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The Use of Meta-Communication in Dog Play


Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, behavior consultant, former veterinarian assistant, and author of "Brain Training for Dogs."

The Difference Between Playing and Fighting

Are my dogs playing, or are my dogs fighting? It's not uncommon for dog owners to ask this question as playing and fighting often share similar dynamics. You'll see lots of chasing, pinning to the ground, body slamming, mounting, barking, growling, baring teeth and biting necks. These displays may be scary at times if you wonder what is exactly happening. Are they having fun, or is a fight about to erupt? Should you step in or let them sort it out?

Sure, many dogs play in a way that sounds quite dramatic, but how to know for sure? Most likely though dogs with good social skills know exactly what is going on. How? Through the power of meta-communication.

No, your dog is not engaging any odd, metaphysical activity; rather, he's simply using a form of communication that implies non-threatening behaviors. What is meta-communication? The term meta-communication was often used by anthropologist Gregory Bateson, who referred to it as "communication about communication." It's mainly used to depict a secondary form of communication so to differentiate the smaller subtleties in communication that can make a world of difference.

Meta-Communication in Humans

Humans are quite generous in using meta-communication. A common example is the use of irony and joking. When you are joking, you likely say in a way that helps the receiver understand that, whatever you're saying, it's not to be taken seriously. If in the unfortunate chance you notice the receiver misinterprets the meaning of your saying, you can always make it up by remarking in a friendly tone, "Hey, I'm just joking" and then you're friends as before.

Even in the written language, you may use quotation marks to convey irony or sarcasm. Example: "We all know Robert's dog is the "meanest" dog on the block" can be used when everybody knows Robert's dog is a mellow dog that would just lick a burglar to death.

To prevent "miscommunication," the two involved parties must be savvy on social skills. The sender needs to know how to use metacommunication, and the receiver must know how to interpret it.

If you joke with your friend, you have to know that in order to prevent the joke from being taken seriously you must say it in a certain tone of voice, or you may hurt your friend's feelings. It could also happen that your friend just doesn't understand joking either because of past negative experiences (being bullied) or lack of socialization (doesn't understand the concept). In the same way, in the dog world, you may sometimes stumble on dogs who are bad communicators or bad interpreters due to poor socialization or negative past experiences.

Meta-Communication in Dogs

So just as in humans, dogs may rely on meta-communication to indicate that the message they are sending is not to be taken seriously. So, even though in play many behaviors may resemble those seen in an antagonistic fight, meta-communication is used to convey that those behaviors may mean something entirely different, such as affiliative play.

It's the dog's way to communicate, "What I said isn't what I meant." Only that dogs can't talk so, they'll rely on body language to signal their real intents and unravel what's going on beneath the surface.

How Dogs Use Meta-Communication

What exactly is play? Marc Bekoff and John Alexander Byers define play as “all motor activity performed postnatally that appears purposeless, with motor patterns from other contexts modified and altered temporal sequencing…” Source:The Genesis of Animal Play: Testing the Limits. These modified behaviors include play signals which in dogs are a form of meta-communication, and because of this, they are often referred to as "meta-signals." Let's take a look at some meta-signals commonly used by dogs.

The Play Bow

The most popular meta-signal is the play bow when the dog lowers his front legs while keeping his rump in the air. Often the tail is wagging during this display.

The first time I heard about this meta-signal was when studying for my dog certification test. I was reading Terri Ryan's book "Coaching people to train their dogs." It was noticed how a dog is likely to play bow just before he's about to perform a behavior that can be easily misinterpreted such as a neck bite. It's almost as if the dog was saying "what comes next is part of play, so please don't take it seriously."

Many times, we expect to see a full play bow, but if you record play behavior, you'll see that dogs may just slightly and quickly dip their body several times in "micro play bows."

Patricia McConnell in her article The Pause that Refreshes further notes that play bows also function as a time-out, allowing the dogs to pause for a few seconds at a time when the dogs are getting to know each other. These healthy pauses play an important role in managing emotional arousal.

