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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?

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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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