Dogs play more when people are watching

We know dogs care about people who pay attention to them, and we know that dogs in general enjoy human attention. Still, it’s fascinating to learn that human observation has a strong influence on one of their species-specific behaviors – in this case, the game.

Predictably, there is great interest in a new study showing that dogs play more when their owners are paying attention to them. There’s always great interest in everything dog playing, not least because it’s fun to watch.

The study, “Owner Attention Facilitates Social Play in Dog-Dog Dyads (Canis lupus familiaris): Indications of Interspecific Audience Effect,” reported in Animal Cognition magazine, is the first to directly assess an audience’s impact on dog play.

It has previously been shown that dogs are influenced by human attention and the attention of playmates to dogs in other contexts. A 2007 study showed that most game play takes place in familiar environments when a human is also present, and a 2014 study found that wolves and wolfhound hybrids played more when humans were present. However, these studies did not control human attention; They only took into account human presence.

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In the current study, the researchers examined the effects of human attention and human presence on playing with dogs. People paid attention to their dogs in three ways: making eye contact with them, petting them, and praising them with an optimistic tone.

For the study, pairs of dogs were recorded on video in their own four walls three times for five minutes in each of the following three situations: The owner was (1) in another room (absent), (2) in the room with the dogs, however fully focused on a book or laptop and no eye contact or social overtures (present but inattentive) or (3) in the room with the dogs making eye contact, as well as verbal praise and petting (present and attentive).

The videos were then analyzed to determine the amount of time the dogs were engaged in social play behavior. These data showed that they played the most when their owners were present and attentive.

Although the owners in the present and attentive state were friendly with the dogs, they in no way encouraged play. They did not offer toys, attempt to wrestle or hunt the dogs, or provide any other play-related advice. When a social game was taking place, the attentive owners continued to offer eye contact and verbal praise, but did not pet any other physical contact with the dogs.

It is unexpected and therefore strange that dogs should be able to play at all times, but more so when their owners are watching them. The authors suggest a number of possible explanations for the increase in the game of attentive owners:

• Attention can be reinforcement, which means that the game is reinforced by the owner’s attention.

• Gambling may be due to increased physiological arousal caused by the owner’s attention.

• The game may have been augmented by other valuable offerings in the past – the owner may have joined the game regularly, took her outside, or took her for a walk.

• Careful owners can make sure the dogs feel safe and comfortable. These are the necessary conditions for playing. While animals can playfully deepen their relationship, there are risks involved, including creating tension that can lead to aggression. Perhaps an observant person makes this less likely so that a game is more likely to take place.

• Gambling could be an attempt to compete for the owner’s attention.

• It is possible that the presence of an attentive owner may increase the dogs’ positive feelings and possibly lead to an increase in oxytocin, which generally leads to an overall more positive emotional state.

Future studies could examine how owner attention makes gaming easier. Additional studies could also find out which element or combination of elements of human attention – eye contact, praise, physical contact – is most relevant to promoting dog play.

In the meantime, we can watch our dogs play and praise them as we know we are part of the reason it happens in the first place.

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