The why of dog play has been the subject of some recent research. Yet the fundamental question is not being asked: How does a “play bow” indicate an invitation to play? Yes dogs often play thereafter, but not always. In fact, fearful and aggressive dogs misconstrue the enthusiasm invested in a play bow as a dog in their face fixing to pounce on them. Are they deficient in the communicative arts, lacking the capacity to read such a signal? No because often they have a play mate at home or another dog with whom they feel safe and to whom they respond positively when they are the object of their “play bows.” Something positive is undoubtedly going on within the mind of the play bower, I’m not arguing otherwise. My point is that the fundamental question remains; how specifically does the head-down/hind-up posture constitute an invitation? Below is what noted expert Karen London has to say:
London: “When dogs want to play, they let others know with play signals, which they use to get play started and to keep it going. A play signal tells another dog: ‘I want to play.’ 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.”
KB: But again, how? The above is self-recursive logic. For example; when one receives an invitation in the mail, or by spoken word, in such signals there’s a precise structure and mechanics that transmits information; letters are used to form words, words are used to form sentences, and then there is syntax, tense and grammar necessary to convey the message. How the invitation is encoded into information is demonstrable. But this isn’t being provided here. All that is offered is a declarative statement; to wit, play bows are a statement of a playful intention.
London: “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.”
KB: Here we are given the hint of a model. Certain behaviors common to play are “borrowed” from other contexts such as fighting or predation.
But then there’s no end to the borrowing …………….
“The play-bow probably evolved out of a submissive crouch, but the signal has become an unmistakable way to indicate a desire to play, no matter where the dog is in the social hierarchy. A more dominant dog may even allow himself to be chased in the interest of fun, may encourage play by lying down and allowing a subordinate dog to “attack” him.”
KB: (So why are mock attacks fun?) From the above we are led to believe that a dominant dog adopts a submissive posture so that he can borrow from the prey-making suite in order to be chased around by a play mate who gets to grab and flip him around. He does all this because play is fun. Play is fun because dogs are playful. Also we recall that the latest research that rolling over on the back in play IS NOT a submissive gesture, and yet above the root of the play bow evolved from a submissive gesture so as to not be a submissive gesture, now sublimated to the pursuit of fun. And what ties this all together is the self-recursive logic loop; dogs are playful because play is fun.
In regards to play we all agree that something is going on within the minds of both the signaler and the signalee. Inarguably this would be emotional in nature. Furthermore Panksepp’s research demonstrates that emotion is pre-verbal but this means that its processes cannot be articulated via human intellectual concepts such as “I want to play with you, can you see I am being playful?” So if Panksepp is right then the language used in these treatments is wrong.
A far more parsimonious interpretation is that biting, chasing, shaking and body slamming (not to mention rolling over) are integral to play, they are not borrowed from anything. These behaviors are why playing feels good in the first place. We could construct a model by beginning with the observation that all emotional states of attraction are predicated on the predator/prey dynamic (even in prey species) and play is the expression of an underlying, primal motive consummated through the set of motor actions that best conduct and fulfill that primal motive. With this as a foundation, a far more coherent model can be constructed wherein the process of objectification, how a shape coalesces in the mind from sensory inputs, in conjunction with how the mind constructs a sense of a Self, reveals that objects of attraction are perceived as extensions of the Self. Such a model can clearly articulate that play is fun as play fulfills the fundamental mandate of emotion, to interconnect sentient beings so as to couple their emotional energies into a coherent, collectivized whole. This same dynamic underwrites the relationship between predator and prey, male and female, peer-to-peer and parent to offspring. In a subsequent article I will formulate a rationale for the play bow that doesn’t rely on the projection of verbalizations into the mind of a dog and so is consistent with Panksepp’s theory.