Dogs, Play, and the Audience Effect



Photo by Steve Dahlgren

Dogs play more together when being watched, a research result I’ve been fascinated by since it came out in 2021. Maggie, playing with Skip in the photo above, is the poster child for this phenomenon. She’ll stop, look at me, pointedly. Why? We all know I’m just guessing, but I get the distinct impression that she loves my attention. But is that it? And, is it just Maggie? First, the study:

Researchers Merkham and Wynne set up three conditions for familiar dogs to play together in: The dogs played together when owners were watching attentively, were present but not watching, and were not present at all. The dogs played significantly more often in the first condition, evidence of the “audience effect.” Karen London wrote a great summary of this study in Bark magazine, reminding us that other studies have found dogs and wolves play more when humans are present, but hadn’t accounted for the “attention” factor.

This study, done by the way-cool Canine Science Collaboratory at ASU, went out of its way to have two conditions with owners present: one in which owners were distracted and not paying attention to the dogs (I see you, dog park owner), and another in which owners watched the dogs play with interest.  As stated earlier, owner attention significantly increased the amount of play seen in the dogs.

There are many reasons why this could be true. Perhaps the most likely is that attention itself is a reinforcement. I find myself thinking of all the times I’ve heard “Mommy! Look at me!” from some adorable child at the playground or a friend’s living room. Granted, we all are on guard against anthropomorphising inappropriately, but we also lose a lot by assuming, as was often done in the past, that if humans do it, we should assume that animals can’t. Given the social, cognitive, and emotional abilities of dogs, it seems a likely reason for the “audience” effect.

The authors mention attention as a reinforcement along with other possible explanations–increased physiological arousal from attention (possibly congruent with reinforcement I’d argue), other kinds of reinforcements (owner joins in, or takes dogs on a walk afterward), or–and I like this one too–the attention of owners provides a sense of safety.

All of these could work together to reinforce an increase in play between dogs. There’s no question that I’ve intentionally reinforced play between Maggie and Skip. Their play sessions provide a great deal of their exercise. We live on a beautiful piece of land in the country, but you can walk all around it in 20 minutes, and just walking and sniffing is not enough to keep working sheepdogs fit. That’s part of why we encourage them to play, by clapping and shushing to keep them engaged. Mostly they play tug, which is great all-body exercise in some ways, and also hard on their necks. That’s why we have a monthly veterinary chiropractor appointment, which I think has done wonders for them.

There’s another reason that I encourage it. I love to watch dogs play. Love, love, love it. When one dog can’t play because of injury or illness, I miss it greatly. One of the reasons my medical adventures and Chronic Fatigue have been hard for me is that Jim does most of the dog walking now, so that I have energy to work them on sheep once a day.

I’m sure I’m a factor in Maggie’s tendency to look toward me sometimes during play. (Note: Skip never does, it’s just Maggie.) That gets me wondering about all of you in the village. I’m curious about your experience. If you are in situations in which you watch two familiar dogs play together, do you think they play more if you are paying attention? One dog and not another? If so, are both you and your dogs getting reinforced when you watch? Can’t wait to hear what you have so say.

 I can’t end this without making my pitch for letting dogs PLAY PLAY PLAY. Not to mention you too! It’s such an important part of the lives of both people and dogs. As Karen London and I say in the booklet, Play Together, Stay Together, “Play is fun, but don’t be fooled into thinking it’s just goofy or frivolous. Play is powerful stuff, and it has a profound influence on your relationship with your dog.” Turns out that’s true, even if the play is between two dogs and you’re “just” a spectator.


MEANWHILE, back on the farm: I ran Skip in the Crook and Whistle sheepdog trial last Friday, and things didn’t go as hoped. In his first run, Skip alternated between not being himself, or being the worst version of it. He did an okay outrun, but then stalled out behind the sheep and didn’t “lift” them up for an endless minute and a half, while I uselessly whistled and encouraged. Then, he behaved as if I wasn’t there, followed the sheep hither and yon, and orbited around the sheep so far away that he had no control. I finally left the post to put an end to our misery but had a heck of a time getting his attention.

I have no idea what was going on, but this is the dog who won “high in trial” at the last trial. I considered not running a second time, but decided to give it a go and just retire the moment things went south. This time he listened perfectly, did lovely “outwork,”–great outrun, “best lift of the day,” someone said (though a tad slow still), excellent fetch. But then he stalled out on the drive and I left the post to back him up and help him out. He picked up the pace and finished well, but, of course, we got RT for a score.

Some of the issues happen on occasion, especially “stalling out,” or lying down and not pushing the sheep forward. Skip, the star of the “Suicide by Fence” series, because he runs into things like a train with no regard to personal safety, is Mr. Caution when it comes to working sheep when he’s not sure what to do. But, totally ignoring me is inconsistent. Compliance is his middle name. His behavior got me thinking again about sensory issues related to his vision and hearing. He’s never run at this trial, and it’s a confusing one for lots of dogs. It’s full of distractions, both visual and acoustic, especially from the highway that runs behind it. When I took Skip out on the field and asked him to look for sheep, he kept following white vehicles as they moved across an overpass in the background. I’m thinking of having some tests done, I’ll keep you posted. (And, of course, the next time I worked him in a big field he was paw perfect.)

What was most fun at the trial was seeing friends, watching their runs, and spending time at the Sheep & Wool Festival in Jefferson that the trial is a part of. You all know how much I love color if you read my posts often, so you know I loved looking at all the wool for sale:

I didn’t expect to see lots of bright colors in the sheep pens, but here you are:

Nor did I expect Jane Fonda leg warmers on some of the sheep, but they were all over the place. (Protecting the fuzzy wool at the end of the leg that isn’t shorn. Any sheep showers reading this who can tell us why this one part isn’t shorn?)

News at 11!!!  I walked a mile one morning last week. A MILE! That’s a huge accomplishment since the beginning of my medical adventures. We walked up one of the hills at Morton Park, where Jim used to do the mowing, and let the dogs off leash for a photo shoot. I swear I didn’t pose them.

After we came home, I discovered 5 Monarchs feeding on our New England Asters (native to WI, in spite of their name). I haven’t seen as many butterflies as usual this summer, so this was a welcome treat. The one below is a female (no small black spot on the underwing), and on her way to Mexico from somewhere up north. Good luck, you beautiful thing, you only have about 2,o00 miles to go to get to your  overwintering area. Miraculous.

Last one: One of my too wonderful nieces, Annie Piatt came for a short visit on her way to a conference this weekend. It was pretty much heaven to see her. Here we all are; I had to use this photo because of the one in the background! Look familiar?

Let us know what you think about the “audience effect,” and if you see it in your dogs. Meanwhile, spend some time playing this week, it’s good for us!