I Bow for Your Play

At AutumnGold we have an informal group of trainers and dog friends who get together regularly to do a bit of dog training, go for group walks, and give our dogs free time to play. During play time, we take care that the dogs who are loose together know one another well, are  comfortable together and demonstrate good play manners. We include plenty of “calling out of play” and play pauses to keep things safe and tension free. One of the most enjoyable things about these sessions is that they give us a chance to watch our dogs having fun together and to observe the many ways in which dogs communicate during play.

And there are certainly a lot of ways.

Play 1Play 2

Play 4  Play 5

While many of us learn a great deal from watching our dogs play, there is also a substantial body of science on this topic. Researchers have long been interested in the expression and functions of animal play in a variety of species. Specific studies of play in dogs are not as numerous, but several scientists, such as Marc Bekoff, Nicola Rooney, John Bradshaw and Alexandra Horowitz have published work that examines play behavior in young and adult dogs.

Most recently, a team of researchers at the University of Michigan focused their work on a very specific component of canine play (1).

Play Bow 2


The play bow is a common and highly stereotyped play signal in dogs (and several other canid species as well). However, the precise meaning of this posture is not completely understood. Marc Bekoff’s earlier work with puppies and young adults suggested that dogs tend to bow prior to making a move that might be misconstrued by their play partner, such as feigning a bite or attack, as a way to clarify playful intent (2). In other words, the play bow is analogous to a dog saying “Hey, dude. Just wanted to remind you that this is all play. I just mention this because the next thing that I plan to do is well…..bite your ear. Remember this is all play, ‘kay?” Other possible functions of play bows are as visual signals to reinitiate play after one or both of the play partners have paused, as strategic moves that allow a dog to position himself ready to either pounce upon or dodge his play partner, or, because play bows are often offered simultaneously, as a way to synchronise play behavior.

Play Bow 1


The Study: Because it is quite possible that play bows are highly flexible signals and may have multiple functions, the researchers searched for evidence for all of the aforementioned possibilities. They presented four hypotheses regarding the function of the play bow: to clarify play intentions, to reinitiate play after a pause, to position oneself for escape or attack, or to synchronize play behaviors. They also studied the role of the play bow as a distinctly visual signal, which if true, would mean that play bows are only offered when a dog is within the visual field of his or her play partner.

The team analyzed a set of videotaped play sessions of 16 dogs playing as pairs. The dogs were playing in large enclosed backyards or a public area. All of the dogs were well socialized, played well together, and varied in their degree of familiarity with one another. Some had just recently met while others were well-acquainted friends. Play behaviors were coded according to a previously developed ethogram of adult dog behavior and were independently recorded by three reviewers. The number of play bows, their context, and each dog’s behavior before, during and after play bows were recorded. Results: A total of 414 play bows occurred during 22 separate play sessions. Four play pairs were responsible for the majority of the play bows (76 %). By comparison, no other pair accounted for more than 5 percent of total bows, suggesting that play bows vary dramatically among individuals and play pairs. There was no indication of an influence of age, sex or size influencing the number or form of play bows. However, this may be due to the relatively small sample size and are factors that could be examined in future work.

The collected data suggested the following regarding the function of play bowing for adult dogs during play:

  • Both bowing dogs and their partners showed an increase in active play behavior following a play bow, supporting the hypothesis that play bows function to reinitiate play following a pause.
  • The type of behaviors that dogs showed prior to and immediately following play bows tended to be similar within pairs, suggesting that play bows also help play partners to synchronize behavior. These results are corroborated by another recent study showing that dogs who use play bow mimicry tend to play together longer than those who do not (3).
  • More than 98 percent, virtually all, of the play bows occurred when the two dogs were within each others’ visual fields, providing strong support for the hypothesis that play bowing is an intentional visual signal that dogs only use when they know that their partner can see them and respond.
  • Although the researchers did not find support for Bekoff’s theory of  the play bow as an intention clarifying signal, they note that his work was primarily with puppies and young dogs, and used a different methodology. It is possible that the bow serves this function for young dogs while they are initially learning to play and to inhibit their bite, but is less necessary for adult dogs.
  •  Of the 16 dogs in this study, a single individual, a Belgian Tervuren named Tex, played with five different dogs and was responsible for more than 40 percent of the total play bows counted in the study. In contrast, several dogs showed just one play bow in a session or did not bow at all.

