Owner attention facilitates social play in dog–dog dyads (Canis lupus familiaris): evidence for an interspecific audience effect

Abstract

Domestic dogs are a highly playful species that are evidently sensitive to the attentional state of conspecifics as well as humans. Given that an animal’s social environment can influence play, audience effects may catalyze social play. While prior research has shown that intraspecific attention maintains social play in dog–dog dyads, it is unknown whether interspecific (specifically, human) attention maintains social play between dogs. Our objective in the present study was to examine whether a relationship exists between the availability of human attention and social play in domestic dogs. Familiar dog–dog dyads were exposed to three sessions each consisting of three experimental conditions that differed in the degree of availability of owner attention. Observed levels of social play were significantly higher during conditions in which an attentive owner was present than during conditions in which an owner was either inattentive or absent. Furthermore, this effect was maintained across repeated sessions. This is the first experimental evidence of an interspecific audience effect facilitating social play in domestic dogs. The availability of caretaker attention may be a proximate explanation for social play in canids that have ontogenetically rich histories with humans and also retain neotonized behavior as adults. Further research is needed to clarify the mechanisms contributing to the relationship between interspecific attention and social play in these populations and establish a more comprehensive understanding of play behavior in animals.

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Availability of data and material (data transparency)

The data used for this study are available from the corresponding author on request.

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Acknowledgements

We would like to thank Dr. David Darmon for his expert and generous help with the statistical analyses for the present study. We would also like to acknowledge Lindsey Wellmaker and Ashley LiCausi for assistance with data coding, as well as three anonymous reviewers for their constructive feedback on an earlier version of this manuscript. Finally, we are grateful to the owners who volunteered their dogs for this study and thank them for their role in making this study possible.

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Owners were provided with a consent form explaining procedures with their dog before officially enrolling their dog in the study.

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Mehrkam, L.R., Wynne, C.D.L. Owner attention facilitates social play in dog–dog dyads (Canis lupus familiaris): evidence for an interspecific audience effect. Anim Cogn (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10071-021-01481-9

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Keywords

  • Social play
  • Domestic dogs
  • Human attention
  • Proximate cause