Sure, your dog plays with other pooches to have some fun and let off a little steam. But what if their decisions on when and how to play is largely based on making you happy?
New research published by a Monmouth University scientist suggests our dogs base their playful behaviors on what they believe their owners expect of them.
Lindsay Mehrkam, the director of Monmouth’s Human and Animal Wellness Collaboratory, conducted the research as part of her dissertation. The study was published in February in the journal Animal Cognition.
“The goal of the study was whether or not owner attention could promote play between dogs,” Mehrkam said.
The experiment involved 10 pairs of dogs who lived together with their owners. Each pair was filmed during three separate, 15-minute-long play sessions. Those sessions were subdivided so that five minutes would have the owner be present, attentive and encouraging play, then five minutes with the owner not paying attention, and close with five minutes of the owner not being in the room.
“We saw that overall as a group, the dogs played more when the owners paid attention to them, which isn’t terribly surprising,” Mehrkam said. “The things that made it interesting was trying to figure out the why.”
One thing the study doesn’t do, according to Mehrkam, is definitively say that dogs are only playing with each other if they think it makes their owners happy.
“If you look back at the research on play, it’s pretty well regarded that dog-dog play is a self-rewarding behavior,” she said.
Still, the effect of an owner’s presence is undeniable.
“There’s something about our attention that seems to indicate ‘this is an appropriate time to play’ or that may enrich the environment,” Mehrkam said.
The new research lays the groundwork for further study of dog psychology. Mehrkam said her team is looking into long-standing questions about the relationships between dogs and their owners, and more contemporary questions posed by life under lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic — like if dogs can perceive a virtual audience, or if they’re made more anxious by an owner’s constant presence at home.