Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, former veterinary assistant, and the author of "Brain Training for Dogs."
Why Do Dogs Sneeze When Playing?
Have you ever noticed your dog sneezing while playing with other dogs? Don’t worry if you notice this behavior—they aren’t necessarily dealing with allergies! Though sneezing is not immediate cause for worry and it may be amusing to see your pup engaging in this behavior, it is still important to understand why it happens.
Since we haven’t yet perfected the ability to communicate with our pups, fully comprehending why this happens takes a bit of guesswork. So, let’s put on our Sherlock Holmes caps and see what we can discern!
A good place to start in order to better understand this behavior is unlocking what is happening when a dog sneezes. Dog sneezes don't just happen without reason, so by better understanding the causes and uses of sneezing, we can gain more insight into the behavior of sneezing when playing.
The Anatomy of a Sneeze
I don’t know about you, but I find it nearly impossible to sneeze on command. Are dogs able to sneeze by choice? Or, are they—like humans—ruled by an involuntary response to some stimuli in their nose?
As it turns out, yes, sneezing is an involuntary reflex for dogs too. Regular sneezing is often triggered by the presence of some foreign material in the nose. Namely, dust, debris and pollen can trigger a sneeze as these materials tend to tickle the inside of your dog's nose. Foxtails stuck in a dog's nose may also trigger a severe bout of sneezing in the affected dog. So, the main goal of sneezing is to remove any trapped foreign particles that are irritating the inside of the nose through a forceful expulsion of air through the nose and mouth.
Once a trigger is detected, special signals are sent to the brain to initiate the sneeze through the trigeminal nerve network. Both pharyngeal and tracheal muscles prepare for the forceful expulsion. This involves contraction of a variety of different muscles, including several facial muscles and the eyelids. So, really, dogs aren’t at all that different from humans in how they sneeze!
7 Reasons Dogs Sneeze When Playing
Now that you have some idea of how a sneeze comes about for your pup, let’s see if we can figure out some of the reasons it may happen during play, especially with other dogs. Until dogs can talk, we can only make assumptions for now. But it would be interesting if some studies would one day come out on the subject. Until then, enjoy the sneezing!
1. An Invitation to Play
Puppies, and even adult dogs, are known to engage often in play behavior. When dogs want to play, they need to first communicate their intent to play.
To invite other dogs to play, dogs often start with specific play behaviors that act as prompts in hopes of engaging the other dog. Such prompts often include things such as play bows, play faces (wild eye, grinning expressions, open-mouths) and a bouncy body language with rocking-chair gaits.
In his book Aggressive Behavior In Dogs: A Comprehensive Technical Manual for Professionals, James O'Heare also adds sneezing as a prompt to engage other dogs in social play.
2. Playtime Wrinkles
More of a theory rather than a fact, there is the belief that when a dog wrinkles his or her nose during play, this prompts the trigeminal nerve to trigger a sneezing fit.
You may often see this when dogs are playing standing up and open their mouths with their noses wrinkled as they emit funny sounds. These jaw sparring events are often accompanied by sneezing of one or even both parties.
3. A Reassuring Gesture
Once dogs are playing, they need to reassure each other that what they are doing is not to be taken seriously—it's all part of play.
Dogs do so through body language and through the use of what is known as "meta-communication." This term was often used by anthropologist Gregory Bateson, who referred to it as "communication about communication." Among dogs, the use of meta-communication is to differentiate the smaller subtleties in communication that can make a world of difference.
In other words, dogs use special play signals during play, that are often referred to as "meta-signals." These meta-signals are meant to signal that—although play may look rough—it's all about having fun and should not be taken as intent to harm. When dogs play, they repeatedly use these signals to leave little space for misunderstandings. James O' Heare lists sneezing as a potential meta-signal that is used to reassure a playmate that no hostility is intended.