Take Away for Dog Folks

For dog folks, play bows are a welcome sight during paired or group play among adult dogs because we seem to intuitively grasp their use as a non-threatening and friendly signal. This new research, coupled with the earlier work of Marc Bekoff, suggests that bowing during play is not a random event that is just part of play, but rather that it is used to communicate specific information. For adults, this seems to be an invitation to continue play –  “Hey pal, let’s start playing again!” – as well as perhaps a way to coordinate and synchronize movement “Okay Charlie, let’s bow together and when I say GO, you shall zig and I shall zag”. And for young dogs and perhaps some adults, it may also serve to clarify playful intent.

An additional important piece of information from this work is that play bows may be highly individual. Just a few pairs in the study used multiple bows and a single dog, Tex, apparently was bowing all over the place. I bet many of you are nodding right now. Because anecdotally, many of us have seen this in our own dogs or in dogs we work with. In the play group at my school, Colbie, a young Pit Bull, is a champion play-bower. She offers not only multiple play bows during paired and group play sessions, but she offers them at record speed, seemingly as an invitation to chase. My five-year-old Golden, Cooper, also bows during play, but (again anecdotal here), he seems to bow most frequently when he plays with dogs who he knows well such as his housemates, and is less likely to play bow during group play.

Coop Ally Colbie Play


Ally, on the other hand, prefers to chase and to be chased.

Colbie and Ally Chase

Ally and Colbie Chasing

Like all good research, this new study stimulates thought and additional questions to ask about the play bow. For example, what factors might influence a dog’s frequent use of the bow – is it age, personality traits such as level of confidence or degree of playfulness, degree of familiarity among the dogs? Are there possibly learned components, such as training the play bow on cue? Does the use of a play bow ever “end badly”? In other words, do some dogs misinterpret this ubiquitous signal?

Lots to learn, and I am looking forward to seeing more from this team of researchers. Until then, play on, dogs, play on.



Cited Studies:

  1. Byosiere SE, Espinosa J, Smuts B. Investigating the function of play bows in adult pet dogs (Canis lupus familiaris). Behavioural Processes 2016; 125:106-113.
  2. Bekoff M.Play signals as punctuation: The structure of social play in canids. Behaviour 1995; 132:5-6.
  3. Palagi E, Nicotra V, Cordoni G. Rapid mimicry and emotional contagion in domestic dogs. Royal Society of Open Science 2:150505; http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rsos/150505.

 If you enjoy reading The Science Dog, take a peak at Linda Cases’ newest book, “Dog Smart: Evidence-based Training with The Science Dog“!


15 thoughts on “I Bow for Your Play

  1. Can’t wait to watch Gusto and his half sister Coley play again and pay more attention to their “bowing.” Since they are so close in size, they seem to spend a lot of time rolling over each other!


  2. My dear friend Barb Smuts (who did the play bow study) turned me on to your site. I am so impressed. You’re presentation of her work and the work of others is really first class and your readers comments are thoughtful and well informed. In this age of exploding dog ownership and dog cluelessness, it is heartening to find humans worthy of the dogs in their lives. Good humans! I would suggest that play bow performance variation may be linked to oxytocin receptor variation which has been shown to influence social approach and competence in humans, dogs, and other animals. I look forward to joining your pack. Meg


    • Hi Meg – Thanks so much for your kind words. I am glad that you like The Science Dog! It is so interesting to consider that variations in oxytocin receptors (and I assume then, degree of sensitivity to oxytocin?) may be a factor in explaining the variance among dogs. (If you are doing research in this area, please feel welcome to give me a heads up on papers that might make a nice essay for The Science Dog!). Looking forward to having you “follow”! Best, Linda


  3. Hi Linda,

    I’m very familiar with Hare, Kaminski, et al. Brian Hare’s findings (beliefs) have been pretty well demolished by Monique Udell’s research. For instance, Hare said that dogs will follow a person’s gaze but wolves won’t. He believed this showed something important about the evolutionary differences between dogs and wolves. Udell tested this hypothesis with pet dogs, wolves who’d been acclimated to human beings, and street dogs, and found that pet dogs and wolves had no trouble interacting with humans but street dogs were incapable of doing so.

    According to Tomasello (in the book, Rational Animals? edited by Susan Hurley & Matthew Nudds) there are two types of cognitive scientists, “boosters,” who offer cognitvely-rich explanations for behavior, and “scoffers,” who offer leaner explanations.

    Like Tomasello, Hare is a booster while Udell is a scoffer.

