Its not really a dog eat dog world out there, at least among puppies. Puppies play fight a lot, but it is not always about testing their strength. According to a research published in the scientific journal of animal behavior (“Partner preferences and asymmetries in social play among domestic dog, Canis lupus familiaris, littermates, by Dr Camille Ward, Erika B. Bauer & Barbara B. Smuts”), male puppies often decrease their toughness when playing with their female counterparts, even to an extent of intentionally putting themselves in unfavourable postures (e.g. self-takedown) that exposed them to attacks.
During such a self-handicapped play-fight, male puppies may lick the muzzles of the female opponents, offering a chance to bite, or they would completely drop to the ground from a standing position to egg on their opponent. Eventually the male will often let the female win, despite his physical advantage, just to encourage the her to play more. It is suggested that this provides opportunities for male puppies to learn more about their female counterparts’ behavior and gain competence in interactions with them, translating to greater reproductive success later in life. Researchers believe that playtime may be more important than winning for puppies in these instances.
Such play usually starts with a play bow which signals playful intentions to a potential partner. Because social play between dogs often includes manoeuvres used in predatory and offensive contexts, play signals have evolved to help animals indicate they want to play, and the their following behaviours though mimics those of offensive contexts, remain playful in nature. This makes it less likely for a session of play to escalate into a real fight.
In the study, the researchers studied puppy litters from 4 breeds, namely; a Shepherd mix, Labrador Retriever, Doberman Pincer and the Malamute. Observations were made when these pups’ played with their littermates between the age of 3 and 40 weeks old. Data of how they played with same sex and opposite sex puppies were captured across 3 time periods that coincided with the socialisation period, the late socialisation and early juvenile period, and the later juvenile period.
The study also suggests that play may serve as training for intrasexual competition between same-sex littermates. It revealed that female puppies are more likely to initiate play with members of their own sex, and male puppies are more likely to do the same in the later juvenile period, suggesting that these plays allow them to practice threat and appeasement signals that ritualize aggression and limit overt aggression later on in life.
So, next time you break up a play fight just because it looks one sided, just remember that your dog may be learning some life lessons, or trying to prolong the playtime.