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Posts Tagged ‘play bows’

When we think of play bows, we think of dog tushes held high in the air, muscles relaxed, open mouths and “play faces,” much like this image of Special Dark. The play bow is the universal doggy invitation to play. Sometimes though, it can mean more than just “I want to play with you.”

Did you know that in some instances dogs actually play bow when they’re stressed?

Remember the old fight or flight response? Well , in actuality there’s quite a bit more you can do than just run away or fight. In study of animal behavior this group of behaviors is called “the 5 f’s.”*

Besides fight and flight, an animal can also freeze, faint or fool around. All of these are adaptations animals have undergone to avoid capture by predators. More often than not, an animal will initially try to escape (flight), when there is no escape the animal may (fight).  The animal may also freeze (stop, stand still and become vigilant), faint (dogs don’t tend to do this, but as a brief aside: while I was searching for references for this blog I found an article that describes fainting as one of the 5f’s in human behavior as an acute response to phobia of blood or syringes—which I have! ! I have fainted at the site of a syringe and always need to be horizontal when having blood drawn and cannot look at needles!  I just never knew scientists were studying this phenomenon; the literature was really very interesting!).

The last F, fooling around, is what I like to call “changing the subject,” it’s essentially being silly to take away attention from the stressful thing or as an effort to cause the stressful thing to change.

Remember that one of the ways you can tell a dog is stressed if he or she exhibits behaviors out of context (the dog all of a sudden starts smelling the chair that’s been present all along; the object is suddenly oh so interesting).

In some instances, dogs will also play bow out of context to “change the subject.” You’ll see the dog perhaps raise a paw or close his mouth or the muscles in his body go tense, you might see the whites of his eyes, etc. and then all of a sudden: a play bow! He might then start to dart back and forth and play bow a few more times.

This is why it’s important to keep in my mind to remember to watch the entire body of the dog, never just rely on one behavior or one part of the body to try to interpret what you’re seeing. Just as it’s awful tempting to assume that a dog wagging his tail wants you to pet him, it’s equally tempting to think when he’s play bowing because he wants to play. He may in fact want to play, but it might be to diffuse a stressful situation. Do him a favor and lighten the mood: take a few steps back, crouch down perpendicular to him, avert your gaze, smile, etc.  get him out of the situation so he can relax and work on changing that negative association to a positive one.

The more you watch your dog and think about he’s communicating, you’ll find yourself noticing things you never picked up on before. It just takes a little practice and before you know it, you ‘ll pick up on things without even thinking about it, reading your dog’s body language will become second nature!

Are there any situations in which your dogs has “fooled around” during some level of stress? Special Dark will occasionally do this when meeting male strangers who stare at him and lean down over him. He also used to do this during brushing sessions, when he’d “had enough,” he would all of a sudden pounce on the pile of hair that was accumulating or a nearby toy (a toy he’d ignored for an entire week, but all of a sudden during a brushing session became ever so exciting!).

Can you think of some other behaviors that might mean one thing in one context and another under different circumstances? What about jumping up? Can you tell when your dog is jumping for attention or to say hi versus when he’s jumping up because he needs you to notice he needs to get out a situation? Think about the human smile or laugh: sometimes you smile or laugh when you’re happy but you might also smile when you’re nervous!

*There are variations in the names for the behaviors depending on where you look, and some variation in the definitions of these terms too.

Take a look at these resources to learn about reactions to fear:

Nicole Wilde’s Working With Fearful Dogs Seminar Video

Bracha HS. Freeze, flight, fight, fright, faint: adaptationist perspectives on the acute stress response spectrum.CNS Spectr. 2004 Sep;9 (9):679-85. Review.

Also, take a look at a behavioral ecology or ethology textbook for more information on responses to fear in animals.

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