One of the coolest studies of behavior I have ever read is a 2001 study by Rooney, Bradshaw and Robinson (Do dogs respond to play signals given by humans? Animal Behaviour, 61:715-722.) The question they asked was simple: Can humans tell their dogs that they want to play? And the really cool part is that the answer was “Yes, people can signal playfulness to dogs.”
One really interesting aspect of the study was that the effectiveness of signals at getting dogs to play had nothing to do with how often people used that particular signal. For example, patting the floor or whispering were both common ways that people tried to tell their dogs that they wanted to play, but dogs did not respond much to these signals. In contrast, running towards or away from the dog as well as tapping their own chest were two human signals that were highly effective at initiating play with dogs but neither was used frequently by participants in the study.
In the study, the least effective ways to initiate play with a dog included kissing the dog, picking up the dog, and barking at the dog, none of which ever resulted in play. Stamping their feet and pulling the dog’s tail (yikes!) only rarely got dogs to play.
The best ways for people to initiate play with dogs were doing a forward lunge (making a sudden quick movement toward the dog), the vertical bow (the person bends at the waist until the torso is horizontal), chasing the dog or running away from the dog, the play bow, and grabbing the dog’s paws.
The study didn’t involve toys, so it didn’t look at what I think is one of the best ways to tell our dogs we want to play, which is to pick up one of their toys. That seems to give most toy-motivated dogs the right message. Can you communicate to your dog that you want top play? If so, how do you tell your dog that the game is on?