Karen B. London
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Do You Play Bow to Your Dog?
Starting play the canine way
I'm play bowing to Tillie

If you want to extend a special kindness to your dogs, consider communicating in ways that naturally make sense to them. Play signals are one opportunity to do this. When dogs want to play, they let others know with play signals, which they use to get play started and to keep it going. These signals can mean different things, but the message is always aimed at keeping play safe by telling other dogs that intentions are playful. A play signal tells another dog “I want to play."

It also communicates that even if the behavior to follow is 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.

By far the most common play signal is the play bow, which consists of a dog getting down on her elbows with her back end higher than her front end. This posture is often assumed abruptly, as though the suddenness of the movement is part of the signal as well.

Though the play bow is a universal invitation to play among dogs, people can do it, too. A human can imitate this action by getting down on all fours, putting both elbows on the ground and leaving the bottom up in the air. Dogs usually perform play bows in a springy, fast motion with a bounciness to it, so if you want your play bow to be as well-received as possible, try to mimic that 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.

Many dogs love it when people do play bows, modified or not. I’ve seen dogs whose faces light up when their guardians first play bow to them. I’ve often wondered if seeing their humans perform a play bow makes them happy because there is no confusion—they already know what it means. In any relationship, it’s beautiful to understand and to be understood.

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


Karen B. London, PhD, is a Bark columnist and a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist specializing in the evaluation and treatment of serious behavior problems in the domestic dog.

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Submitted by Gregg | October 31 2013 |

Yup, do it all the time. I also mimick his playful bark, the "head games," and the quick 180 degree hop I see him do with other dogs. My wife looks at me like I'm crazy, but my dog loves it. There's no pleasing every species at once!

Submitted by Karen DeBraal | October 31 2013 |

They love it! Especially Ella, our pit-cross. She starts play-bowing back all over the place in-between twirly jumps!

Submitted by Frances | November 1 2013 |

When Sophy, my Papillon, was around 6 months old, I realised that somehow, in the midst of training, classes, walks, inculcating good manners, and all the other stuff that goes into raising a pup, simply having fun had slipped off the agenda. I got down into a play bow, bounced and huffed. The effect was immediate, and I had a much happier puppy! Gradually the bow morphed into a voiced Ha HA! from me (much easier on creaky joints), and a soft repeated huff from Sophy when she wanted to play. A few years further down the line, she communicates mainly by glances and ear flicks, and reads me so well that overt signals are rarely necessary!

Submitted by A Bark Subscriber | November 1 2013 |

Yes but not quite as described by the author. My JRT reacted with joy, bouncing and reciprocal bows to an unplanned and sort of playful move on my part, I slightly tucked my chin down and forward and hunched my shoulders a bit, looked at him sideways and slightly shook my shoulders. He thought it was a play bow and it was GAME ON and to this day 12 years later he still takes that as a play signal from me and results in reciprocal bowing, joyful bouncing around, little barks, prancing and circling and heading for the toy box for something to present to me to tug with him.

Submitted by Vera | November 1 2013 |

Many years ago I visited a zoo in one of Romania's smaller towns (where I now live - back then I was just visiting, I lived in Bucharest). I stopped by the cage housing the wolves. There were some three or four adolescent wolves in there, fairly crowded, and as I was worried I'd seem threatening to them if I went on standing and staring at them, I squatted down. In doing so, I must have lost my balance, so I put both my hands on the ground. The effect was instantaneous: two of the youngsters went into play bows, facing me, and capered around merrily for a few minutes. I was wearing a backpack at the time, which must have made me appear as "rump-high" to them, thus enhancing the visual signal. I was both surprised and delighted by their reaction.

I don't think I'll ever forget this... and ever since it happened, I have been trying out play bows with dogs I meet. I think it also helps get the meaning across if you bounce a little with your front end while doing the bow - like dogs are wont to do when they are getting revved up. And I find it decidedly fun!

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