How and Why Do Dogs Exhibit the "Play Bow?"

Conscious Intent or the Unconscious Expression of Emotion?

Linda Case is a science writer and clicker trainer. She writes a popular blog titled “The Science Dog.” In a recent post, Case wrote about a new study on play in dogs, one of the best studies I’ve come across in years. For the most part, the conclusions drawn by the researchers are quite good. This is the only thing that seemed questionable to me:

“More than 98 percent, virtually all, of the play bows occurred when the two dogs were within each others’ visual fields, providing strong support for the hypothesis that play bowing is an intentional visual signal that dogs only use when they know that their partner can see them and respond.”

Here is my response:

This is, for the most part, an excellent study, though I think this section merits another look:

What’s being suggested here is that dogs have a first-level theory of mind: they somehow have knowledge of another dog’s — or another being’s — sensory states.

But how do we explain the adult dog who does a play bow with his own reflection in a mirror, or a puppy who does a play bow with one of his toys? Does the dog playing with his mirror image believe that reflection can see him? Does the puppy believe the toy she’s playing with can see her?

A few years ago I got into a discussion with another dog trainer who was convinced that dogs have a theory of mind because, when playing fetch, “they always bring the ball back where you can see it.”

I pointed out that in many cases, the dog may drop the ball directly in front of you, but the ball might roll behind you and out of your range of vision. Yet in both cases the dog still behaves in the same way.

It’s true, some dogs may go after the ball again, and drop it again. But do they do it so that you can SEE the ball more clearly, or so that you can REACH it more easily? If it’s the first, that might suggest that the dog has a first-level theory of mind. If it’s the second, it suggests that the dog is simply trying to speed up the process of having you throw the ball so he can chase it again.

Here is Case’s reply:

Hi Lee,

Thanks for reading and for your comment.

Regarding Theory of Mind in dogs; there actually is a fair bit of research that suggests that dogs have a rudimentary theory of mind, in the sense that they are able to consider what another individual may or may not know.

Like everything that has evolved, (and I am sure you know this), theory of mind most probably exists in various degrees, rather than as an all-or-nothing capability.

I am by no means an expert on this, but the studies of Adam Miklosi, Juliane Kaminski, Michael Tomasello and Brian Hare and their research teams are all great to look at and suggest that dogs have more going on cognitively than we have ever before in history given them credit for.

I reviewed some of Juliane [Kaminski]’s work recently in the Science Dog essay entitled, “Do you Know What I Can See?”

So, while these particular studies in this essay were not designed to study theory of mind, I don’t think it was beyond their scope for the researchers to conclude that only offering a play bow when another dog can see you suggests that this signal has an intentional communicative function was out of line at all.

Best wishes,


My second reply:

Hi again,

I'm very familiar with Hare, Kaminski, et al.

Most of Brian Hare’s findings have been pretty well demolished by Monique Udell’s research. For instance, Hare said that dogs will follow a person's gaze but wolves won't. He believed this showed something important about the evolutionary differences between dogs and wolves. Udell tested this hypothesis with a) pet dogs, b) wolves who'd been acclimated to human beings, and c) street dogs. She found that pet dogs and wolves had no trouble interacting with humans but street dogs were incapable of doing so.

According to Michael Tomasello, quoted in the book, Rational Animals? (edited by Susan Hurley & Matthew Nudds) there are two types of cognitive scientists, “boosters,” who offer cognitvely-rich explanations for behavior, and “scoffers,” who offer leaner ones.

Hare, like his mentor Tomasello, is a booster while Udell is a scoffer.

I think the tendency to offer cognitively-rich explanations for animal behavior comes from a commonly quoted, but incomplete version of Darwin's thoughts on the subject.

“Nevertheless, the difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, is certainly one of degree and not of kind ... If it be maintained that certain powers such as self-consciousness, abstraction, etc., are peculiar to man, it may well be that these are the incidental results of other highly-advanced faculties; and these again are mainly the result of the continued use of a highly-developed language.”

So boosters tend to operate as if Darwin only said the first part about “degree not kind” and they tend to ignore the second part, which I think is actually the most important.

I'm also familiar with the research on dogs who “act sneaky when stealing food,” etc.

How Wolves Hunt Bison and Why Dogs Steal Food.”

Why Some Dogs Act Sneaky When 'Stealing' Food.”

As for your idea that Theory of Mind operates on a sliding scale, I think most philosophers of mind—people like Daniel Dennett, Andy Clark, etc.—would strongly disagree. It's like language; you either have the complete package or you don't.

Another problem I've seen is that while instincts and reflexes are well understood, and so too are intellectual faculties, emotion is still an iffy proposition for most dognitive scientists. Of course Eric Kandel, Antonio D'Amasio and Jaak Panksepp are changing that, but it hasn't really taken hold completely yet. And emotion—not intellect—is where dogs excel.

Years ago (2009)—when I was first writing about dogs for—Marc Bekoff joined the roster of writers there. He wrote a piece on play in dogs, saying that for him, since play and predatory behaviors are so similar, there was no way around the idea that dogs have to have the intent to communicate their playful intent when engaging other dogs in play. A week or so later he wrote a piece on how his dog Jethro was able to detect the fear left behind by a dog who was previously in the examination room at the vet's office.

I wrote him an email suggesting an alternative possibility about the nature of play. If dogs can sense fear, and if play is a form of mock aggression, where no fear is present, wouldn't that explain how dogs automatically know when another dog is just playing and when he's actually feeling aggressive?

In his email response, he agreed that that could very well solve the problem. (He seems to have forgotten our exchange since then, or changed his mind on the subject, but for one brief moment we were on the same wavelength.)

Linda: “I don’t think it was beyond their scope for the researchers to conclude that only offering a play bow when another dog can see you suggests that this signal has an intentional communicative function was out of line at all.”

Again, I renew my objection: Why would a puppy try to intentionally communicate his playful intent with an inanimate object?

Why would a dog attempt to intentionally communicate with his reflection in a mirror?

Dogs are smart enough to have a rudimentary theory of mind but not smart enough to know the difference between a reflection, a toy, and an actual animate being?

And why would dogs form the intent to communicate with a statue?

It seems to me that the dogs in these videos are not trying to communicate their playful intent. Rather they're trying to get the inanimate object—toy, statue, or reflection—to move, to play with them. So the urge to instigate a pleasurable feeling of release brought on by synchronous bodily movement is the dog's real goal. In fact, some dogs will produce a play bow when no other dog, toy, mirror or statue is around to reciprocate! They sometimes do it on their own for no reason!

So, no. I don't think it's accurate to describe play behavior as a possible product of conscious intent.

I realize that by framing many of my thoughts in the form of questions it makes me sound more argumentative than I’m intending to. So I apologize for the tone. But these are questions that I think should be answered.

Lee Charles Kelley

"Life Is an Adventure—Where Will Your Dog Take You?"


Here is one of the best explanations on how and why dogs play.

"Why Dogs Play," by Kevin Behan.

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© 2016 by Lee Charles Kelley.