Male puppies often place themselves in probably disadvantageous positions that could make them more vulnerable to attack, and researchers suppose the chance to play may be more important to them than winning.
Such self-handicapping has been documented before in red-necked wallabies, squirrel monkeys, hamadryas baboons and even humans, all of which frequently take on defensive ositions when playing with youngsters, in particular.
Ward and her colleagues studied puppy litters from four dog breeds: a shepherd mix, Labrador retriever, Doberman pincher and malamute. Play data was collected when the pups were between three and 40 weeks old. The scientists examined how the puppies played with members of their own sex as well as with the opposite sex.
Females were more likely than males to initiate play with their own sex, but that may be to stave off more vicious behavior later.
“Because adult female-female violence, when it develops, can generally be more extreme than female-male aggression, we suggest that females may use play with other females as one way to exercise danger and appeasement signals that may serve to ritualize anger and limit overt aggression later on,” said Ward, whose findings are published in this month’s Animal Behavior.
While males were less likely to start play with other males, they seemed eager to play with females, and would go to all sorts of plans to keep the play going.
The male puppies, for example, would occasionally lick the muzzles of their opponents, giving the female a chance to bite them in a vulnerable location. They would also even completely drop to the ground from a moving, standing or sitting position, looking like a boxer down for the count.
They might lose the game in the short run, but they could win at love in the future. It appears that adult dogs who know each other well do this more often, even with members of the same sex. Dogs also may be less obsessed with winning than primates are.