We know that dogs care about people paying attention to them, and we know that dogs generally enjoy human attention. Even so, it’s intriguing to learn that being observed by people has a strong effect on one of their species-typical behaviors—in this case, play.
Predictably, there’s great interest in a new study showing that dogs play more when their owners are paying attention to them. There’s always great interest in anything related to canine play, not the least because it’s fun to watch.
The study reported on in the journal Animal Cognition, “Owner attention facilitates social play in dog–dog dyads (Canis lupus familiaris): evidence for an interspecific audience effect” is the first to directly evaluate an audience’s effects on canine play.
Dogs have previously been shown to be affected by human attention in other contexts, and by the attention of canine play partners. A 2007 study showed that most play occurs in familiar settings when a human is also present, and a 2014 study found that wolves and wolf-dog hybrids played more when people were present. However, these studies did not control for human attention; they only factored in human presence.
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In the current study, researchers investigated the effect of human attention as well as human presence on canine play. People offered their dogs attention in three ways: making eye contact with them, petting them and praising them using an upbeat tone of voice.
For the research, pairs of dogs were videotaped in their own homes three times for five minutes each, in each of the three following situations: The owner was (1) in another room (absent), (2) in the room with the dogs but totally focused on a book or laptop and making no eye contact or social overtures (present but inattentive) or (3) in the room with the dogs making eye contact as well as offering verbal praise and petting (present and attentive).
The videos were then analyzed to determine the amount of time the dogs engaged in social play behavior. These data showed that they played most when their owners were both present and attentive.
Though the owners in the present-and-attentive condition were friendly with the dogs, they didn’t encourage play in any way. They didn’t offer toys, attempt to wrestle or chase the dogs, or give other play-associated cues. If social play occurred, the attentive owners continued to offer eye contact and verbal praise but did not pet or make other physical contact with the dogs.
It’s unexpected and therefore curious that dogs have the option to play at any time, but are more likely to do so when their owners are watching them. The authors propose a number of possible explanations for the increase in play around attentive owners:
• Attention may be a reinforcement, meaning that play is reinforced by the owner’s attention.
• Play may be a result of increased physiological arousal caused by owner attention.
• Play may have been reinforced in the past by other valuable offerings—perhaps the owner regularly joined in with the play, took them outside or took them for a walk.
• Attentive owners may make the dogs feel safe and comfortable, necessary conditions for play to occur. While animals can deepen their relationship through play, it does pose risks, including generating tension that may lead to aggression. Perhaps an attentive person makes that less likely, so play is more likely to occur.
• Play could be an attempt to compete for the owner’s attention.
• It’s possible that the presence of an attentive owner enhances the dogs’ positive feelings, perhaps causing an increase in oxytocin that results in a more positive overall emotional state in general.
Future studies could explore how the attention of owners facilitates play. Additional studies could also elucidate which element or combination of elements of human attention—eye contact, praise, physical contact—are most relevant to encouraging canine play.
In the meantime, we can take pleasure in watching our dogs while they play and praising them as they do so, knowing that we are part of the reason it’s happening at all.