    I think the tendency to offer cognitively-rich explanations for animal behavior comes from a commonly quoted, but incomplete version of Darwin’s thoughts on the subject. “Nevertheless, the difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, is certainly one of degree and not of kind. … If it be maintained that certain powers such as self-consciousness, abstraction, etc., are peculiar to man, it may well be that these are the incidental results of other highly-advanced faculties; and these again are mainly the result of the continued use of a highly-developed language.”

    So boosters tend to operate as if Darwin only said the first part about “degree not kind” and they tend to ignore the second part, which is actually the most important.

    I’m familiar with the research on dogs who “act sneaky when ‘stealing’ food,” etc.

    As for your idea that Theory of Mind operates on a sliding scale, I think most philosophers of mind — people like Daniel Dennett, Andy Clark, etc. — would strongly disagree. It’s like language; you either have the complete package or you don’t.

    Another problem I’ve seen is that while instincts and reflexes are well understood, and so too are intellectual faculties, emotion is still an iffy proposition for most dognitive scientists. Of course Eric Kandel, Antonio D’Amasio and Jaak Panksepp are changing that, but it hasn’t really taken hold completely yet. And emotion — not intellect — is where dogs excel.

    Years ago (2009) — when I was writing about dogs for PsychologyToday.com, — Marc Bekoff joined the roster of writers there. He wrote a piece on play in dogs, saying that for him, since play and predatory behaviors are so similar, there was no way around the idea that dogs have to have the intent to communicate their playful intent when engaging other dogs in play.

    A week or so later he wrote a piece on how his dog Jethro was able to detect the fear left behind by a dog who was previously in the examination room at the vet’s office.

    I wrote him an email suggesting an alternative possibility about the nature of play. If dogs can sense fear, and if play is a form of “mock aggression,” where no fear is present, wouldn’t that explain how dogs automatically know when another dog is just playing and when he’s actually feeling aggressive?

    In his email response, he agreed that that could very well solve the problem. (He seems to have forgotten our exchange since then, or changed his mind on the subject, but for one brief moment we were on the same wavelength.)

    Linda: “I don’t think it was beyond their scope for the researchers to conclude that only offering a play bow when another dog can see you suggests that this signal has an intentional communicative function was out of line at all.”

    Again, I renew my objection: Why would a puppy try to intentionally communicate with a toy? Why would a dog attempt to intentionally communicate with his reflection in a mirror? Dogs are smart enough to have a “rudimentary theory of mind” but not smart enough to know the difference between a reflection, a toy, and an actual animate being?

    And why would a dog “form the intent to communicate” with a statue?

    I realize that framing many of my thoughts in the form of questions makes me sound more argumentative than I’m intending to. So I apologize for the tone. But these are questions that I think should be answered.

    Lee Charles Kelley


    • Hi Lee – Sure, you could be right. (Though, I would want to see more than an “n of 1” in the form of the dog bowing to a statue, even though is was a darned cute video. 🙂 ). Perhaps canine play bows serve multiple functions and can be offered in a variety of contexts. However, for the dogs in this particular study, when playing in pairs, 409 of the 414 play bows were offered when the dogs could see each other. This certainly suggests that at the very least, play bows were not random events that are just part of play, but rather that, at least in this context, the play bow was serving as a visual communication signal. In addition, I thought this was a very cool study and one that pushed the peanut further a little bit more in terms of what we understand about dogs. That’s all. Linda


      • Yes, as I said it’s a very well done study. I think it’s wonderful. The only problem that I see is the unsupported claim of intentionality in the play bow. And, as I said, this is a very common kind of mistake made by many dognitive scientists.

        And there is no “n of 1.” A) Puppies play bow to their toys. B) Dogs and puppies will play bow to their reflections in a mirror. And C) Some dogs (plural) will play bow to a statue.

        Does a puppy need to form the intent to communicate with its toys? No.

        As for the fact that a significant number of play bows were offered when the dogs could see each other, this is the same thing as saying the dogs only offered a play bow when they were in close proximity. Of course they can see one another. It would be very difficult for a dog to play with someone or something they can’t see, though it has been done.

        So while I agree that the play bow is not a random event to automatically impute intent simply because the dogs can see one another isn’t logical.

        Anyway, that’s how I see it.


        PS: Regarding “stealing” food only when the lights are off:


  4. This is, for the most part, an excellent study, though I think this section merits another look:

    “More than 98 percent, virtually all, of the play bows occurred when the two dogs were within each others’ visual fields, providing strong support for the hypothesis that play bowing is an intentional visual signal that dogs only use when they know that their partner can see them and respond.”

