Play Bows as Meta-Communication

We all know the signs of imminent danger between two dogs right? Immobile stiff bodies, direct eye contact, round eyes. Except when dogs are playing and then the exact same postures and expressions are nothing but pauses between frolics. That is a perfect example of what’s called meta-communication, or communication about communication.

Here’s a video of Willie and his new friend, Leo–the new pup of Katie Martz here at the office–illustrating meta-communication as well as any two dogs could. I look forward to your comments about it.

First, some background: Yesterday they met for the first time, and it went beautifully. Katie stood 40 feet from the door with Leo as I let Willie out and asked him “Where’s the Dog?” We played tug when he looked at Leo and then back at me. After 2 subsequent “autowatches” in which Willie looked at Leo and looked back at me without prompting (and was reinforced with a tug game for it), I released Willie to go meet Leo. He immediately ran over to Leo, who pilo-erected the fur on a dorsal line from neck to tail a little bit, but stood his ground and allowed Willie to sniff him. After a few short seconds Leo relaxed as Willie sniffed him, and both Katie and I felt sure (we discovered later as we talked about it) that he was about to put his forepaws onto Willie’s back. I wasn’t sure how that would go over with Willie so I said “Go to the barn!” to keep their first greeting positive. It all happened so fast I was acting on gut feeling as much as anything else, having learned with Willie and hundreds of client’s dog to avoid extended greetings between dogs. So Willie dashed off toward the barn and their first encounter went well.

Quickly we moved into a fenced 3 acre pasture, and both dogs got to run together off leash. They played beautifully together, although Leo is too young and small to keep up with grown-up, long-legged Willie. There’s a lot going on in this short video, but first watch how Leo’s long play bows correlate with both dogs standing stock still and staring directly at each other. Those signals, normally signs of trouble are not a problem however, because as meta-communication, play bows signal the other dog that stiff bodies and direct stares are just in fun. Just as a football jersey means a tackle isn’t true aggression (okay, maybe American football is a bad example?!), play bows signal other dogs that any behavior to follow is meant as play. That’s why you see them most often between unfamiliar dogs as they begin to play together.

Watch as Leo does beautiful, clear play bows at second 8, 20 (behind my legs), 118, 126, 148 while he and Willie stand stock-still. I love how both dogs stay still until one does what’s called “start-stop,” that quick little lunge that elicits a reaction. (I do it myself to see what will happen at second 40.)

Watch too how Leo runs to me and sits beside my legs at second 30. My interpretation of this behavior is that it’s done by dogs who are a bit intimidated by another. There is a great interaction between the dogs right after that, with Leo doing what looks like an abbreviated muzzle punch at second 33 and then licking Willie’s muzzle.

If you watch the video to the end you’ll see Leo squat and pee, and then turn and look back toward Katie. He’s learned if he pees outside he gets a treat, and boy did he learn that lesson well!

There’s lots going on in this video, I’d love to hear any of your comments about what else you might have observed. If you’d like to read more about play, you might want to go the section in the Reading Room on Play, or check out the Dog Play DVD or Play Together,  Stay Together about play between people and dogs. I’ll look forward to reading your comments, and not to mention welcoming Leo back to play with Willie.

MEANWHILE, back on the farm: What a treat for it to be winter! If it’s going to be dark at night darn it, at least it can be crisp and pretty. And it is. I am loving the snow on the ground, although it is not much and melting fast. But it’s sunny and lovely and fresh and your boots crunch on the snow while the Chickadees call CHICKA-DEE-DEE-DEE from the woods. Time to take Willie boy and Tootsie girl on a walk. I hope you have some weather you can enjoy too.





  1. says

    I love the quick little spins that Willie does early in the video. When my Aussie does this I interpret it as “I want to go somewhere quickly and with great enthusiasm, but I don’t actually want to go anywhere.” She does it a lot when she’s excited that dinner is arriving.

  2. Mary Beth Hall says

    I’ve been busy working full time AND going to school so I’ve missed out on so much of your great posts. But glad I checked in today…..WILLIE LOOKS WONDERFUL! So great to see him playing with other dogs without any sign of lameness. He looks so mature and filled out and gloriously beautiful in this video. You must be so happy!
    These two do a great job of illustrating many of the actions of play!

  3. Angela says

    I love Willie’s confidence. It looks like he visibly relaxed at 1:27 or so – “no worries about this pup”. Of course I am viewing this with the perspective of my BC, who would not have been as comfortable with this sort of interaction with a new dog, and wouldn’t have had the confidence to just stand there without reacting to a puppy in his face.

