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Characteristics of Typical Dog-Human Play

We look at a recent research project which studied play between dogs and humans to look for patterns in how we interact with dogs.


Researchers Alexandra Horowitz and Julie Hecht from the Dog Cognition Lab at Barnard College recently published the results of a study in the journal Animal Cognition focused on dog-human play. Since play is an extremely useful reinforcer for training dogs, their findings are of interest to dog sports enthusiasts and trainers alike.

The project involved viewing videos of play between dogs and owners that were obtained through a call for submissions to the general public. They received 187 videos from 19 countries featuring children as young as eight and adults as old as 75. The short videos were viewed and assessed based on the following factors:

  • The amount of touching/physical contact between owner and dog during play;

  • How close the dog and owner were (in terms of physical space) during play;

  • How much the owner moved during play;

  • The owners affect during the play session and how that affected the dog;

  • The dogs affect during play and how that affected the owner;

  • Vocalizations by both the owner and dog during play;

They also reviewed the tapes to determine 30 distinct types of play, such as fetching, chasing, teasing, and physical rough play.

Some of their interesting findings include:

  • The majority of the dogs displayed behavior in the videos that indicated they saw play¬†as a positive, enjoyable experience. On the other hand, the videos indicated that there were differing emotional responses for the owners. Some games that involved closer contact, such as tug or physical rough housing, as well as lots of movement, appeared to produce a much more pronounced positive affect, whereas play such as fetch showed owners in the videos with more a middle-of-the-road demeanor. Since fetch involves less physical contact with the dog, this may be a possible reason for the changes in positive emotional states and the researchers theorized that the closer one plays with a dog, the more likely they will experience a higher positive emotional effect.

    • Of the 30 types of play, the top three they found used in the videos were:
      • Fetch
      • Tease
      • Tug

  • The amount of physical contact and physical proximity to the dogs, including close face-to-face contact, appeared to be higher among people who work professionally with dogs, such as trainers, groomers, veterinarians, and others, which may be due to people in those professions developing a stronger ease with closeness through constant interaction with a wide variety of canines day-to-day.

  • Physical contact with the dogs was also higher among women compared to men. About 50% of the men in the videos studied did not touch the dogs they were playing with at all whereas 32% of the women did not touch the dogs.

  • The researchers catalogued all the words that owners used when playing with their dogs and found that these were the ten most commonly used words:
    • You
    • Good
    • It
    • Get/Got
    • Go/Gonna
    • Come/Cmon
    • The dogs name
    • Girl
    • Yah/Yeah!
    • That
The researchers hope further study into dog-human play can lead to better training for dogs, particularly working dogs, as well as more positive dog-human relationships through educating average owners about the many types of play they can engage in and the positive effects on both dog and human emotions.

Source: Horowitz A., Hecht J. (2016). Examining dog-human play: the characteristics, affect, and vocalizations of a unique interspecific interaction. Animal Cognition, pp 1-10, March 22.

Photo Credit: Heaven.jpg via photopin (license)

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