Friday, May 22, 2009

Dog Play Between Littermates Includes Self-Handicapping

Determining the success of dogs as guide dogs and as police patrol dogs has sometimes involved studies of puppy behavior in hopes of determining if certain characteristics (aggressiveness, dominance, calmness) are fixed at an early age, thereby avoiding spending time and resources on animals that will ultimately fail. Three researchers, two from the Psych Department at U. Michigan and one from the Smithsonian National Zoological Park in Washington, looked at videos of puppies in litters between 3 and 40 weeks of age to determine their patterns of play in pairs. Camille Ward, Erika B. Bauer, and Barbara B. Smuts, Partner Preferences and Asymmetries in Social Play Among Domestic Dog, Canis lupus familiaris, Littermates, 76(4) Animal Behaviour 1187-1199 (October 2008). Although this research was not concerned with such a practical application, it should be of interest to the dog training community since it says some very interesting things about the development of dominance and cooperative behaviors in dogs. The researchers disagreed with prior studies that had argued that for play to occur, both participants must win an equal proportion of play encounters, sometimes called the 50-50 rule. They found that play was more symmetrical between very young littermates but became less so as puppies matured. In male-female pairs, males initiated play more often than female partners. Females tended to initiate play with other females. Males self-handicapped (place themselves in disadvantaged or inferior positions) when playing with females more often than females self-handicapped with males. When playing with their own sex, male and female puppies self-handicapped at similar rates. The researchers say: “Perhaps playing with females provides opportunities for males to learn characteristics of female behavior and gain competence in interactions with them. If so, it could translate into greater male reproductive success later in life via female mate preferences.” During some periods of growth, puppies prefer to play with members of their same sex. The authors suggest that “play may serve as training for intrasexual competition between same-sex littermates.” Someone said that life is a high school. Apparently it’s true for dogs as well.

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