  4. Trisha says

    Thank so much Mary Beth, and yes yes yes! it makes me all gooey-eyed to finally have Willie healthy. I realized last week that for an entire one third of his life, or 25 months, his shoulder injuries (4 events, same shoulder) kept him restricted to being on a leash and going no faster than a walk. And what a joy too to see Willie so comfortable with a new dog… those of you who know the story know what a long haul that has been too. Willie will never be completely physically sound; I manage his exercise so carefully I am sure I am considered neurotic by some. And Willie will never be 100% comfortable around other dogs in all contexts (he would have looked very different if Leo had come into the house right away), but he is so profoundly improved from who he was it is more gratifying than I can say. I’ve never had a dog with as many serious problems as Willie, and as many readers have also experienced, that has led to loving him even more.

    And Angela, hand in there. Willie was miserable around unfamiliar dogs for years…

  5. LunaGrace says

    Really interesting that Willie is herding Leo as part of his play. He invites Leo to chase, then ’rounds him up’ like he’s working a small herd of sheep. Willie even ‘dodged in’ to get Leo to move at one point just like a BC would on ‘sticky’ sheep. Your knee bounce start-stop caused Willie to back up a bit — have you used that in the field when you two are working?

  6. CJ says

    How wonderful to see Willie play so well now! It almost looked to me like he was trying to draw more confidence to play out of the puppy, not that the puppy looked shy, just a tiny bit uncertain with a new dog (or I could be too anthropomorphic?). Either way, what a lovely video of polite play, the numerous play bows really seem to keep everything very light and on a happy even keel :).

  7. Christine B says

    This is a beautiful play video, it just brings a smile to my face to see how relaxed and happy these two are.

    Thank you for sharing it… and Angela –my dog sounds very similar to yours regarding his reactions to puppies… glad to hear I am not alone.

    Thanks for the video, I love the mini-pauses… it’s like it gives them time to get excited about playing all over again each time they stop, its fabulous!

  8. Rani says

    Great video on introduction and playing. You cleared something up for me! The stiffness/stare post mete-communication. My Bella has done exceptional well with the fosters I bring in. She was my first, failed foster back in May. Since then I’ve brought 3 dogs home that have stayed with us for approx 3 weeks each. My first two was more gut/they’ll get along. But your books have really helped post that watching her interaction at the dog park and this foster I currently have. I would often notice her get stiff and stare (Border Collie Mix) during play. Then I see the quick pop and chase. I’ve been keeping my eye on it because I wasn’t sure if she was acting dominant towards the other during play…. But since reading about the play bow signal and play stances I actually can tell both dogs are relaxed and having fun even during their stare down. Some people were saying it was a bad behavior but I never saw it turning sour rather both just kept running, playing, tumbling. But their comments made me nervous which I know isn’t good as he ‘leader’. Now, I am at ease and I know she senses that too.

  9. Donna in VA says

    My sheltie does the “spin” before launch himself into a run after the tennis ball. It reminds me of how guys rev the engine before flooring the accelerator of a car. Maybe it’s a male thing?
    Willie is very engaged with Leo, keeps looking back to see if Leo is following him. I think Leo would like to engage in some play-wrestling (use of paws and jumping up) but that’s clearly not Willie’s style of play.

  10. em says

    How sweet! I never tire of watching dogs at play, and what the video version lacks in immediacy, it makes up for in physical security (big dogs + fast running and rambunctious play can be extremely nervewracking to stand in the middle of). Hooray for Willie, overcoming his fears to get to the joy on the other side! Hooray for Leo, happy fun lover that he clearly is! Thanks for adding this bright moment to my day.

  11. says

    Sad to see Luke’s stone, but good to see it in the context of appropriate dog play.

    Is it significant that Willie never really holds a play bow, just sort of dips & springs out of them when be begins to spin or run? Is that age or status or personality – strike that – dogonality, or what?

  12. Trisha says

    It’s interesting to me too that Willie doesn’t play bow. As I think about it, he rarely does to other dogs. But he also doesn’t initiate wrestle or mouth play with other dogs, which is the most common behavior after play bows. Willie likes to play ‘race horse,’ which can’t be mis-interpreted as fighting. Perhaps that is the reason? Just speculating. Now I’ll watch more closely, but I can’t remember him play bowing much at all to other dogs, he does just what you see here.. tried to get them to run after him.

