Dogs follow a strict code of conduct

Tuesday, January 14th, 2020

Canids (members of the dog family) follow a strict code of conduct when they play:

1. Ask first and communicate clearly. Many nonhumans announce that they want to play and not fight or mate. Canids punctuate play sequences using a bow to solicit play, crouching on their forelimbs while standing on their hind legs. Bows are used almost exclusively during play and are highly stereotyped — that is, they always look the same — so the message “Come play with me” or “I still want to play” is clear. Play bows are honest signals, a sign of trust.

Even when an individual follows a play bow with seemingly aggressive actions such as baring teeth, growling or biting, their companions demonstrate submission or avoidance only around 15% of the time, which suggests they trust the bow’s message that whatever follows is meant in fun. Trust in one another’s honest communication is vital for fair play and a smoothly functioning social group.

2. Mind your manners. Animals consider their play partners’ abilities and engage in self-handicapping and role reversing to create and maintain equal footing. For instance, a coyote might not bite their play partner as hard as they can, handicapping themselves to keep things fair. And a dominant pack member might perform a role reversal, rolling over on their back (a sign of submission that they would never offer during real aggression) to let their lower-status play partner take a turn at “winning.”

Human children also behave this way when they play, for instance, taking turns overpowering each other in a mock wrestling match. By keeping things fair in this manner, every member of the group can play with every other member, building bonds that keep the group cohesive and strong.

3. Admit when you are wrong. Even when everyone wants to keep things fair, play can sometimes get out of hand. When an animal misbehaves or accidentally hurts his play partner, they typically apologize, just like a human would. After an intense bite, a bow sends the message, “Sorry I bit you so hard — this is still play regardless of what I just did. Don’t leave; I’ll play fair.” For play to continue, the other individual must forgive the wrongdoing. And forgiveness is almost always offered; understanding and tolerance are abundant during play as well as in daily pack life.

4. Be honest. An apology, like an invitation to play, must be sincere. Individuals who continue to play unfairly or send dishonest signals often quickly find themselves ostracized. This has far greater consequences than simply reduced playtime. For example, my long-term field research shows that juvenile coyotes who do not play fair often end up leaving their pack and are up to four times more likely to die than those individuals who remain with others. There are substantial risks associated with dispersal by young coyotes, and violating social norms, established during play, is not good for perpetuating one’s genes.


A few people have asked me if dogs always play fair, mentioning a few examples in which play escalated into an encounter that seemed to be aggressive or it seemed like this was going to happen. I explain that this is extremely rare, and tell them about a study by Melissa Shyan and her colleagues in which it was reported that fewer than 0.5 percent of play fights in dogs developed into conflict, and only half of these were clearly aggressive encounters.


  1. Kirk says:

    Only one of the hundreds of thousands of reasons I prefer the company of dogs to people…

    You never see dogs pulling political crap, or being deliberately mean to other dogs. The really amazing thing is how well they do, when it comes to coping with injured, crippled, or ill members of the pack–The group includes them in the play, and takes care to observe the limitations. Acquaintance of mine has this rescue dog whose front legs froze, requiring amputation. The dog is now basically a kangaroo-looking little thing, and the bigger dogs he has all protect and treat her better than you could ever imagine.

    Dogs > people, in all too many ways. I’ve never had a dog betray my trust the way people do on a routine basis.

  2. Steve Johnson says:

    Look on the bright side Kirk.

    Humans made dogs what they are by removing the pressures of natural and sexual selection from them. Dogs are idealized companions for people and have outsourced the need for ruthlessness to their human owners whom they love and trust.

  3. Harry Jones says:

    This is why dogs don’t rule the world.

  4. Kirk says:

    Harry, what makes you think they don’t?

    After all, precisely who is picking up whose poop?

    In my opinion, were we able to communicate with the dogs and the wolves who were their ancestors, we’d probably discover that they think they domesticated us, as opposed to the other way around. After all, look at the deal the dogs have going, and then tell me we didn’t pick up the shitty end of the stick…

  5. Crosbie says:

    Kirk, as I understand it, pre-neolithic man was nomadic, while wolves were territorial. I suggest that, in order to form the relationship we have with wolves, it was man who changed behavior. So, literally, dogs domesticated us, and not the other way around.

  6. Kirk says:


    All of my reading and observation argues that you’re right. I think dogs are the reason why Neanderthaler went extinct, as well. We know that they were not well-adapted to throwing things, and that they have not had their remains found in association with dogs.

    My suspicion is that the relationship between man and dog probably started on the outskirts of some human campsite, with the human throwing something at the local wolf, which was then returned for another throw. Thus, I think we might hypothesize that the wolf domesticated modern man as a stick-thrower. And, all the benefits accrued from there…

    If I had to lay odds on it, I think I’d bet on the relationship between man and dog began with play, and the play probably began with the human throwing something at the nascent dog, who then returned it for another go-round.

  7. Harry Jones says:

    Kirk, I pick up no one’s poop.

    No, I don’t own a dog, nor does a dog own me. Like Kevin Kline, I don’t have anything that I want fetched.

  8. Graham says:

    Worth considering, though, the possibility that the domestication process only really tilted so much in favour of dogs recently, as part of humans’ process of self-domestication.

    On one hand, we have been feeding them and letting them have our camp scraps since time out of mind, so a benefit for them over living as wolves, and probably dogs started outnumbering wolves very early once distinguishable from them. They now outnumber wolves and other wild canids by many orders of magnitude.

    On the other, for most of history we have been making the majority of the dogs do things for us, sometimes difficult and dangerous things, and have been somewhat more cruel [in many cases] or at least demanding and otherwise indifferent caregivers until relatively recently. Animal protection laws, let alone rights, are young ideas, and so is a decent chunk of pet-loving culture. Not all- man has cared for dogs since the start – but the standard of that care has increased not unlike the standard of care for other humans has done, a lot and recently.

    Not to mention- humans walk dogs so they can poop mainly because we don’t want it done in our houses or yards or other immediate vicinity of our ‘campsite’ anymore, and we pick it up and dispose of it because of laws made by humans to keep our parks clean and avoid inter-human conflict. All part of the softening of urban life and inter-people relations in quite modern times.

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