You have probably heard the expression, “Life is short: play with your dog.” “Okay!” you think, “I'll do it!” After all, dogs play together until they are exhausted. They also play with people, although that is not always a given. Have you ever tried to play with a dog, and it just doesn't work? “The dog's not playing right,” you may think. “This stinks.”
Don't be so quick to blame the dog. Research suggests that it might be you who is not “playing right.”
In 2001 animal welfare and behavior researcher Nicola Rooney, now at the University of Bristol in England, and her colleagues wanted to know whether dogs respond to people's play signals. In the study, volunteers played with their dog for five minutes in the comfort of their home, and the sessions were videotaped. Owners were asked to engage with their dog “as they usually did,” but here is the key: they were not allowed to use objects or toys.
After the sessions, the researchers watched the videos and noted which behaviors owners used to initiate or maintain play. They identified 35 common play signals, including patting the floor, clapping, shoving, hitting or tapping the dog and, of course, play bowing. People also blew at dogs, barked at them and grabbed their paws. And who can forget my favorite behavior, “hand spider,” where the “person moved their hand or fingers simulating movement of an insect or other creature.”
Did dog owners' play signals instigate play? And more specifically, did the commonly used signals elicit play more often than the rarely used ones?
Of the 35 most common play signals, Rooney and her colleagues found that a signal's popularity “was not related to its success at initiating or sustaining play.” For example, patting the floor was used most often, but play followed only 38 percent of the time. Other not so successful but commonly used invitations included scruffing the dog and clapping. Some things people did, including picking up or kissing the dog, failed to elicit play during any of the sessions.
All is not lost! A few behaviors were incredibly successful. The researchers found that giving chase and running away and lunging forward were associated with play 100 percent of the time. Signaling “up” (tapping one's chest to entice the dog to jump up), grabbing or holding a dog's paws, and play bowing also got great results.
The study's conclusion is somewhat somber: “We suggest that humans often use ineffective [play] signals.” Instead of blaming dogs for not playing right, people could evaluate the effects of their own actions, acknowledging that certain signals are better at eliciting play than others.
Alexandra Protopopova, now at the Human-Animal Interaction Lab at Texas Tech University, and her colleagues at the Arizona State University Canine Science Collaboratory have highlighted a sad consequence of inept play signaling by humans: it can sabotage adoption of a dog from a shelter. The team found that when a potential adopter takes out a shelter dog for a one-on-one meet and greet, only two behavioral variables predicted whether that dog was leaving the shelter: lying in close proximity to the person and responding to the person's play solicitation. Dogs lying close to the person were about 14 times more likely to be adopted, and a dog who ignored a person's play initiation was unlikely to be adopted.
Taken together, these two studies paint a potentially scary picture for shelter dogs: people do not always use play signals that result in play, but people are unlikely to adopt a dog that does not respond to their signals. Nobody wins.
A subsequent study by Protopopova and her colleagues found that when potential adopters were explicitly told to play with a dog's preferred toy, not only did social play increase, but so, too, did adoption rate.
When I think about dogs in a shelter going up for their one-on-one interviews, I hope potential adopters cut them some slack and do not blame the dogs if they do not grasp overtures for play. The list of factors that could contribute to whether a dog will play with a new, strange human it just met are endless. On top of that, the shelter environment is often a weird, chaotic place, not exactly hospitable to having a fun time.
When meeting a dog for the first time, go slowly and keep your expectations in check. For shelter dogs, as with speed dating, a lot is riding on the first encounter. Reflect on your play behaviors just as much as you think about theirs.