Our border collie-beagle mix Blitz is a ham. Years ago, he learned a crowd-pleasing party trick. Say “ta-da” with a sweep of your arm and he quickly crouches down on his front legs, sending his back end and white-tipped tail high in the air. In large part, he figured out how to get treats for something he was going to do anyway. It’s called a play bow, a dog signal that evolutionary biologist Marc Bekoff, now professor emeritus at the University of Colorado at Boulder, first wrote about in the seventies. Think of it as the canine equivalent of “I am soooo ready to play.”
True, Blitz loves to demo his play bow — it’s his go-to move inbetween spins, give-me-a-paw and other tricks – but he also bows when waiting for me to attach his leash before a walk or when trying to encourage our sulky female dog Halle to tussle. Both his canine buddy and I understand the signal.
There are embellishments to the play bow. Blitz paws and nudges. He takes short bouncy strides across the room. Sometimes Halle responds with playful bites on Blitz’s neck, but more often she answers back with throaty growls. Blitz understands a yes-growl from a not-now growl. For Halle, play involves something in her mouth (toy, sock, anything will do) and lots of ruckus, with a how-far-can-I-rachet-up-this-game edge to it. It’s clear when Halle is not interested in play. She flattens her ears, looks sideways – not a soft, inviting look at all – and turns away.
Dogs have a wide range of play signals, including ones that keep rough-and-tumble games from escalating. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to bite your neck so hard,” or “I’ll take a turn on the bottom now.” Research by Bekoff and others points to a moral code underlying dogs’ play, with traits such as honesty and deceit evident. David Grimm, author of Citizen Canine, describes in a Washington Post article some of the recent research. Also, check out Bekoff’s Animal Emotions blog at Psychologytoday.com or one of his books, such as Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed. (How can you not buy a book with that title?)
Bekoff believes that in studying the play of dogs, we can learn about ourselves. Which brings me back to how I communicate to my human friends that I’m ready to play.
I ask my husband, Jim, what signals he’s noticed I make.
“A text message?”
I vow to call my friends next time.