Many people wonder why do dogs sneeze when playing considering that their dogs don't seem to be suffering from a cold or allergy. What gives? The "play sneeze" in dogs indeed seems to appear mostly in a playful context when a dog is playing with other dogs which means that it's in some way associated with this activity.
While dogs cannot talk and tell us the actual reason for their sneezing, we can try to make some educated guesses as to why play seems to evoke this sneezing behavior, but first let's take a closer insight into what really happens when dogs sneeze, shall we?
What's in a Sneeze?
First things first, before evaluating some possible theories as to why do dogs sneeze when playing, it might be helpful understanding what happens exactly when a dog sneezes.
Is sneezing a behavior dogs can do involuntarily or can they actually perform the sneeze when they feel like it? This is an important piece of information as it could help us better understand why dogs sneeze when playing.
Sneezing, along with coughing is mostly categorized as a reflex, an involuntary action that occurs as a response to irritation to the dog's nose, which is sensed by the trigeminal nerve, a cranial nerve that's meant for helping a dog use the muscles in his face.
Sneezing is therefore meant to help protect a dog's nasal cavity and body by clearing the nose of things that shouldn't be there such as dust, grass awns, bacteria and viruses. The whole point of sneezing is therefore to try to get whatever’s bothering the inside of the dog's nose out quickly.
The next question therefore is: when dogs sneeze when playing what's going on in the dog's nose that triggers the sneeze?
A Matter of Wrinkles
One potential cause for those dog sneezes during play is what dogs do with their noses when they are excited and playing with their canine friends.
Dogs often wrinkle their noses while they play and wrinkling the nose can be what ultimately makes dogs sneeze, explains Dr. Bruce Fogle, veterinarian and author of the book: "If Your Dog Could Talk."
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This is most likely to therefore happen when dogs grin and curl up their lips which causes their noses to wrinkle and elicit that bout of sneezing that has everybody wondering about.
"Dogs that like to curl their lips and "grin" as they play often sneeze after having their nose wrinkled up for a while."~Debra Eldredge DVM, Kate Eldredge
A Calming Signal
Another possible reason why dogs sneeze when playing may stem from a dog's predisposition to rely on what Norwegian dog expert Turid Rugaas calls "calming signals."
Dogs tend to use a variety of calming signals when they communicate with one another and sneezing is often listed as one of them. It could therefore be that sneezing while playing may be a dog's way to calm things down a bit when things get a bit too wild. Perhaps a bit like when dogs take a bow before playing, but this tends to occur as the rough play unfolds.
James O' Heare, in the book "The Dog Aggression Workbook, 3rd Edition" lists play bows, eye flashing (where you see the whites of the eyes), panting, sneezing and a lumbering gait as an invitation to play. He too mentions the possibility that these signals may be adopted as way to emphasize that there is no intent to harm.
Regardless of what dogs may be trying to convey when they sneeze during play, the next question is: if sneezing is mostly an involuntary action, how can dogs do it in these specific circumstances? Can dogs purposely sneeze when they want to?
There are reports of dog owners being able to teach their dogs to sneeze on cue, so perhaps there's something about the mechanism behind sneezing in dogs that we may need to learn more about or perhaps the dogs are just pretending to sneeze!
" Sneezing – probably not a cold but a way of diffusing a worrisome situation. " Gill Garratt,Your dog and you: Understanding the canine psyche.
- Idiot's Guides: Dog Tricks, By Debra Eldredge DVM, Kate Eldredge, Alpha (June 2, 2015)
- Your dog and you: Understanding the canine psyche, By Gill Garratt, Hubble & Hattie; 1 edition (May 1, 2015)