At play


A fun article in the Washington Post on dogs at play, and the hidden (to us) language they use to communicate their intentions.

… canines “role-reverse” or “self-handicap” during play. When a big dog played with a smaller one, for example, the big dog often rolled on her back to give the smaller dog an advantage, and she allowed the other dog to jump on her far more often than she jumped on him.

I don’t know why that’s so appealing an idea, the “self-handicap.”  We take Harper to the dog park a lot, and it’s interesting to see how the dogs play (or fight, or play/fight) with each other.  Some crazy social dynamics going on there.  For the most part Harper, as a Basset/Lab mix, is simultaneously the shortest and the loudest of all the dogs.  But he always goes after the biggest dog as his potential playmate.  With admittedly mixed results.  But I like the idea that play is a pretty serious business for dogs, and the self-handicap idea (if it’s true) means that dogs instinctively want it to be fun and rewarding for both/all of them.  Clearly I can kill you in a heartbeat.  So let’s pretend we’re evenly matched.

The article also covers how dogs in a group will ostracize another dog who isn’t playing by the rules.  Question is whether this implies dogs can be assholes, and will punish any other dog who seems even remotely different?  Or another way of looking at it: dogs don’t let other dogs become assholes.  If you’re bullying another dog, or just being unkind somehow, you’ll fall out of favor.  As if kindness, and playfulness, have more of an evolutionary advantage than being an “alpha” dog.

Which would be a pretty amazing idea…

About the author

Tom Howard

Tom Howard is the author of Fierce Pretty Things (Indiana University Press, 2019).

He received his MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Fierce Pretty Things won the 2018 Blue Light Books Fiction Prize, and his individual stories have won the Ninth Letter Literary Award in Fiction, the Indiana Review Fiction Prize, the Robert and Adele Schiff Award for Fiction, the Carve Magazine Prose & Poetry Contest, the Tobias Wolff Award in Fiction, the Innovative Short Fiction Prize, the Willow Springs Ficiton Prize, the Rash Award in Fiction, and the Robert J. DeMott Award for Short Prose.

He lives with his wife in Arlington, Virginia.

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