouragements. The responses of the dogs were equally variable, with only about half of them actually showing any interest in playing, and the others staring at their owners with that wide-eyed look that I always interpret as the dog trying to say "Huh? Just what is it you want me to do?"

There actually is some research which shows that the most popular signals that humans use to try to get their dogs to play with them really don't work all that well. The research was published in the journal Animal Behaviour*. It reported a study that was conducted at the Anthrozoology Institute at the University of Southhampton in England. The head of the research team was Nicola Rooney who wanted to know whether dogs respond to the play signals that people give them. To get an answer the investigators went to the homes of 21 volunteers and videotaped people playing with their dogs. The owners were asked to play with their dogs "as they usually did," but they were not allowed to use objects or toys (after all it is hard to imagine a dog that doesn't want to play when you are waving a ball in front of him). Analysis of the tapes identified 35 commonly used signals. Some of these were similar to those I had seen in the class, such as patting the floor, clapping, or shoving the dog, but also there were some people who barked at their dogs, grabbed their paws, got down into an imitation of a dog offering a dog's play bow, as well as some more bizarre signals (such as the "hand spider" where the owner moved his hand or fingers across the floor to try to simulate the movement of an insect or some other small creature).

There were some surprises in the data. Analyzing the 35 most commonly signals used revealed that a signal's popularity (measured by the number of dog owners who used it) "was not related to its success at initiating or sustaining play." For example in their data set, patting the floor was the most common play signal but it only triggered play in 38% of the dogs. Some of the things that owners tried were total failures, eliciting play 0% of the time, including: imitating a dog bark, picking up the dog, or kissing the dog. While other less popular signals were successful 100% of the time, such as the one that I use with my own dogs which involves chasing or running away. Equally effective was giving a bobbing bow toward the dog, or lunging (making a quick movement toward the dog). Here is a list of the 12 human signals that are most likely to be successful in triggering play in dogs along with the percentage of times that the dog responds in an excited and playful manner.

SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd
Source: SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd

In a follow-up experiment the researchers combined some of the signals to see how a new set of dogs would respond. The combinations of signals that they used were rather arbitrary, but there was one interesting finding from this added bit of data collection. In this second study they found that if you add verbal signals to the body signals which you are using, the dogs are more likely to engage in play. The specific verbal signals which they used went like this, "Come on" (whispered) followed immediately by "Come on little dog" (in a high pitched encouraging tone of voice).

I had just finished the first draft of this article and had stepped outside to enjoy a moment of sunshine. A neighbor saw me on the porch and invited me in to have a cup coffee. As I stepped into her kitchen I noticed a magnet on her refrigerator. It had an image of a smiling cartoon dog's face and a text which read "Life Is Short: Play with a Dog!" I thought to myself that now it appears that science has given us a hint on the most successful ways to do just that.

Stanley Coren is the author of many books including: The Wisdom of Dogs; Do Dogs Dream? Born to Bark; The Modern Dog; Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses? The Pawprints of History; How Dogs Think; How To Speak Dog; Why We Love the Dogs We Do; What Do Dogs Know? The Intelligence of Dogs; Why Does My Dog Act That Way? Understanding Dogs for Dummies; Sleep Thieves; The Left-hander Syndrome

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Data from: Rooney N.J., Bradshaw, J.W.S. & Robinson, I.H. (2001). Do dogs respond to play signals given by humans?, Animal Behaviour, 61 (4) 715-722. DOI: