Dog Play

by François Blom-Peters

Ethologists have shown that social playing among dogs (and likely other animals esp. mammals) is a highly constrained behavior which supposes the cooperation of all participants[1]. This is so because a lot of social play in animals consists in pretending, out of context, to do something usual (e.g. fighting). It is especially crucial when dogs are play-fighting, since the actions involved can easily be misinterpreted as genuinely aggressive. Furthermore, playing supposes that everyone’s in the mood for it. Pretending to act aggressively (e.g. pretending to bite) can therefore lead to a genuinely aggressive reaction, if the other dog is wrongly thought to be in the mood. In order to make things less ambiguous, dogs either use their ordinary moves (e.g. biting), but in a somewhat stereotypical or exaggerated manner, or they use special moves (e.g. they “bow”) to indicate that they are in fact “just playing”. The latter are called signals. It has been observed that such signals usually precede and/or follow an action with more frequency when the action is particularly ambiguous (e.g. biting, in contrast with barking) or when the situation makes misinterpretation particularly damageable (e.g. when there is a strong hierarchical relation between individuals, as is present in certain species).

The same goes for humans. One can think of the stereotypical gestures of teenagers pretending to hurt each other. More generally, jokes told at the expense of someone are always told with that special, “jokingly” tone. If the joke is particularly subtle or particularly offensive, it can be accompanied by some kind of signal to reduce ambiguity (a sharp “Just kidding”, an obnoxious grin, …).

Arguably, one difference between human beings and other animals is that humans are pretending all the time: pretend to care, pretend to be happy, pretend to listen, pretend to remember, pretend to know, pretend you have your life together, pretend not to see that the person talking with you is obviously pretending to care… And I don’t even pretend to be exhaustive.

Obviously, this isn’t the same thing as pretend-playing, since the latter implies that all participants are aware of the affected nature of their interactions. Or is it? Pretending is often quite transparent – when at the club, you know, she knows, and you know that she knows that none of you care about what you are saying. Social conventions are mostly about pretending to care for each other. I don’t claim that all social conventions and relations are outright lies. Still, they carry a good deal of fakery, whether we want it or not; and we know it. This doesn’t mean they are to be avoided: « For politeness is like a counter–an avowedly false coin, with which it is foolish to be stingy » (Schopenhauer).

And I don’t even need to mention the untiring game of pretense we play with ourselves.

So we are playing – this is all good. But unlike dogs, we don’t know when the game stops. As I said, during play dogs perform ordinary actions taken out of context. The context is important: it is that of a healthy dog living the life naturally attributed to its species – fighting, hunting, mating, … In the absence of signals, there is no game. You know when real life starts again.

Do we possess such a natural life? For sure, most of our life is not so different than that of other mammals, if not of dogs. For sure, some things feel natural – but anything can with enough persuasion. When are we true to ourselves? Maybe we should ask the dogs, what would they answer? That they don’t care.


[1] Allen & Bekoff, Species of Mind, 1997.

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