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  • Writer's pictureRachel Meadows

The use of 'deception' in canine communication

Some dogs use ‘play signals’ to escape engagement, but WHY?

Does my dog really want to play when we meet other dogs? His tail is wagging, he puts his bottom in the air, mouth wide open, in a big smile, tongue hanging out and pounced down on to the flat of his elbows, ready for action. It certainly appears that he's looking to play. For a lot of dogs, in many situations, this is the case, but what if we take a closer look and learn to recognise the secrets of body language which could unmask a whole new understanding of what we can see, in dogs when we know what to look for. Let's start by looking into this adorable play bow posture that has us all giddy when we see it happen. This article was inspired by some incredible BBC footage of dogs playing, breaking down the mechanics of the play bow into slow motion and examining its function in initiating play. ( I’ll post the link to the video blow) Our dogs can teach us so much when we sit back and just observe them. Let's take a look at some of the less well known secrets of the play bow, which they didn't cover in this clip. What if I told you that dogs will use a 'play bow' in order to create distance and space between them and another dog approaching? Crazy, right? Maybe not! As we know, all behaviour has a function. There are many ways to diffuse tension or avoid interaction or confrontation. Some dogs use 'play', as a gentle and polite way to defuse conflict or direct contact with another dog. A 'play bow' can often be seen, resulting in distance rather than play or direct contact. Dogs have been observed using it to create enough distance to bridge the gap needed to find a tree or post to pee on, giving the other dog an opportunity to read their 'Facebook profile' whilst also diverting them to the urine marking, rather than a directly engagement. It is effectively, deception. However, done in a manor of least offence. All creatures use deception in their communication. It's a vital component to survival. It's not used in a cognitive way with premedication. Let's dig into why a dog may display play as a form of deception.

Is the use of play or flirtation deceptive if the dog doesn't follow through with engagement? We will take a very simplistic view on one element of communication. We can’t address all the variables in one short article. However we can break this one topic down and unravel the layers to gain a better understanding of one or two aspects of our dog’s world. If a dog, who is healthy and neurologically typical, had a well adjusted mother, who resolved conflict through play when her pups were young and that dog also goes on to be appropriately socialised during the key developmental stages of their life, they tend to show more resilience, less stress and a greater ability to defuse potential conflict later on, much more so than dogs that were brought up in stressful environments with a mother who is reactive when she needs space from her pups. Often these mothers experiences prenatal and or, postnatal stress, or are in some kind of pain or discomfort outside of the normal landscape of gestation. The speed at which a dog reads the body language of another dog, enables a dog to display one micro behaviour, setting off a chain response in the other dog. This is often seen in the ‘play bow’ sequence of behaviours. The play bow can trigger a dog to run, inviting the pray sequence, whereby, the on-coming dog may turn and run expecting the other dog to chase them. The dog that does not want interaction will switch quickly to another behaviour, such as retreating, urinating or seeking comfort and reassurance from their ‘human’. While the other dog has taken off running, this buys the time needed to reduce tension or escape an unwanted interaction. Is this effectively deception on some survival level. How we manipulate our dogs in their surroundings, with the use of leads, collars, harnesses and other various tools: The restriction of their freedom of movement, plays a major role in a dog's ability to communicate naturally and appropriately. Orientation is an integral part of a dogs repertoire when communicating with other dogs. When we restrict them on a tight leash, interfering with their natural body language, we compromise their communication. Obviously I'm not advocating to allow dogs to run up to every dog they see. However, there are beautiful ways to meet other dogs while facilitating the needs of each dog concerned. Dogs don’t always need to meet close up to maintain healthy greetings and friendships. Allowing our dogs to navigate their world with more space and freedom, long lines, rather than tight, short leads and time to processes their environment, reduces our dog’s potential for stress. Stress can compromises their ability to communicate effetely. It is particularly difficult for a healthy, natural greeting when dogs are brought too close together and there is tension on both leads of each dog, preventing them from displaying natural communication using their body language, space and orientation. The restriction of natural behaviours, will create the perfect climate for unhealthy communication. Some dogs may become reactive or sensitive to the proximity of others, in particular, if they have not been allowed to orientate and process their environment in a way that is natural for that particular dog. There are many reasons that a dog may not want to interact with another dog. A substantial amount of those reasons, we will never be able to ascertain because undoubtedly, the approaching dog’s odours and smells will impact greatly on communication, which would make for a very complex and almost impossible study, with far too many variables for accuracy. One very common reason a dog may not want to engage in interaction or play, is that they may be in some chronic pain that is invisible to the untrained eye and or the dog is ageing and experiencing limb and joint stiffness. This may inhibit their speed and accuracy when communicating. These dogs, if well adjusted and are given the freedom to express themselves safely and freely, may use the play bow to create distance and space rather than initiate play. Lets talk about the FIVE F’s!

  • Fight

  • Flight

  • Freeze

  • Frenzy

  • Flirt

How do we know that our dog is looking for distance from other dogs especially when it looks like he wants to play?

The dog will disengage and redirect on to something else rather than engaging in the play, if the dog has the physical freedom to do that. If the dog does not have the physical freedom to disengage we may start to see a dog's stress response employed by a part of the brain called the amygdala, which is responsible for our hormonal and emotional regulation and preparing the brain and the body for an emergency response. Most of us have heard of the term, fight or flight. These are are two of the the five stress responses every living mammal has. The others are freeze, frenzy and foe/flirt. Depending on the context, your dog's life experience and the level of threat they are perceiving determines which stress response is deployed. You might often see a deployment of a combination of all, some or one of these within dog to dog interactions, if you know what to look for. You may recognise a micro freeze before play or a fight. It's the clusters and combinations of the body language, each dog’s previous learning and socialisation history, along with which stress response is deployed, that will govern what behaviour comes next for each dog concerned. If a dog freezes but the body language of both dogs is relaxed and loose, it’s unlikely that the next behaviour will be aggression. It always comes back to clusters of behaviours and context. This is also the case when it comes to play initiating behaviours, such as the ‘play bow’. The play bow, in a dog, that does not want to play, is a follow on behaviour of one of the five stress responses, ‘foe' or flirt. The employed of this behaviour is used in the hope of diffusing any potential oncoming threat the dog might feel, through playful deception. Think of the last time you or someone you know, may have laughed at a joke that wasn’t funny. This is flirtation deception and often used to gain space or buy time needed to plan your escape from unwanted attention or advances. So next time your dog does a play bow, watch what they do next. Do they stay engaged with the other dog or do they seek distance. Perhaps they have ascertained that the play mate is not worthy of their time, potentially too big, too clumsy, too rough or just rude, or perhaps there's something more subtle going on with your own dog, whereby, play is something worrisome for them. You may have a dog that becomes frenzied in these interactions or you may have a dog that is no longer able to do a full play bow due to a decline in health but that’s for another conversation. Watching behaviours in isolation never truely gives us a full picture of what's going on. There's nothing better than watching healthy play between two dog friends. It fills us all with joy. But sometimes there's more to the story then just play. See if you ever notice your dog offering a play bow that ends in distance and see if you can spot the reason why. Finally, its important to note that our dogs don't offer deceptive behaviours to lie to us. Remember the five F's. They are a dog's nervous system responses that they have no control over , whatsoever. They are stress responses, coping mechanisms that are crying out for us to understand.

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