Examining dog–human play: the characteristics, affect, and vocalizations of a unique interspecific interaction

Abstract

Despite the growing interest in research on the interaction between humans and dogs, only a very few research projects focus on the routines between dogs and their owners. In this study, we investigated one such routine: dog–human play. Dyadic interspecific play is known to be a common interaction between owner and charge, but the details of what counts as play have not been thoroughly researched. Similarly, though people represent that “play” is pleasurable, no study has yet undertaken to determine whether different forms of play are associated with different affective states. Thus, we aimed to generate an inventory of the forms of dyadic play, the vocalizations within play, and to investigate the relationship of affect to elements of play. Via a global citizen science project, we solicited videotapes of dog–human play sessions from dog owners. We coded 187 play bouts via frame-by-frame video playback. We then assessed the relationship between various intra-bout variables and owner affect (positive or neutral) during play (dog affect was overwhelmingly positive). Amount of physical contact (“touch”), level of activity of owner (“movement”), and physical closeness of dog–owner dyad (“proximity”) were highly correlated with positive affect. Owner vocalizations were found to contain different elements in positive- and neutral-affect play. One novel category of play, “tease”, was found. We conclude that not all play is created equal: the experience of play to the owner participant is strongly related to a few identifiable characteristics of the interaction.

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Acknowledgments

We are indebted to the owners who contributed videos to this study; thank you. Thanks to members of the Dog Cognition Lab (Hannah Carter, Adam Croom, Eleonora d’Amore, Rebecca Johnson, Sharisse Kanet, Gillian Lawrence, Rebecca LoSchiavo, and Merav Stein) and especially Nora Inman for sequential coding work. Thanks to Martin Chodorow for statistical guidance. We acknowledge and appreciate Scientific American and SciStarter for publicising our call for submissions, and Nestlé Purina PetCare Company for providing research monies to support the project. Thank you to two anonymous reviewers and to the Editor for their useful suggestions.

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Correspondence to Alexandra Horowitz.

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Horowitz, A., Hecht, J. Examining dog–human play: the characteristics, affect, and vocalizations of a unique interspecific interaction. Anim Cogn 19, 779–788 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10071-016-0976-3

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Keywords

  • Dog–human play
  • Categories of play
  • Citizen science
  • Affect
  • Vocalizations