Dog Play "Laugh"

Other behaviors that suggest the dogs are just "playing around" include a special "laugh" to initiate play. Trainer Jolanta Benal talks about it in her article in Quick and Dirty Tips. According to behaviorist Patricia Simonet it's a pronounced forced, breathy exhalation”—panting, but a particular kind of panting, with a broader frequency range."

Play is typically bouncy, with the dogs engaging in role reversals, several pauses, meta signals, and self-handicapping especially if the other dog is smaller.

Some dogs who haven't been socialized well may fail to use play bows or other meta-communication signals causing their play styles to appear overly rough or prone to being misinterpreted. On the other hand, dogs who don't understand play bows may interpret the signal and its following behaviors as threatening which may lead to defensive, aggressive behaviors. For this reason, it's imperative to socialize puppies early so they can learn the ABC's of canine play and the rules of the game.

Dog Play Initiation

© 2014 Adrienne Farricelli

Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on April 28, 2014:

So greatly mentioned and you have informed me of a well-informed topic.

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on March 17, 2014:

That's interesting, we may never really know. More and more studies though are revealing cognitive abilities we never expected before. Usually, what I see is one dog rushing if attention is given to another dog because he/she wants to be part of the interaction and get his/her daily dose of affection as well. Some dogs will even get "in between" the other dog and the owner to get their share. Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

Mona Sabalones Gonzalez from Philippines on March 16, 2014:

It's true, playing often resembles fighting and you don't know if you should stop them or not. Now that my dogs are older, I see the difference and your article clarifies a lot of things I couldn't quite understand. Do you think dogs have a way of communicating mentally as well? Oftentimes it seems to be the case with my dogs. Like if I'm kissing my dog and I know she doesn't like it, I notice the other dog comes up from under the bed to serve as a distraction, and sometimes even to bear the burden of my kisses for her sister dog.


What to Do When Cats Don’t Get Along

What about cats that aren’t quite friends? The bad news is that this is more common than with dogs, and some cats will never become friends. Bloom encourages thinking carefully before adding a second adult cat if you already have one adult cat. But if you already have two or more, and your cats don’t get along, there are a couple of options. The first is to consider rehoming one or more of the cats so each can have the space and attention they need. And the other is to separate them and go through a careful, slow introduction or re-introduction process. This method involves “teaching the cats to be comfortable with each other’s scents, to tolerate seeing and hearing each other, and to share space safely,” says Bloom. To create a training program for your specific needs, consult a certified animal behavior specialist. Be aware that this process may take weeks or even months, with no guarantees, so you should be prepared to rehome one of the cats, if necessary, for their safety and happiness.


Is Your Dog’s Rough Play Appropriate?

We have been videotaping dog-dog play for more than 10 years and, together with our colleagues, have analyzed hundreds of hours of data to test hypotheses about play. We present our results at animal behavior conferences and publish in scientific journals. Here, we focus primarily on dog play that some might consider “inappropriate” or “not safe” but is actually just play fighting.

In the field of animal behavior, researchers often refer to social play as “dog play fighting” because it includes many of the behaviors seen during real fights and might look rougher than it really is. For example, during play, one dog might chase and tackle another, or use a neck bite to force a partner to the ground. Dogs will also hip check or slam, mount, rear up, bite, stand over, sit on, bark, snarl, growl, bare their teeth and do chin-overs (i.e., place the underside of their chin over the neck of their partner).

However, despite the overlap in behaviors, some clear differences exist between dog play fighting and real fighting. When dogs are playing, they inhibit the force of their bites and sometimes voluntarily give their partner a competitive advantage (self-handicap) by, for example, rolling on their backs or letting themselves be caught during a chase — behaviors that would never happen during real fighting.

