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How do dogs invite play?:

Most mammals stop playing as they reach adulthood, but not dogs! But one of the problems dogs face is how to communicate that they want to play. Much play involves mock fighting and fleeing, so it is important to say that a particular action is only in fun.

The most popular signal for play is the "play-bow", in which the dog lowers its front half, while keeping its rear end high in the air. The dog keeps its front legs in a "sitting sphinx" position and its chest touches the ground. The hind legs stay straight with the paws on the ground. And the dog looks intently at its companion and makes little forward movements as if to say "let's go!"

Because the play has been initiated by the special signal, the playing dogs will not start attacking each other. They may change roles of chaser and escaper several times during the play bout, running around in wide circles, having a fun time.

Another signal for play is the "play-face", an expression that is the equivalent of the human smile. The dog pulls its lips back horizontally (not vertically, so the teeth are not shown). Other signals include nudging and pawing. Dogs may also offer something to get play started. The dog will bring over a stick or a ball, for example, face its companion, and put the object on the ground between its front feet. The minute you reach for the object, the dog grabs it and zips off, wanting you to begin the chase.

For dogs to play well as adults, they must learn correct play etiquette as puppies. Little puppies learn not to bite too hard when they play. If a dog grows up without its littermates, it may not learn this "soft-bite". When it plays as an adult, it may bite too hard, and real fighting could occur.

Source: Illustrated Dogwatching, by Desmond Morris, Crescent Books, New York, 1996, pp. 55-56.