Dogs seem to play more enthusiastically when you’re paying attention to them going at it

Man’s best friend is most playful when we’re watching, says new research.

Image via Pixabay.

A new study reports that pet dogs are much more likely to engage in play with other dogs when their owner is present and paying attention. While such results definitely go a long way towards making us all fuzzy for our furry friends, it also raises an interesting (and quite amusing) possibility: that these animals may, at least in part, put on a show for our enjoyment.

Big stick energy

The authors preface their paper by explaining that the deep attunement dogs seem to have to human interest or attention is well documented. However, we didn’t have any hard, reliable data on how this awareness impacts specific behaviors — like, for example, altering the way our pawed pals engage in play.

“We found overall that the availability of owner attention did in fact facilitate play,” says Lindsay Mehrkam, an animal behaviorist and lead author of the paper.

“It’s really quite striking that dogs who have the chance to play with each other whenever they want to, nonetheless are much more likely to get up off their butts and start playing when a person is just paying attention to them,” said co-author Clive Wynne of Arizona State University.

Human attention, the team explains, increased the frequency and intensity of behavior such as bowing, hip nudges, wrestling, chasing, or gentle bites that a dog would engage in with another dog during play.

The team carried out their experiment with 10 pairs of pets that had lived together for at least six months previously. According to owners, they all used to engage in play at least once a day (this step was taken to make sure that the dogs could enjoy each other’s company).

Each pair was then filmed as they interacted under three conditions: with the owner present, the owner present but ignoring them, and with a present and highly attentive owner (offering verbal praise and petting). Each scenario was run three times over the course of several days to ensure that the data was valid, and not flukes.

As for why this happens, the team believes that the owner’s attention could be a reward that the dogs are seeking in itself — similarly to how children playing with their parents will sometimes show off. Alternatively, the animals may have learned that playing among themselves, and playing more intensely, can lead to rewards such as an owner joining in or everyone going out for a walk.

Alternatively, the owner’s presence may act as a stabilizing agent which makes such intense play possible. Their mere presence can cause a rush of oxytocin, a hormone involved in emotional bonding and feelings of safety, which promotes play. Yet still, the human can act as an insurance policy against an all-out fight — although animals use play to strengthen bonds, it can also lead to aggression.

The fact is that right now, we simply don’t know why it happens, only that it does. The authors themselves are aware of this, and they’re already setting out on finding out.

“It’s one of those types of studies that leads to a lot more questions than answers,” said Mehrkam.

The paper “Owner attention facilitates social play in dog–dog dyads (Canis lupus familiaris): evidence for an interspecific audience effect” has been published in the journal Animal Cognition.

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