In addition to inhibited bites and selfhandicapping, dogs clearly demarcate play by employing signals, such as play bows (i.e., putting the front half of the body on the ground while keeping the rear half up in the air) and exaggerated, bouncy movements. Anthropologist Gregory Bateson called play signals meta-communication, meaning communication about communication. Humans employ meta-communication a lot. For example, when teasing a friend, we may smile or use a certain tone of voice to indicate that we’re just kidding. Similarly, dogs play bow to invite play and to convey playful intentions during play. Marc Bekoff, while at the University of Colorado, did a study 1 showing that dogs are most likely to play bow just before or immediately after performing an especially assertive behavior, such as a bite accompanied by a head shake. This pattern suggests that playing dogs recognize moments when their behavior can be misinterpreted as serious aggression and compensate by reminding their partner, “I’m still playing.”

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By using meta-communication, social beings can step through a looking glass into a world that operates by different rules. Meta-communication allows humans and dogs to pretend — that is, to perform actions that appear to be one thing but actually mean something completely different. To people unfamiliar with the notion that some nonhuman animals have this ability, play that includes archetypal aggressive behaviors, like snarling and growling, can be quite confusing. Close attention to the context, however, can help us differentiate between play aggression and real aggression.

Even though play fighting is very different from real fighting, people often feel the need to intervene. Sometimes it is obvious at the beginning of a bout that two dogs are playing, but once the dogs start growling or their arousal intensifies, observers may no longer be sure that the dogs are still playing. After all, humans instinctively avoid a dog who is snarling or baring his teeth, and it is natural to think that our dogs should do the same. When people interrupt really rowdy play, they assume that they are “playing it safe,” that is, doing no harm. But what if this assumption is mistaken?

Our research shows that for many dogs, play fighting is the primary method used to negotiate new relationships and develop lasting friendships. Although play is fun, it also offers serious opportunities to communicate with another dog. In this sense, play is a kind of language. Thus, when we regularly break up what we consider “inappropriate” play, are we doing our dogs a service, or confusing them by constantly butting into their private conversations? Most importantly, how can we tell the difference?

How to Tell If Dog is Playing or Fighting?

First, we need to determine whether both dogs are enjoying themselves and want to continue playing. Look at their postures and facial expressions. The dog’s movements may be light, bouncy and exaggerated and they may have relaxed, open mouths (like those on The Bark’s Smiling Dog pages). Watch for play signals, which can often be quite subtle — a quick dip or bounce rather than a full-blown play bow. If you’re not certain that a dog really wants to be playing, try briefly holding that dog back. If she presses her body into yours and avoids looking at the other dog, she’s showing relief at the interruption and you should help her avoid the other dog. If she pulls against your grip in an attempt to interact with the other dog, release her. If she runs toward the other dog or directs a play signal in his direction, then she is saying that she wants to keep playing.

An interaction like the one just described is straightforward and easy to read. However, what about instances that may not be so clear-cut? We encourage you to discard any preconceived notions about what dog play should and should not look like — at least for the time being. For example, are traditional “no-no’s” like neck biting, rearing up, body-slamming and repeated pinning by one dog ever okay when two dogs are playing? Yes. What is “safe” dog play? Appropriate dog play fighting all depends on the individual dogs and the kind of relationship they have with one another.

Unorthodox Dog Play: Some Dogs Like it Rough

Consider an example of a close canine friendship founded on unorthodox play. When Sage, a one-year-old German Shepherd, first met Sam, a four-month-old Labradoodle, he was very rough with Sam. He would pin Sam with a neck bite every few seconds. No sooner would Sam stand up than Sage would neckbite him and flip him on his back again. At first, we thought that Sage might be too rough for Sam, so we would intervene by holding one or both of them back. However, each time, Sam would try his hardest to get to Sage, despite the inevitable pinning. As Sam grew larger, eventually matching Sage in weight, Sage added body slams and mounting to their play. With the exception of frequent rear-ups (in which they adopted identical roles, facing one another and boxing with their front paws), Sage usually maintained the more assertive role (neck biting, pinning, slamming and so forth). Yet, because Sam was always an enthusiastic partner, we let them continue to play together.