  13. Kat says

    When my two play together they don’t use play bows like Leo uses they use more of the dip/abbreviated play bow that I see Willie use a couple of times. I’ve put it down to the fact that since they live together they can use a shorthand version of the bow to signal intent. I sometimes see Ranger use it when he’s come too close to Finna’s prized chew and she’s snarked at him. The way it will happen is she’ll be sleeping on the floor and he’ll start to walk past. She’ll jump up, growl and/or snap in his direction grab her bully stick (or whatever it was) and move somewhere else. While she’s grabbing her chew I’ll see him offer the abbreviated play bow, back up a few steps and wait for her and her chew to clear the space. I always think of it as him saying, “sorry, no harm meant, just passing by.”

  14. Mireille says

    Nice video, made me smile. I love the way Willy invites to the chase play, checking whether the puppy is still following. He does seem a bit tense, but maybe that is because I am comparing this to the husky playstyle I see at home.we had some snow (yes!) although is has disappeared again and is replaced by rain an tons of mud.
    I made these video’s on the first day of the white stuff, when the guys refused to come indoors

    Shadow is playing with his tennis ball, which he does NOT like to share with Spot

    Chase in the garden

    Silently cursing myself, we had some doggy playtime one on one in our ‘social dogwalking class’ . We had one on one play with Shadow and a big Danish Dog, Spot wth a Newfy and Shadow again with a bouvier. I do now Spot playbowed and invited to chase the Newf, can’t remember whether Shad playbowed with the Bouvier and they did do some serious chasing… Shad does playbow to the little ponies in the field. Unfortunately last time he hit the electric fence… I also have this on video, something unexpected happened, at least for me in the contact between Spot and Shad (which is why I stopped filming)
    would appreciate some comments.


  15. em says

    Interesting observation about the one-sided bowing. I didn’t make much note of it, because that is exactly what I would expect to see from an interaction between an older male on familiar territory and a younger pup in a new place.

    My grownup dogs don’t do full play bows much at all, either. Sandy will occasionally, to Otis or to a new dog, but Otis almost never does. He used to when he was younger (though honestly not that often, even then), mostly when he was very excited and wanted to play very badly with a new dog. I’m not sure whether his lack of bowing now indicates that he is less interested in play generally (I’d say that that is true…Otis really only gets revved up for his well-established friends these days) or because he is generally more conscious of his social position as a mature dog (I’d say that this is true, too. Though he will use calming signals, and readily self-handicaps in his play interactions, Otis doesn’t make many affiliative or appeasing gestures to other dogs- he expects them to come to him). Or a third possibility, that his communication style has become more refined and subtle with age and experience.

    Anyhow, without really giving it much conscious thought, I’ve always associated full play bows with youth, but now that I actually think about it, I wonder whether it is actually inexperience- a big exaggerated gesture to make absolutely sure that behavior won’t be misconstrued is probably most useful to dogs who aren’t confident that they will be understood and are a bit worried about the possible consequences of a misunderstanding. It stands to reason that inexperienced, submissive dogs would do it most, and most often when the behavior that they contemplate is most potentially provocative (wrestling, tooth fencing) while experienced, confident dogs or those who do not contemplate provocative action would deep-bow least.

    I suppose another, somewhat boring and pragmatic possibility is that deep play bows require both energy and flexibility. Dogs who have lots of both are probably more likely to throw them around willy-nilly than the old fuddy-duddies are.

  16. Trisha says

    To Mirelle: Love the videos, thanks! I found it interesting that Spot repeatedly body rubbed in the snow while Shadow had the ball–and found myself wondering if Spot was either just displacing energy OR was trying to get Shadow’s attention off of the ball and onto the deck. Regarding the last video, after Shadow got hit by the fence the dogs went out of view, but I thought I heard a growl and assumed your ‘eh eh eh’ was a warning to stop the potential of some kind of aggression between them? If that’s the question, all I can say is that I’ve seen that happen several times: one dog gets hit by a fence and another goes after it. Usually though, the dog has continued yelping, a sound both stimulating, distressing and/or prey-like. What happened after the video cut out?

    To em: Interesting thoughts. I wonder if you associate play bows with youth because 1) younger dogs play more and 2) as you say, inexperienced (or unfamiliar) dogs may do it more often. I wouldn’t associate more play bows with more submission or appeasement. I’ve seen some super status-seeking dogs do a lot of play bows, but always right before an action that could be easily mis-interpreted, like a hip slam or body bite. I like your suggestion of other possibilities (play bows require more energy, done more by the young) but as you say, some does never seem to do them much at all, like Willie and Otis), while others do them often. Certainly you see them less and less as dogs become more familiar with each other and don’t need ritualized signals to ensure good communication. So I don’t think energy is the issue, but perhaps familiarity and a need to communicate clearly are?

