meta communication

 Dogs at Play Are Hard at Work 


You hear it all the time; socialize a new puppy to have a well-adjusted dog.  But, what does that mean?  Will puppies who grow up in social isolation turn into gremlins, or just the canine equivalent of teenagers who never leave the basement?  Dog trainers tell owners to socialize their animals, but many people also need to understand what to look for during socialization, and how it benefits their dogs.  In every dog-to-dog interaction, there is a complicated give and take in communication that, as dog’s best friend, people need to understand in order to encourage.

While playing dogs look carefree, there are levels of communication occurring that are easy to understand given the basics.  Body language, vocalizations, and the tone of both of these elements go into interactions that can look similar but can have extremely different meanings.  Read on to discover why dogs play, what are the languages of dogs playing, and how it all benefits your dog in so many ways.

Why Dogs Play:

Dogs are often known as the goofballs of the animal world, and this is true; even silver-masked grand-doggies can be seen galloping across fields to fetch balls.  In this way, dogs are unique.  Dogs are one of the few animals that retain their love of playing like puppies well into adulthood (Bradshaw, Pullen, & Rooney, 2015).  The reason behind dogs playing is at fault for this; dogs play both to educate younger generations and to communicate with all ages.

Play can often resemble different aspects of hunting, mating or aggressive behavior, but because play behaviors are used to introduce these serious topics, dogs can practice the behaviors before needing them in reality.  This type of practice during play allows puppies to warm-up and learn better ways to hunt, all while having fun.  Think of dogs playing like basketball practice before the home game; players are competing for points, but since they are all on the same team they all are winners, and are prepared for when the real opponents come.

Dogs also use play with humans to bond and create better communication.  Sometimes viewed as competition for dominance, dog and human play is now believed to be a form of social bonding.  Trainers now observe playing as a way to read the relationship a dog might have with an owner – the better the playing, the more established and close the relationship.

Typical Play Languages:

We often see this at the dog park: two dogs see each other, approach and, before meeting, one or both get half-way down in a bow for a pause.  This bow is always seen right before play, and is a way of saying, “What I’m about to do is a joke, so don’t take it seriously.”  This secondary communication, known as metacommunication, is what defines social play language in dogs.

In the 1970’s, George Bateson coined the term metacommunication, among many other communication terms, for a phenomenon all people know very well (Hartwell-Walker, 2016).  This is seen in people through tone and facial expression, like with sarcasm.  Metacommunication in dogs is the use of body language and vocalization that lets the other dog know there is another meaning for what they are about to do.  This can be seen through body language like play bows, pausing before a jump forward with another pause (a stop-start), vocal panting that is exaggerated, and body movement that is bouncy and athletic.  All of these cues can come right before or during aggressive behavior, so it is sometimes confused with inappropriate aggression.  While socially adept dogs know that the aggression is not for real because of these metacommunications, humans and poorly socialized dogs have a harder time believing something good is happening because they miss the play cues.

What Are the Benefits of Playing:

The use of play with metacommunications allows for the dog to enjoy a deep conversation with another dog or human, and also lets them practice behaviors in a non-serious environment.  Puppies who are not allowed to learn these social cues, like what a play bow means or the best way to approach another dog for playing, often wind up socially awkward.  Dogs with poor social skills often display more nervous and aggressive behavior and are guilty of misinterpreting other dogs’ social cues for play as aggression.  This can result in some awkward conversations at the play yard, and makes for an unhappy pet in the process.

Play also lets dogs and humans develop a definition of fairness in a group (Allen & Bekoff, 2005).  During play, dogs and owners can establish a bond of trust by equally sharing the rewards of ‘tug the rope’, creating a future relationship of trust.  Dogs and humans both share a social group culture, so developing ideas like cooperation, fairness, forgiveness and morality are all ideas that can be established in play, and are important to a group dynamic (Bekoff & Byers, 2004, p. 98).

Play is a natural action by both dogs and humans.  No matter the age, both species can be found playing together and having fun in the process.  It is important to introduce your puppy to other dogs and to initiate play behavior as soon as possible, both for them to be social well-adjusted and to learn new behaviors quickly.  So, grab a leash and head out to the dog yard to get practicing those bows.

Allen, C., & Bekoff, M. (2005, September). Animal Play and the Evolution of Morality: An Ethological Approach. Retrieved February 14, 2018, from

Bekoff, M., & Byers, J. A. (2004). Animal play: evolutionary, comparative and ecological perspectives. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi: of play%22 canine&ots=08wk004s-u&sig=uyTmyxfs0cwb5Y5E4-yOigHqU9c#v=onepage&q&f=false

Bradshaw, J. W., Pullen, A. J., & Rooney, N. J. (2015). Why do adult dogs ‘play’? Behavioural Processes, 110, 82-87. doi:10.1016/j.beproc.2014.09.023

Hartwell-Walker, M. (2016, July 17). Meta-communication: What I Said Isn't What I Meant. Retrieved February 14, 2018, from


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