Male Puppies Let Females Win on Purpose

When a girl wins against a boy it is usually a feat to brag about. But not so much if the boy is letting her win. When it comes to puppies this practice seems to be commonplace. What could be their motivation?

Playing with other pups in the pack is one way that puppies learn vital social skills they will carry with them through their adult years. In observation of their play, a new study has found a common practice among the males that may not have been noted before. Young males will often let the females win, even when the males have a physical advantage.

Male dogs were observed intentionally placing themselves into more vulnerable positions, leaving them open to attack. As researchers grappled for an explanation for this behavior, they suspected that the opportunity to play may be more important to these pups than winning.

This sort of self-handicapping behavior has been noted among red-necked wallabies, squirrel monkeys, hamadryas baboons and even humans, who seem to take on this defensive positioning with younger playmates in particular.

As a sign of honor and good sport perhaps, the gracious young pups are seen performing a playful bow as well. “We found that self-handicapping tends to occur in conjunction with play bows,” reported lead author Camille Ward.

“A play bow is a signal that dogs use when they want to communicate playful intentions to a potential play partner,” added Ward, a lecturer in the Department of Psychology at the University of Michigan and director of About Dogs LLC.

The study involved puppies from four dog breeds: a shepherd mix, Labrador retriever, Doberman pincher and malamute. The data included puppies from 3 to 40 weeks of age. How the puppies played with members of their own sex as well as with the opposite sex was noted.

The researchers theorized why females were more likely than males to initiate play with their own sex, “Because adult female-female aggression when it occurs, can generally be more intense than female-male aggression, we suggest that females may use play with other females as one way to practice threat and appeasement signals that may serve to ritualize aggression and limit overt aggression later on,” said Ward, whose findings are published in Animal Behavior.

The male puppies, however, were more likely to initiate play with females than other males as well as to make themselves vulnerable in order to keep the play going. One way is by licking the muzzles of their opponents, giving the female a chance to bite them. They would even seemingly give up at times by completely dropping to the ground from a standing or sitting position.

The researchers speculated what could be motivating the male pups to behavior this way, “We know that in feral dog populations, female mate choice plays a role in male mating success,” said Ward. “Perhaps males use self-handicapping with females in order to learn more about them and to form close relationships with them — relationships that might later help males to secure future mating opportunities.”

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