  17. Mireille says

    The dog that is growling is Shadow, the dog that is hit by the fence. At 54 secs I see him stiffening and go after Spot. At my eheheh, he turns and comes to me and we play a little game of find the cookies in the gras to decrease the tension.

    I think Shad is a dog that shows soms signs of what you might call displacement agression? He once bit a puppy that came bouncing up to him during a scootering session right after a failed rabbit chase. He als bit me on the leg during a dig training lesson that was way too tense (three males in one class staring. One of them constantoy lunging) and he always snaps at Spot when we take of for a scootering run. An then, t s usually very short, he snaps once, and then it appears he has released his tension. He also has to have something in his mouth when we make preparation to go for walks..
    Anyway he is still a youngster, so we work a lot on self control (and changed dog classes, we are now in a huge field with a max of four dogs)

    Greetings, Mireille
    Ps can you imagine what might happen if Shadow would have been trained for his ‘agression’ with shock collar?

  18. JJ says

    What an uplifting video. That’s one reason I like dog parks so much. Seeing the dogs play is such a joy.

    Seeing Willie spin reminded me of the video you often show of Tulip (?) the big white dog you had who spun while playing with the puppies on the blue tarp. After seeing that first video, I attributed that kind of spinning with a dog feeling great joy – like a circle wag, but with a difference. I see the spinning as being more about wanting to play more physically with another dog, but not being able to be as physical as the spinner would like. So, the spinning allows the dog to move hard and silly without hurting the other dog.

    The spinning also seemed akin to an older human making silly faces at a young human. The goal is to engage the young human by doing something silly and totally out of the ordinary. A spinning older dog doing that with a younger dog present seems similar to me. I noticed how Willie would stop and stare at the puppy after each spin. Like, “Did it work? Is he laughing? Is he going to chase or imitate me?”

    I also thought your comment about the puppy not being able to keep up, and thus staying to the inside of a running circle was so interesting. My Great Dane also stays to the inside of circle running. And I always tell people that it is because he can’t keep up with the other dogs. He may have big strong legs, but he faces two disadvantages: 1) he is not very athletic or flexible (falling easily on muddy ground/can’t corner well on turns), 2) he is more of a sprinter than a long distance/endurance dog. Duke has always tired more easily compared to the “energizer bunnies” that we see at the dog park. So, Duke stays to the inside of a dog running a bigger circle and tries to cut the other dog off. Has played that way since he was 3 years old at least.

  19. Frances says

    So wonderful to see Willie fit, relaxed, and playing happily with another dog, after all you have been through together.

    My two rarely play bow – they know each other extremely well, and are now both mature adults. Sophy plays chasing games with my neighbour’s terrier, which are triggered by one of them dashing off in circles, but the invitation behaviours I see most often are a cat like writhing with little whines, which asks for a game of mouth wresting, and Sophy’s little Huffs (“Huff!” plus a small start, usually while lying flat as that is her way of saying Please to a human) – a very specific invitation to me to get down on the floor and play wrestle with her, which we worked out between us when I realised life had become a bit all work and no play during her adolescence, and we needed to be having more simple fun together. On consideration, it’s rather interesting that my dogs’ observable play communication seems to be derived from the two other species they live with – I suspect that they use such abbreviated shorthand with each other that I hardly notice it!

  20. Laura says

    I’ll keep this really brief as I love what has been posted so far. I’m a sight hound person and if you want to see some wonderful play bows from youngsters and the oldsters too take a look at greyhounds!

    The “rules” of the track and pack are very clear for greyhounds, bumping is rude and can really hurt a hound because of thin skin (and, of course, it can loose a race — boo!!!!!!!). So, play bows keep things clear at 40 mph.

    Add to those bows, lashing long tails, grinning faces, leaping and twirling and running in impromptu races and then all the calming signals in the book to keep it “fair” and you have a swirl of dog-language that is as beautiful as the dogs themselves.

    My first dog was a greyhound with racing injuries on his right foot and neck that kept him from real full out running after his first few years off the track (after the age of 5 – he lived to 11.5 years). I would have to wade in and call him out to play some some fun brain games on the side or inside before he would get a muscle spasm in his neck that would immobilize his neck for days.

    He walked, hiked and played on the beach with me on the other end of the leash trying as much as I could to keep the world open to him — I don’t think he missed running too much until someone much, much younger than he did one of those spectacular play bows and took off running. . . .

    We have a little female Sato now and she is learning from our friend’s greyhounds now and after almost 3 years of living with us is almost able to speak dog-lish after approx. 6 years of being with out words. Imagine that.

    She can play bow signal for calming and play now!!!!!!! Dogs are amazing. I don’t know if I could learn quite what she is learning.

