The Use of Meta-Communication in Dog Play

Updated on August 3, 2019
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Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, former veterinary assistant, and the author of "Brain Training for Dogs."

The Difference Between Playing and Fighting

Are my dogs playing, or are my dogs fighting? It's not uncommon for dog owners to ask this question as playing and fighting often share similar dynamics. You'll see lots of chasing, pinning to the ground, body slamming, mounting, barking, growling, baring teeth and biting necks. These displays may be scary at times if you wonder what is exactly happening. Are they having fun, or is a fight about to erupt? Should you step in or let them sort it out?

Sure, many dogs play in a way that sounds quite dramatic, but how to know for sure? Most likely though dogs with good social skills know exactly what is going on. How? Through the power of meta-communication.

No, your dog is not engaging any odd, metaphysical activity; rather, he's simply using a form of communication that implies non-threatening behaviors. What is meta-communication? The term meta-communication was often used by anthropologist Gregory Bateson, who referred to it as "communication about communication." It's mainly used to depict a secondary form of communication so to differentiate the smaller subtleties in communication that can make a world of difference.

Meta-Communication in Humans

Humans are quite generous in using meta-communication. A common example is the use of irony and joking. When you are joking, you likely say in a way that helps the receiver understand that, whatever you're saying, it's not to be taken seriously. If in the unfortunate chance you notice the receiver misinterprets the meaning of your saying, you can always make it up by remarking in a friendly tone, "Hey, I'm just joking" and then you're friends as before.

Even in the written language, you may use quotation marks to convey irony or sarcasm. Example: "We all know Robert's dog is the "meanest" dog on the block" can be used when everybody knows Robert's dog is a mellow dog that would just lick a burglar to death.

To prevent "miscommunication," the two involved parties must be savvy on social skills. The sender needs to know how to use metacommunication, and the receiver must know how to interpret it.

If you joke with your friend, you have to know that in order to prevent the joke from being taken seriously you must say it in a certain tone of voice, or you may hurt your friend's feelings. It could also happen that your friend just doesn't understand joking either because of past negative experiences (being bullied) or lack of socialization (doesn't understand the concept). In the same way, in the dog world, you may sometimes stumble on dogs who are bad communicators or bad interpreters due to poor socialization or negative past experiences.

Meta-Communication in Dogs

So just as in humans, dogs may rely on meta-communication to indicate that the message they are sending is not to be taken seriously. So, even though in play many behaviors may resemble those seen in an antagonistic fight, meta-communication is used to convey that those behaviors may mean something entirely different, such as affiliative play.

It's the dog's way to communicate, "What I said isn't what I meant." Only that dogs can't talk so, they'll rely on body language to signal their real intents and unravel what's going on beneath the surface.

Dog metacommunication in play.
Dog metacommunication in play. | Source

How Dogs Use Meta-Communication

What exactly is play? Marc Bekoff and John Alexander Byers define play as “all motor activity performed postnatally that appears purposeless, with motor patterns from other contexts modified and altered temporal sequencing…” Source:The Genesis of Animal Play: Testing the Limits. These modified behaviors include play signals which in dogs are a form of meta-communication, and because of this, they are often referred to as "meta-signals." Let's take a look at some meta-signals commonly used by dogs.

The Play Bow

The most popular meta-signal is the play bow when the dog lowers his front legs while keeping his rump in the air. Often the tail is wagging during this display.

The first time I heard about this meta-signal was when studying for my dog certification test. I was reading Terri Ryan's book "Coaching people to train their dogs." It was noticed how a dog is likely to play bow just before he's about to perform a behavior that can be easily misinterpreted such as a neck bite. It's almost as if the dog was saying "what comes next is part of play, so please don't take it seriously."

Many times, we expect to see a full play bow, but if you record play behavior, you'll see that dogs may just slightly and quickly dip their body several times in "micro play bows."

Patricia McConnell in her article The Pause that Refreshes further notes that play bows also function as a time-out, allowing the dogs to pause for a few seconds at a time when the dogs are getting to know each other. These healthy pauses play an important role in managing emotional arousal.

Dog Play "Laugh"

Other behaviors that suggest the dogs are just "playing around" include a special "laugh" to initiate play. Trainer Jolanta Benal talks about it in her article in Quick and Dirty Tips. According to behaviorist Patricia Simonet it's a pronounced forced, breathy exhalation”—panting, but a particular kind of panting, with a broader frequency range."

Play is typically bouncy, with the dogs engaging in role reversals, several pauses, meta signals, and self-handicapping especially if the other dog is smaller.

Some dogs who haven't been socialized well may fail to use play bows or other meta-communication signals causing their play styles to appear overly rough or prone to being misinterpreted. On the other hand, dogs who don't understand play bows may interpret the signal and its following behaviors as threatening which may lead to defensive, aggressive behaviors. For this reason, it's imperative to socialize puppies early so they can learn the ABC's of canine play and the rules of the game.

Dog Play Initiation

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

© 2014 Adrienne Farricelli


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    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 

      6 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      So greatly mentioned and you have informed me of a well-informed topic.

    • alexadry profile imageAUTHOR

      Adrienne Farricelli 

      6 years ago

      That's interesting, we may never really know. More and more studies though are revealing cognitive abilities we never expected before. Usually, what I see is one dog rushing if attention is given to another dog because he/she wants to be part of the interaction and get his/her daily dose of affection as well. Some dogs will even get "in between" the other dog and the owner to get their share. Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

    • grand old lady profile image

      Mona Sabalones Gonzalez 

      6 years ago from Philippines

      It's true, playing often resembles fighting and you don't know if you should stop them or not. Now that my dogs are older, I see the difference and your article clarifies a lot of things I couldn't quite understand. Do you think dogs have a way of communicating mentally as well? Oftentimes it seems to be the case with my dogs. Like if I'm kissing my dog and I know she doesn't like it, I notice the other dog comes up from under the bed to serve as a distraction, and sometimes even to bear the burden of my kisses for her sister dog.


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