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31 January 2010

Play Bows - The Punctuation in Play

I took a short video of our Brittany girl, Kaeli, playing with our new foster puppies

There was a lot of play bowing so I thought I'd also post an article on Play Bows :-)

This is one of many dog ownership tips I'd like to share with you under the name 'Paws for Thought' written by a friend at work who is passionate about dogs and is happy to share and discuss what she has learnt. Posted here with her permission. Please note: She is not a dog expert but a dog lover learning more each day.

The play bow and the wagging tail are probably the two most commonly recognised dog communication signals.  The wagging tail is often misread - so what do we know about the play bow?

The classic play bow position is recognised as:

* bum up.

* elbows touching or nearing the ground.

* ears up and alert (or sometimes back in what can be known as aeroplance ears).

* tail usually lowered or down but can sometimes be wagging.

* mouth partially open to fully open, lips relaxed.

* eyes focusing the same way as the nose is oriented.

They are usually seen as part of a series of bounds, chases and mock attacks.  For video clips showing the behaviour check out the listing at the end of this post.

It appears that plays bows are used:

* to intiate /invite play.

* to interrupt play when it comes too intense (Remember we are playing! This is not for real!) and to calm down.

* as part of possession games where the tail can tend to be up and the bow is down over the article. But this is not serious guarding which other dogs can obviously tell as they happily invade the space and continue the game.

* to signal the swapping of roles of chaser and chased during play.

* to show fiendly intentions, particularly as part of an introduction.

* to nullify what might be interpreted as an over-assertive approach (meant or not).

* as part of courtship behaviours.

Why is the play bow important? Because of its role as punctuation in making a dogs intentions clear during play. Play itself is a serious business for both puppies (who learn about themselves, others, prey, their environment, their strengths and weaknesses, dog communication and social rules through play) and adult dogs (who can use play to test themselves, try alternate behaviours that would otherwise be risky and practice communication and social rules while passing them onto the next generation/s and to get to know new dogs and their responses).

The play bow is not used randomly but with a purpose - as part of a set of social rules that must be followed. The play bow is a metasignal used to maintain social play when actions borrowed from other contexts (sex, aggression, prey killing etc) appear in play might be misinterpreted.

These other actions might include bites, particularly with rapid side to side movements and shaking of the head. Therefore the play bow often appears just before and again just after behaviour that could be misinterpreted - watch for them next time you see dogs playing together.

Puppies seem to learn the use of the play bow quickly as they grow and the response to it seems to be innate.

Dogs will offer these signals to humans in attempts to get them to play or sometimes when asking them to calm down or other interactions become too intense (such as trying to corner or chase down a dog with something in their mouth that you want or trying to grab them to get them back on lead when they don't want to come to your call).

People can also mimic the play bow to their dog. You can do this by:

* Getting down on all fours and sticking your bum up while lowering your shoulders and touching the ground with your elbows quickly and then leaping sideways in an invite to play.

* Bowing right down to your dog with your arms out in front, freezing their briefly and then dodging quickly left and right before moving on to play.

I hope you've learnt something more about this commonly recognised signal.

I certainly did in putting this post together. It also started me wondering about the comments of two particular dog owners (one of a Siberian Husky and the other of a German Shepherd Dog) who over the past year or so have talked to me about their concerns with their dogs and what people seem to take as play bows. Both dogs have a history of reactivity to other dogs, and in case aggression.

Both owners report that their dogs will focus intently on a particular breed or colour and size of dog and drop into a bow - but they both insisted that it was not a play bow.

People of course took it for one and thought their dogs were safe to interact and in fact then went on to force interaction which often ended with shock and horror. Both owners were beside themselves with frustration at other people not listening to them when they warned them off but insisting that they knew what a play bow was and what it meant.

Then lo and behold I got to see what they were talking about just last week at a park. The dog responsible certainly seemed to fall into a play bow position but there was an intensity to it that you do not see in a play bow - even from a distance it made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. I am now a believer - there is something else going on here.

So while putting this post together I checked my references and did a web search. The closest thing I found was a reference to something called a prey bow and that reference was about this particular bow's use in play - as a pre-cursor to a pounce. More research required here methinks but in the meantime if you have a funny feeling about your dog (or any dog's) bow in a given situation or if another owner warns you off despite their dog giving what looks to you like a play bow - please heed the warning and move on.


Barbara Handelman, Canine Behaviour. A Photo Illustrated Handbook.

Brenda Aloff, Canine Body Language. A Photographic Guide. Interpreting the Native Language of the Domestic Dog.

Susie Green. Talk to Your Dog. How To Communicate With Your Pet.

David Alderton. How to Talk With Your Dog.

Roger Abrantes. Dog Language. An Encyclopedia of Canine Behaviour.

Sophie Collins. Tail Talk. Understanding the Secret Language of Dogs.

Trevor Warner. Dog Body Language Phrasebook. 100 Ways to Read their Signals.

Marc Bekoff. The Emotional Lives of Animals.

Videos to check out from home:-

* The play bow in dog to dog play

* Puppy trying unsucecessfully to engage another (unhappy) dog to play -

* Putting play bow on cue -

* Teaching play bow from a down as a hindquarters strengthening exercise - note the bow itself can be used as a stretching exercise before sport or play -


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