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When a dog play bows, the front legs are lowered while the dog's butt is in the air. As dog owners, we see bowing behaviors with a certain frequency, so much so, that we may be wondering what they really mean. 

For years, we have had several explanations, but no studies were really conducted in depth. 

Recently, a new study has yielded several explanations for this behavior when put under scrutiny revealing some interesting findings!

A Dog's Bowing Behavior 

Dogs are said to "bow" when they stretch their front legs forward and lower their elbows so that their rear end sticks up in the air, resembling the bowing behavior carried out in humans. 

This bowing behavior is particularly popular during times of play. Indeed, for this reason, it's often referred to as the "play bow."

For many years, the play bow has been categorized as a play signal, however, it's primary function has been contested with several possible explanations for the behavior being tossed around. 

Recently some research has been carried out, this time particularly looking at the several hypothesis and testing them one by one. 

A Form of Communication 

For many years, the play bow has been categorized as a form of metacommunication. In other words, the play bow has been described as offering a secondary form of communication so to provide clarity on what may happen next.

There is likely some truth in this, considering that, the communicative function of the play bow is further proven by the fact that dogs appear to play bow when the playing pair are facing one another (Byosiere et al.)

The play bow is therefore a visual attention-seeking signal, an important cue that provides the playing dogs with pertinent information. 

Indeed, when dogs are not facing each other, other  non-visual “attention-getting” behaviors are carried out under the form of vocalizations and touching.

So with the play bow being a visual, attention-seeking signal, what is it meant to exactly communicate?  

Below are several possible explanations that have been formulated by researchers over the years. 

1) A Way to Provide Clarity 

Often, we observe play bows taking place after a brief pause in play, and right afterward, it is followed by highly active play. 

Bekoff has found that play bows were more likely to take place in association with behaviors that could potentially be misinterpreted as aggression, such as bite shakes.

The play bow has therefore been described as a way to provide some clarity, and therefore, communicate to play partners that whatever follows the play bow is still play and is not meant to be taken seriously despite how energized or rough it may seem.

2) A Strategic Move 

On the opposite spectrum, Pellis and Pellis suggested that play bows may not be play signals at all.

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Rather, they have speculated that the play bow may be a strategic move to allow the bowing dog to launch an unexpected mock-attack on the play partner or as a way to better escape from him/her.

Is the play bow a strategic move to allow the bowing dog to launch an unexpected mock-attack on the play partner?

Is the play bow a strategic move to allow the bowing dog to launch an unexpected mock-attack on the play partner?

3) A Way to Elicit More Play

Another possibility is that the play bow many be just another way to continue play. This theory is based on the fact that the play bow takes place after a brief pause in play. 

Therefore, it is possible that it's a way to elicit more play from the play partner. 

However, when wolves were watched playing, this behavioral pattern was not observed. In other words, when wolves play bowed, it wasn't successful in eliciting further play. 

This has led researchers to wonder whether play bows may carry different functions in wolf pups compared to dogs.

4) A Way to Better Bond 

There is also a theory that a play bow may be carried out as a way to share positive emotions among the play partners. 

Palagi et al. found that during dog play, the open mouth display (commonly known as the "play face") along with the play bow, elicited the same behavior in the play partner immediately afterward. 

This is suggestive that play bows may help play partners synchronize behavior.

What Recent Research Reveals 

Recently, Byosiere et al. put all of these hypotheses under scrutiny and found no evidence to suggest that a dog's play bows functioned to provide clarity to behaviors that could potentially be misinterpreted (interestingly, the dog on the receiving end showed more offensive behaviors than the bowers did), or as strategic moves. 

Rather, their research revealed that, since both dogs tend to be stationary prior to the pay bow, and play is reactivated right afterwards, one main, primary function of the play bow is to simply re-initiate play. 

The research also confirmed that dog and wolf puppy play bows, just as it happens in adult dogs, are used as visual signals. as formerly suggested by Horowitz in 2009.

Indeed, when visual contact was missing, the bow also included an attention-getting behavior in the form of a bark. 

This further proves that dogs and puppies know when it's appropriate to use other attention-getting behaviors in association with the bow to garner the attention they desire. 

Finally, the research also found that the behaviors that dogs exhibited prior to and immediately following the play bows were similar within the playing pairs, suggesting that play bows may help play partners synchronize behavior.

References:

  •  Byosiere S-E, Espinosa J, Smuts B (2016) Investigating the function of play bows in adult pet dogs (Canis lupus familiaris). Behavioural Processes 125: 106–113.
  • Bekoff M, Allen C (1998) Intentional communication and social play: how and why animals negotiate and agree to play. Animal play: Evolutionary, comparative, and ecological perspectives: 97–114  
  • Palagi E, Burghardt GM, Smuts B, Cordoni G, Dall’Olio S, Fouts HN, et al. (2015) Rough-and-tumble play as a window on animal communication. Biological Reviews
  • Horowitz A (2009) Attention to attention in domestic dog (Canis familiaris) dyadic play. Animal Cognition 12: 107–118
  • Pellis SM (1993) Sex and the evolution of play fighting: A review and a model based on the behavior of muroid rodents. The Journal of Play Theory and Research 1: 56–77
  • Pellis SM, Pellis VC (1996) On knowing it’s only play: the role of play signals in play fighting. Aggression and Violent Behavior
  • Bekoff M (1974) Social play and play-soliciting by infant canids. American Zoologist 14: 323–340.
  • Bekoff M (1995) Play signals as punctuation: The structure of social play in canids. Behaviour

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