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Dog Play Bows: Understanding Canine Play Signals

Go out and play with your dog.

by Karen B. London, PhD
October 9, 2021
Bernese Mountain Dog with tennis ball in his mouth play bowing in the grassy backyard
Kriste / Adobe Stock

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When dogs want to play, they let others know with play signals, like a play bow, which they use to get play started and to keep it going. These signals can mean different things, but the message always aims to keep play safe by telling other dogs that their intentions are playful. A play signal tells another dog, “I want to play.” If you want to build a stronger bond with your pup, consider communicating in ways that naturally make sense to them: a play bow.

Science of Play Signals

Behaviorist Patricia McConnell, author of Play Together, Stay Together, has observed that when it comes to dogs and people, “play isn’t what makes our relationship with each other better, play is what creates the relationship in the first place.” A Bristol University survey found that most of the 4,000 respondents simply didn’t spend enough time playing with their dogs. The UK-based study also found a clear link between “limited playtime and animal behavior problems, such as being nervous when left alone, disobedience and snapping at other animals.”

Others have taken note of the role of play in our dogs’ lives as well. Marc Bekoff, one of the leading scientists of animal play, has said, “We train too much and play too little. … Whenever you are playing together, you and your dog learn the most important rules of social interaction: mutual trust, accepting the limitations of the other individual, and dealing fairly with each other.” Play is also ripe with opportunities for shared joy. As Mechtild Käufer, author of Canine Play Behavior, writes, during play, you and your dog experience “moments in which two species— human and dog—really become one.”

Translating Dog Play Bows

A dog play bow is a play signal that dogs use to initiate play with other dogs and signal to others that their intentions are playful. Play bows communicate that even if the behavior to follow is rough or borrowed from other contexts such as fighting or predation and involves biting, chasing, shaking, or slamming into one another, it is playful in nature. There is no intent to cause harm. Using play signals to communicate makes it less likely that a dog’s actions will be misinterpreted, which can cause play to escalate into aggression.

So, how does all this research and insight play out (no pun intended) in real life? Though the play bow is a universal invitation to play among dogs, people can do it, too. A pet parent can imitate this action by getting down on all fours, putting both elbows on the ground, and leaving your butt in the air. Dogs usually perform play bows in a springy, fast motion with a bounciness to it. If you want your play bow to be as well-received as possible, try to mimic that springiness rather than calmly moving into the posture like you are doing flow yoga.

A modified play bow for people is possible, too, and it’s a little easier because you can remain standing. All you have to do is lean over from the hips, bend both legs, and spread your arms out at a 45-degree angle. To appear most playful to the dog receiving this signal, go into the pose quickly, perhaps even doing a little jump to go into the pose. Then, do something playful, like run away from your dog to start a chase game.

Bonds Grow During Play

Performing play bow makes dogs happy because there is no confusion—they already know what it means. Here are some other ways that play signals can increase the bond with your dog.

Developing trust.

Play develops trust and increases the degree and amount of attention your dog will pay to you. (Particularly if you let your dog occasionally win, including when playing tug.) They call it “play” because it’s not goal-oriented. Try not to focus on winning ribbons or breaking records—in that case, it’s more like work, and the positive aspects disappear.

Part of the pack.

It’s well known that dogs will play longer with humans than with other dogs; they’re also less competitive and will both present and surrender toys to humans more frequently. Even dogs in multi-dog households are more (rather than less) interested in playing with humans.

Better communication.

Play signals also develop communication. To get your dog’s attention, hold a toy out in front of you, slap both hands on the ground, play bow or make a quick forward movement. Play signals given by humans are more likely to elicit a response when accompanied by play vocalizations.

Benefits in training.

Dogs who frequently play rough-and-tumble games with their humans have fewer problems with separation anxiety and are more self-confident. Not only that, but they score higher in “obedient attentiveness” after play sessions than before the sessions, according to researchers Nicola Rooney and John Bradshaw, which suggests that training after play can be highly effective.

Do you play bow to your dog? If so, how does your dog respond?

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karen london

Karen B. London, PhD

Karen B. London, Ph.D., is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral issues, including aggression, and has also trained other animals including cats, birds, snakes, and insects. She writes the animal column for the Arizona Daily Sun and is an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Northern Arizona University. She is the author of six books about training and behavior, including her most recent, Treat Everyone Like a Dog: How a Dog Trainer’s World View Can Improve Your Life.