Let’s Play! The Play Bow
One of the most endearing body postures in our pet dogs is the play bow. You’ve seen it: the dog drops to his elbows, with back end in the air. The mouth is generally open and relaxed, eyes soft, and the tail is held loose and high. The tail may wag or sway gently.
This posture is a solicitation to play: one dog is suggesting to another that they engage in a game. It is also often used repeatedly during a bout of play. This keeps both dogs on the same page – “We’re just playing, remember?” – and provides a moment of pause, which keeps emotions from running too high. That can lead to escalation from play to sparring, so these breaks are important to keep everything light and fun.
The response to a play bow may be to respond in kind, or to use another play solicitation movement, such as a pounce in place. Or the other dog may simply stand still, relaxed, as an acknowledgement. A brief movement by one dog or the other, what the trainer Patricia O’Connell calls the “start-stop”, signals the beginning of play, and both dogs then engage.
In some cases, there is a refusal to play, signaled by simply walking away. To us humans, this can look kind of sad, but it’s proper canine etiquette and dogs don’t seem to take refusal too hard.
Most dogs naturally recognize the play bow, even those who are weakly socialized. Singletons (dogs who were the only puppy in their litter) are occasionally less versed in body language than those that grew up with siblings, but this can be remedied if they are exposed to a variety of other dogs during puppyhood.
Dogs who have been attacked by another dog may view any approach, no matter how friendly, as threatening. These dogs may respond with a fear behavior, either fight or flight, depending on how that individual typically reacts in such situations. Let me reiterate, these situations are rare.
Dogs differ in how often they will use the play bow. Some of the differences are breed related – dogs whose shape makes the position awkward may use it less often, though they will often use a reasonable facsimile. Dogs who know each other well, and therefore have already established a pattern of playing together, may use the bow less often than dogs who are just meeting and therefore need to be clear and precise in their communication.
The play bow is also used by dogs with their humans, and many owners use it themselves, consciously or otherwise. Have you ever frozen in a half crouched position while playing with your dog? That’s the human version of the play bow, and dogs understand it perfectly. Let’s play!
NR Tomasheski is a dog trainer who spent seven years as co-owner of a canine daycare, boarding, and grooming facility in Sherman Oaks, California. She has competed with her own dogs in agility, obedience, and rally.