4. A Quest for a Break
Some experts believe that dogs may use sneezing as a way to signal that playtime has gotten a bit out of hand and they need a little break to cool off before the roughhousing begins anew.
As you might observe when your dog is playing, they may do a mock bow as they trot around. Once again, these types of signals tend to mean “let’s play”. However, healthy play in dogs sometimes need some refreshing pauses every now and then. It is possible that when dogs need a break, they may sneeze to call a time out.
5. Lifting up Dust
Something else to consider is the context in which play takes place. If your dogs are engaging in rough and tumble play in a dusty area, a lot of dust may be lifted, triggering dogs to sneeze.
In addition to dust, pollen from flowers and debris can also trigger the sneeze center of your dog's brain. Once the brain acknowledges that something is in your dog's nose and needs to come out, a bout of forceful sneezing can ensue.
6. Nose Bumping
Have you ever had a ball hit your nose and trigger a bout of sneezing? Well, the same may likely happen to your dog when he's playing.
As dogs engage in rough play, they may end up bumping their noses. A hit on the nose may stimulate the nerves in your dog's nose the same way as if there was an irritant up there. This can lead to . . . you guessed it! A bout of sneezing, achoooo!
7. Medical Factors
If your pup happens to do a lot of sneezing while playing, but even when they aren’t playing with other pups, you may need to see your vet to rule out potential issues.
Dogs sometimes develop allergies, but this doesn’t generally result in sneezing. So if you notice sneezing during solo play, it’s better to get your pup checked out by the professionals just to be sure.
If you have been away recently and your pup comes home from the kennel sneezing, get them checked for bordetella. This is treatable, but can easily jump from one pup to another. If you think your dog might have bordetella, you'll want to do your best to quarantine your dog away from other pups in your home as well as those outside the home until a vet can make the proper assessment and prescribe treatment.
"A dog seeking to interact prosocially will often use invitations to play. These invitations might include play bows, eye flashing (you see flashes of the whites of the dog’s eyes), sneezing, panting and a lumbering gait. Such signals may also be used to reassure a playmate during play encounters that play, rather than hostility, is intended."
— James O' Heare, The Dog Aggression Workbook, 3rd Edition
Dogs Sneezing When Playing
Now that we’ve taken a little look at what makes dogs sneeze and why they might be doing it during playtime, let’s do a quick recap and some important reminders to consider.
- Generally speaking, dogs sneeze as an involuntary response to protect their airway and clear out unwanted dust, bacteria and the like. If your pup is sneezing up a storm and they aren’t in the presence of other dogs, they may have gotten something stuck up their nose that they are trying to dislodge. See your vet if this is the case as you don’t want to go picking their nose for them.
- Similarly, if you notice your dog sneezing frequently after you’ve maybe come back from a long trip while they’ve been boarded at a kennel, you should schedule a visit with your vet to rule out medical issues such as bordetella, also known as kennel cough. While you’re trying to rule out whether they’ve caught something contagious, it’s best to keep them away from other dogs. If you’ve got other pups in the house, do your best to separate them as well to avoid contamination.
- Often dogs will end up sneezing during play if they are super excited to play with their furry friends and they are wrinkling their noses frequently. This in turn triggers their trigeminal nerve and thus yields to the sneeze. It’s okay to smile when they do this. It is especially cute when they are super tiny and extra cuddly.
- Your pup may be sneezing as a way to slow things down during their playtime with other dogs. After all, even dogs hit their limit for roughhousing with each other and need to catch their breath.
- And then, there may be sneezing due to irritants as dogs play and lift a lot of dust, or perhaps those nose bumps can trigger some sneezing as a reaction.
Dogs that like to curl their lips and 'grin' as they play often sneeze after having their nose wrinkled up for a while."
— Debra Eldredge DVM, Kate Eldredge, Dog Tricks
The Bottom Line
It really is a fascinating thing to watch dogs communicate with subtle gestures and changes in body language during playtime to convey what they want or need to their playmates. You really wish you could speak their language sometimes just to know what it is they’re saying. But whatever they are communicating, it is a far more complicated system than we can understand. Isn’t it just fascinating to observe all the amazing little quirks in your fur baby?