To this day, their play remains asymmetrical Sage repeatedly brings down Sam with neck bites and continues to bite Sam’s neck once he is down. Sam wriggles on the ground and flails at Sage with his legs while Sage, growling loudly, keeps biting Sam’s neck. More than once, bystanders have thought the dogs were fighting for real, but Sage’s neck bites never harm Sam, and Sam never stops smiling, even when he’s down. Sometimes, when Sage is done playing but Sam is not, he’ll approach Sage and offer his neck, as though saying, “Here’s my neck go ahead and pin me.” This move always succeeds it’s an offer Sage cannot resist.

With Sage and Sam, allowing play to continue was the right decision. Their early play interactions burgeoned into a lifelong friendship. Even today, the two middle-aged boys will sometimes play together for five hours at a stretch, stopping only occasionally for brief rests. When they are finally done, they often lie together, completely relaxed, with their bodies touching. Their faces are loose and smiling, and they seem almost drunk in an endorphin-induced haze.

This relationship shows that play does not necessarily have to be fair or balanced in order for two dogs to want to play with one another. Years ago, scientists proposed a 50/50 rule: for two individuals to engage in play, they must take turns being in the more assertive role. Scientists thought that if one dog was too rough or forceful (e.g., pinning her partner much more often than she was being pinned), the other dog would not want to play. Until our research, this proposition was never empirically tested.

Over a 10-year period, we studied pair-wise play between adult dogs, between adult dogs and adolescents, and between puppy littermates. Our findings showed that the 50/50 rule simply did not apply. Dogs do not need to take turns being assertive in order for play to take place. However, this doesn’t mean that dogs never role-reverse during play, because they often do 2 (e.g., Sage is in the top-dog position most of the time, but sometimes Sam gets to be top dog too). It just means that role reversals usually aren’t equally balanced.

Phenomnm of Dog Growls

Safi, a female German Shepherd, and Osa, a male Golden Retriever mix, were best friends for many years. When they played, they snarled a lot, lips curled and teeth exposed. The snarls looked fierce, but they often preceded silly behaviors, like flopping on the ground. Also, when something in the environment suddenly interrupted their play, the dogs’ faces would instantly shift into neutral, alert expressions while they focused on whatever had stolen their attention. Then, as though on cue, Safi and Osa would put their scary faces back on, almost as if they were Halloween masks, and turn toward one another. Their expressions were so exaggerated and obviously fake that they always made us laugh. Some dogs can even be trained to show a snarl on command in a context that is otherwise perfectly friendly. These observations show that dogs can exhibit nasty faces voluntarily, just as we do when we are only pretending to be mean.

Growling, like snarling, is a seemingly aggressive behavior that means something different during play than it does in other contexts. We have often videotaped play between another female Shepherd, Zelda, and a male mixed-breed, Bentley. When watching these tapes, we noticed that, following brief pauses in play, Zelda often stared at Bentley and growled fiercely. Whenever she did this, Bentley leaped toward her and the chase was on. Bentley moved toward rather than away from Zelda because he knew her growl was not real.

This phenomenon was also noted by other researchers, who recorded growls from dogs in three different contexts, including play 4 . Play growls have different acoustical properties than growls given as threats, and when researchers played the growls back, dogs distinguished between play growls and growls given in agonistic (i.e., conflicting) contexts. If dogs can distinguish between types of growls in the absence of contextual cues (such as another playing dog), surely they know when a play partner’s growl is just pretend.

Surprisingly, in some of the relationships we studied, individuals initiated play and preferred to play with others who were consistently assertive with them. For example, in a litter of mixedbreed puppies, one female, Pink, initiated play with a female littermate, Blue, more than twice as often as she initiated play with any of her other littermates (including another sister), even though Blue adopted the assertive role during play 100 percent of the time. Similarly, in our study of adult dogs, when the female German Shepherd, Safi, was playing, she was virtually always in the top-dog role. Despite this imbalance, other dogs sought Safi’s company and often invited her to play.

