Why Do Dogs Bow Down to Play?


Why do dogs bow down to play? It’s one of those cute things dogs do, they lower their front body legs extended with their rump in the air, tail wagging wildly from side-to-side in what is known as a classic “play bow.”  It’s often seen at the dog park or at home when Rover is in the mood for playing in hopes that his owner will toss him a favorite ball. Sure dogs take a bow when they are playing, but why are they doing it in the first place? What are dogs trying to communicate exactly? Following are some interesting discoveries…

Dog play can be rough
Dog play can be rough at times.

The Magic of Meta-Communication 

Let’s face it: when dogs play together things can sometimes get rough. You have lots of chasing, pinning to the ground, growling, body slamming, mounting, baring teeth and biting necks. These dramatic displays may sometimes be confused with fighting and dog owners may wonder if they should be stepping in before a fight erupts, but in many cases dogs with good social skills are well aware that it’s all part of play. How? Turn out, it’s often a matter of meta-communication.

What is meta-communication? It’s simply a secondary form of communication, or better, what anthropologist Gregory Bateson called it: “communication about communication.” Its goal is to differentiate those small subtleties in communication that can make a world of difference in clarifying intent.

Smiles and tone of voice denote when we're joking.
Smiles and tone of voice denote when we’re joking.

The Use in Humans

You may have engaged in meta-communication many times in social settings. Irony and jokes are dangerous as they can be taken seriously and risk being misinterpreted. If you have ever joked with a friend, you have likely used an ironic tone to ensure your friend didn’t take your remarks too seriously. If that tone didn’t work, you may have further reassured your friend by saying something like: “Hey, I’m just joking!” and then you were back to being best buddies just as before.

You can train a dog to take a bow
You can train a dog to take a bow

The Use in Dogs

A dog’s play bow is a universal sign of meta-communication. A dog who lowers his body with his rump in the air is likely saying; “Anything I am doing from now on should not be taken seriously”  or as veterinary behaviorist Sharon Crowell Davis  puts it: “What I do next is play.”  Following the play bow, indeed many dogs engage in some sort of potentially ambiguous behavior that at this point should not be misinterpreted.

Why this position though? Marc Bekoff, professor emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, has an explanation. He claims that this stable posture allows the dog to move easily in many directions, allowing him to stretch his muscles before and during play. Additionally, to further add an element of amicable play, the head position is positioned lower than the other animal’s head as if to demonstrate that there’s no threat implied. This position can also be used as an apology, when a dog bites to hard,  a bow may follow sending the message ” Sorry I bit you so hard, this is still play regardless of what I just did,” further adds Bekoff in an article for Scientific American.

When Things Go Wrong

Early socialization teaches puppies the ABC's of play.
Early socialization teaches puppies the ABC’s of play.

For meta-communication to work well, two criteria need to met: the sender must know when and how to use it and the receiver must understand what it means. However, despite all precautions, sometimes meta-communication  turns into miscommunication. This can occur when one party has had some form of negative experience (i.e bullying) or lack of socialization (doesn’t understand the concept). In a similar fashion, dogs can sometimes be bad communicators or bad interpreters due to poor communication skills deriving from lack of socialization or negative experiences. Some dogs may therefore require some professional guidance with the assistance of trainer/behavior consultant to learn the ABCs of friendly play.

Did you know? Dogs can be trained to take a bow on cue! You can teach a dog to take a bow using training methods such as luring, shaping or capturing.