    What’s being suggested here is that dogs have a first-level theory of mind: they somehow have knowledge of another dog’s — or another being’s — sensory states.

    But how do we explain the adult dog who does a play bow with his own reflection in a mirror, or a puppy who does a play bow with one of his toys? Does the dog playing with his reflection believe that reflection can see him? Does the puppy believe the toy she’s playing with can see her?

    A few years ago I got into a discussion with another dog trainer who was convinced that dog’s have a theory of mind because, when playing fetch, “they always bring the ball back where you can see it.” I pointed out that in many cases, the dog may drop the ball directly in front of you, but the ball might roll behind you and out of your range of vision. Yet in both cases the dog still behaves in the same way. It’s true, some dogs may go after the ball again, and drop it again. But do they do it so that you can SEE the ball more clearly, or so that you can REACH it more easily? If it’s the first, that might suggest that the dog has a first-level theory of mind. If it’s the second, it suggests that the dog is simply trying to speed up the process of having you throw the ball so he can chase it again.

    Anyway, that’s how I see it.



    • Hi Lee, Thanks for reading and for your comment. Regarding Theory of Mind in dogs; there actually is a fair bit of research that suggests that dogs have a rudimentary theory of mind, in the sense that they are able to consider what another individual may or may not know. Like everything that has evolved, (and I am sure you know this), theory of mind most probably exists in various degrees, rather than as an all-or-nothing capability. I am by no means an expert on this, but the studies of Adam Miklosi, Juliane Kaminski, Michael Tomasello and Brian Hare and their research teams are all great to look at and suggest that dogs have more going on cognitively than we have ever before in history given them credit for. I reviewed some of Juliane’s work recently in the Science Dog essay entitled, “Do you Know What I Can See” (also found in WDJ, June edition). So, while these particular studies in this essay (I bow for your Play) were not designed to study theory of mind, I don’t think it was beyond their scope for the researchers to conclude that only offering a play bow when another dog can see you suggests that this signal has an intentional communicative function was out of line at all. Best wishes, Linda


  5. One topic that is on point here is the difference between the play bow v. a prey bow.

    Brenda Aloff’s “Canine Body Language, A Photographic Guide”, notes that in a play bow, the rear is up with elbows very near or touching the ground, and the is tail down. The prey bow, has the body oriented back but set up to spring forward. The tail is up and the front legs are braced. I believe that the tail helps distinguish the two. Tail up: warning! Tail down: play time!

    See also “Canine Behavior: A Photo Illustrated Handbook” by Barbara Handelman. This work includes a look at fox, wolf, and coyote, in addition to good old canis familiaris. Each book takes a different approach–Handelman organizes alphabetically, by behavior, and Aloff organizes by behavior type.

    I can’t say enough about both of these books. Check your library or Amazon.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Harry – I am not sure how well-documented a “prey bow” is, but it certainly makes sense to consider that. In these particular papers, play was specifically being studied, so I am not sure if I agree that dogs who are showing a play boy always have their tail down, as there are plenty of photos out there (and nowadays, videos) of dogs who are clearly playing with other dogs or their human, holding their tail up during a bow, not down. Regardless, the hypothesis that these are two different body postures would be interesting to study. I also agree that both Brenda’s and Barbara’s books are great photographic reviews of dogs! Thanks for your comment, as always! Linda


  6. My dog is an older rescue foxhound who didn’t seem to know how to play when I got him 4 years ago. He’s learned some play behavior, but doesn’t play much w/ other dogs. Once a couple of years ago he play bowed to my friend’s dog after we had all been hiking together (on leash) and were taking a break so the dogs could swim and drink. After my dog play bowed, my friend’s dog attacked him! He wasn’t hurt, but he’s not play bowed again 😦


    • Hi Walker – Ugh. What a horrible experience for your dog (and for you). It does make one wonder what was going on there – was the dog who attacked your boy simply dog-reactive and may have gone after any dog who approached him, even with a non-threatening signal? Or perhaps, not having a strong history of communicating with other dogs, did your boy communicate something he did not intend to? Who knows? (Wish they could just write it on a blackboard for us….. 🙂 ). Regardless, I am glad you boy was not physically injured, though I do always worry that the emotional damage of unwarranted attacks can be more severe than we are aware of. Thanks for reading and for your note. Linda


    • I have a similar story with my big labrador… it seems like sometimes they are traumatized by one event. In his case, he was friendly approaching the other dog, but then got bitten… :/
      He is not the same like before and unfortunately seems to be very cautious now.


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