Dogs’ playtime can look very simple from the outside - a bouncy, sometimes crazy, completely uninhibited interaction of pure and simple happiness. In actual fact, they are often carefully, consciously self-assessing and regulating these encounters. Play time for dogs promotes social cohesion between them, it helps them to learn to cooperate in and as a group, and is about building social relationships with both other dogs and humans.
The practice of “self-handicapping” is an extremely interesting play device, defined as when ‘a stronger, faster, more skilled dog self inhibits their speed, strength and even play style so that they can better match the abilities of their play partner.’ This behaviour is displayed in order to give the other dog in the encounter a purposeful advantage and to encourage a less confident or weaker play mate. It’s a device which humans also employ, minimising their own strength or abilities to make another feel more comfortable or confident in an interaction, such as an adult allowing a child to win during play.
Self-handicapping can include making themselves appear smaller, submissive movements, lying down, rolling over, withholding their full strength and energy, and even handing over toys to the other pup. This seeming diminishing of power and strength acts to encourage the other party in the encounter, to put them at ease and reassure them that the exchange is an entirely friendly one.
Though it seems unusual and almost unnatural in a play scenario, a dog who displays these self-handicapping techniques is in fact demonstrating an enormous amount of self-control, restraint and awareness. They have recognised that they are the stronger contender in the exchange and have adjusted accordingly to monitor and temper the interaction, minimising risk of injury, frightening or intimidating their playmate, all the while maximising the chances of playtime continuing.
Seen between pups and older dogs, adult dogs, and dogs with other animals and humans (particularly children), those who employ the self-handicapping device act as fantastic role models to younger and/or less confident pups, showing them the ropes of playtime, while keeping things under control and at a pace the playmate can handle.
Self-handicapping is a sign of a very well socialised dog, and we observe it regularly at K9 Anytime Doggy Daycare. When a new pup joins the group and is finding their feet, we watch some of our seasoned K9 Anytimers step in to include them in playtime, to confirm to them that this is all great fun and to encourage them to join the group, handicapping themselves to avoid intimidating or overwhelming with overexcitement or confidence. It’s our K9 Anytimers’ way of offering an open-pawed welcome to newcomers and keeping the less confident pups mixing in with playtime. By ‘deliberately relaxing control over their movements or actively putting themselves into disadvantageous positions and situations,’ our K9 Anytimers encourage, support and bring other pups out of their shells, and we've witnessed many dogs at our Daycare benefit as a result.
Find out more at the links below:
Play and Self-Handicapping
Mammalian Play: Training for the Unexpected
Role Reversal and Self Handicapping in Play
Why Do Dogs Play?