The Use of Meta-Communication in Dog Play
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.
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'll 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.
In order 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 but don't know that in order to prevent the joke from being taken seriously you must say it in a certain tone of voice, 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.
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.
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 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 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.
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. For more on play styles among dogs read "Understanding play behaviors part one and part two.
Dogs who haven't been socialized well may fail to use play bows causing their play styles to be overly rough and 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.
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