So, while it may seem like dogs have some control over sneezing in this situation, it is still probably an involuntary response. Although, some people have apparently taught their dogs to sneeze on cue. I wouldn’t go making that your next party trick, though—unless you think it's the coolest thing.
Just enjoy the cuteness when it happens during playtime! Dogs may just be pretending to sneeze if you’re teaching them to do it on cue just because you provide reinforcement. Besides, there are a lot of other cool tricks you can teach your dog that will impress your friends and make them the envy of the dog park.
Dog Sneezing Compilation
- Dog Tricks by Debra Eldredge DVM, Kate Eldredge
- Aggressive Behavior In Dogs: A Comprehensive Technical Manual for Professionals by James O' Heare
- The Dog Aggression Workbook (3rd Ed.) by James O' Heare
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2020 Adrienne Farricelli
Does Your Dog Sneeze During Play? Share Your Experience Below
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on September 30, 2020:
The sneeze play is surely funny to watch. My dogs often exhibited it. I asked a master dog trainer I was working with over a decade ago why dogs do this and he had no answer back then. Now we have several theories.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on September 01, 2020:
Heidi, interesting that your cattle dog coughs when playing other than sneezing. Dogs are surely interesting to watch and there's so much to discover.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on September 01, 2020:
It is surely interesting watching dogs play and those play sneezes among dogs can provide us with some interesting insights--other than our home may need a little dusting!
FlourishAnyway from USA on August 30, 2020:
Now I will have to pay closer attention to when and why this happens with my aunt’s dog.
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on August 30, 2020:
Reading this and remembering our dogs playing with one another brought a smile to my face. It is so much fun watching them having fun together. I never gave much thought to their sneezing, but reading this is interesting.
Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on August 30, 2020:
I've seen the play sneeze. But our cattle dog girl also coughs when she's wound up and ready to play. And then it's game on! Plus, we've seen it more indoors when they're playing on the carpeting. Thus the dust may be causing it, too.
They are such crazy critters sometimes. :) Thanks for sharing the info!
Sp Greaney from Ireland on August 30, 2020:
I've seen dogs do this but I never though much about it. But it is so interesting to read the reasons why is does occur. I think it's always useful to know why it occurs. Great article.
Drew Agravante from Philippines, Currently in Qatar on August 30, 2020:
Wow, I thought only dust could make my dog sneeze. Thanks for the amazing trivia. At least, I now have a nice idea of why the pup likes to sneeze when he plays with me.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on August 30, 2020:
Hi Linda, there are various theories as to why dogs sneeze when playing, and I think the best way to have a better idea as to what may be going on is by careful observation. However, we may never really know what may going on through their heads so we can only make assumptions.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on August 30, 2020:
Hi Devika, yes those dogs sneezes are surely powerful! It's a good idea to stay out of the way!
Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on August 29, 2020:
This is a very interesting article, Adrienne, My dogs have sneezed and do sneeze during play. I've always assumed that this was due to dust being disturbed, but the other ideas that you've raised are fascinating. Thank you for continuing to share your knowledge about dogs.
Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on August 29, 2020:
Adrienne Farricelli You have taught me a lot about dogs. I did have two dogs on the farm where I lived twenty years ago. Whenever dogs sneezed, I stay far as possible to avoid being sprayed.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on August 29, 2020:
Hi Pamela, dogs are very entertaining and there's always so much to learn about them! Our dogs have always sneezed while playing and it was fun to watch. You will make a great dog owner, when you are ready.
Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on August 29, 2020:
This is a good article about dogs sneezing. I don't have a dog right now but this is good information if I do get anther one. I would like to but it just hasn't worked out quite yet. Your articles abut dogs are excellent, Adrianna.