Sometimes people interrupt these interactions because they fear that rough play will escalate into an allout dogfight. However, in hundreds of hours of observations of play fighting between two dogs with established relationships, we have never witnessed a single escalation to real fighting. One of the authors hosted six to eight neighborhood dogs in her backyard every day for nine years, including two female German Shepherds, a male Husky, a male Husky mix and three mixed-breeds. Their play included all of the traditional “no-no’s” mentioned previously, but no dog ever received so much as a scratch. Other scientists report similar findings. The Hungarian ethologist Vilmos Csányi writes, “In some Hungarian animal rescue organizations, more than a hundred dogs … coexist peacefully. 3 ”

The Instinct of Dogs

Some people have the notion that rough play is practice for real fighting (or even killing). If this were the case, the dogs mentioned in this article did a great deal of practicing for fights that never occurred. Scientists originally hypothesized that animals play fight in order to enhance their combat skills, but recent research doesn’t support this assertion. Although we still do not completely understand why animals engage in social play, research suggests that animals play to help form social bonds, enhance cognitive development, exercise and/or practice coping skills for life’s unexpected situations. All of these benefits, if real, are important to our dogs.

Lately, there has been a lot of attention paid to the question: what is “safe” dog play? Although we recommend carefully monitoring play between dogs who are significantly different in size or age, or who do not know each other well, our studies have shown that dogs are very good at figuring out which dogs they want to play with and how to play well with their friends. Presumably, dogs are better than humans at speaking and understanding dog language. Perhaps it is time to humble ourselves and listen to them.

Important considerations

First, when we talk about play fighting, we mean play between two dogs rather than play between many dogs (we will address multi-dog play in a future article). Although multi-dog play can be fine, sometimes it involves ganging up, and then it’s time to intervene.

Second, we are referring to play fighting that doesn’t involve toys, which can become the object of guarding and aggression.

Third, we recommend caution with young, inexperienced puppies. If traumatized by other dogs early on (for example, in a poorly run puppy class), a puppy may grow into a dog who is fearful, defensive or even aggressive with other dogs.

Fourth, rough dog play fighting typically works best between two dogs who are friends. Dogs who play together a lot often develop play rituals, such as Safi and Osa’s mutual snarling, that may not be appropriate between dogs who don’t know each other well. Finally, work with your dog until she reliably comes when you call her for a brief play pause.


Author Information

Corresponding Author: Anne M. Gadomski MD, MPH, Research Institute, Bassett Medical Center, One Atwell Road, Cooperstown, NY 13326. | Telephone: 607-547 3066. Email: [email protected]

Author Affiliations: Melissa B. Scribani, Nicole Krupa, Paul Jenkins, Research Institute, Bassett Medical Center, Cooperstown, New York Zsolt Nagykaldi, University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma Ardis L. Olson MD, Dartmouth Medical School, Lebanon, New Hampshire.


What to Expect After Your Dog Loses a Friend

Just like people, all dogs react differently to loss. Some dogs seem to act completely normal while others get deeply depressed. Certain dogs may develop health or behavior issues. Here are some common dog reactions to the death of another dog:

  • Behavior Changes: Some dogs may change some of their behaviors after another dog dies. Grief can even alter a dog's personality. If the dog that passed away was a leader, the dog left behind may feel it's now his responsibility to take on that job. You may notice him barking more at passersby or acting more outgoing and confident. Or, you may notice your dog becomes quiet and withdrawn.
  • Physical Symptoms: The dog left behind may have physical symptoms in response to the loss. Some commons symptoms include lethargy, loss of appetite, and sometimes even illness.
  • No Signs: Some dogs may not show any signs after losing a companion dog. They may hide the signs of grief as a means of self-protection, similar to the way dogs sometimes hide their pain.


Watch the video: Secrets To Leash Work With Your Dog u0026 More With Cesar (October 2021).

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