  21. liz says

    I wonder if play bowing is partly dependent on the temperament of the bowee? So one would play bow to another dog more frequently if there is a perception that the dog receiving the bow might be quick to get serious. In this way, bowing could be associated with youth in that youngsters repeatedly test their boundaries. But like people who are always better off with lots of reassurance, maybe there are dogs who try to reassure regardless of how well they know each other, or regardless of age. Do play bows occur more often between two dogs who would be described as equally playful, or do they occur more often when one is a bit neurotic or otherwise possibly disinterested? Studies needed!

  22. LisaH says

    I am thinking about my 2 BCs and their play styles. The ONLY dog my nearly 6 year old male plays with is my
    2-1/2 year old female Lola, and with any person who is game. Despite a lot of intentional exposure to other dogs of all types from early on, and still a lot thru the neighborhood, family and agility, he simply has no interest whatsoever in other dogs. Ignores them for the most part, but will snark if on leash, revved up, and they are in his face. My little female though loves all dogs. He only play bows to her (and to me), she does to any dog, they only tooth fence and wrestle when indoors, while outside they do exactly what Willie does – the fast spins, freeze frame, bows, and chasing in circles. When we brought Lola home at 8 weeks of age, he ignored her for 10 days then seemed to just accept she was staying and began to play w/ her, dropping toys on her, throwing himself on his back to handicap himself when they wrestled, etc. I love watching dogs, any animals really, play!

  23. Chris from Boise says

    It is so wonderful to watch dogs playing joyfully. The comments and your narrative, Trish, are very helpful.

    We have two dogs, a 9 yo very (very!) mellow Aussie and an 8 yo recovering-reactive border collie. The Aussie was given to us to be a BC mentor, and we accepted him because at their first meeting he did a glorious play-bow to her and she (not fluent in Doggish) did a little bounce back at him. Four years later, they still play a lot, and Aussie Bandit continues to be the primary play-bower. When BC Habi wants to play, she usually rudely jumps him, and he kindly accepts it.

    Habi’s play-bows, when she does them, are extremely stylized – no loose floppy joy, but instead tense and stiff, as if one part of her badly wants to play but she has no trust that it’ll turn out well. She’s still quite dog-reactive (though doing much better in most other areas) so when, after a few cautious sniffs and jump-backs, she offered a deep stiff play-bow to a large male 1 yo guide dog ‘puppy’, I was very impressed. Because the young gent was not allowed to play, I don’t know what would have happened next – healthy play or snarkiness. I hope we’ll find another play partner sometime – it would be so good for her to have another dog besides Bandit to trust.

  24. Frances says

    Laura – my sister had a rescue greyhound, an ex-racer (although he had been a favourite of his owner/trainer, and had a much happier start in life than many racers). The first time he play bowed to her she rang me up in excitement – it was such a break through moment, and it was wonderful to see this careful, repressed dog gradually learning to have fun ad be silly!

  25. Annie R says

    I love it that Willie is so eager to be chased — that seems to me a sign that he’s become trusting of other dogs. I also thought it was lovely seeing these two joyful spirits bounding around over the ground where Luke is buried — symbolic of the trajectory of our lives, through different stages and different animal companions.

    Mireille, thanks for your videos, your huskies are bea-ooooooo-tee-ful (get it?) and I got a little teary watching the one play by himself with a ball, as my lifetime dog, an Aussie-Husky mix named Kira, used to do that a lot — she died too young, of lymphoma, and I miss her a lot. Seeing them play in the snow reminded me of how she and her bonded-for-life sidekick, a bigger male husky-shepherd mix, Cody, used to play on the deck, mostly lots of “rasseling”. Kira was smaller, but more compact and agile, and also much more clever than Cody. Actually I miss both of them, as they were an amazing pair together.

    Their “rasseling” was a particular style of play which was to play-bite each others front legs, and the dance of their bodies as they each tried to get the best of one another, while avoiding letting the other’s mouth get around a leg, was like an exotic sinuous snake combined with grasshopper-like jumps to the side. They had a perfect “agreement”, no one ever ended up on the ground, the energy never escalated to tension, and they both came out at the end of a session looking totally satisfied and relaxed. Almost like afterglow, you know?

    Interestingly there was NO play-bowing by these two (whom I got at ages 4 and 6) with each other. I think they had their power struggles completely worked out; there was never any tension between them and they looked out for one another. He calmed her and she guided him through life; they were very different but the perfect complement to one another. It taught me that a good pair does not always have similar personalities, that opposites in fact can be a better combination.

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