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May 20, 2014

Barks and recreation: Cracking the canine code

SAN FRANCISCO — A shaggy brown terrier approaches a large chocolate Labrador in a city park. When the terrier gets close, he adopts a yogalike pose, crouching on his forepaws and hiking his butt into the air. The Lab gives an excited bark, and soon the two dogs are somersaulting and tugging on each other's ears. Then the terrier takes off and the Lab gives chase, his tail wagging wildly. When the two meet once more, the whole thing begins again.

Watch a couple of dogs play, and you'll probably see seemingly random gestures, lots of frenetic activity and a whole lot of energy being expended. But decades of research suggest that beneath this apparently frivolous fun lies a hidden language of honesty and deceit, empathy and perhaps even a humanlike morality.

Take those two dogs. That yogalike pose is known as a "play bow," and in the language of play it's one of the most commonly used phrases. It's an instigation and a clarification, a warning and an apology. Dogs often adopt this stance as an invitation to play right before they lunge at another dog; they also bow before they nip ("I'm going to bite you, but I'm just fooling around") or after some particularly aggressive roughhousing ("Sorry I knocked you over; I didn't mean it.").

All of this suggests that dogs have a kind of moral code — one long hidden to humans until a cognitive ethologist named Marc Bekoff began to crack it.

A wiry 68-year-old with reddish-gray hair tied back in a long ponytail, Bekoff is a professor emeritus at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where he taught for 32 years. He began studying animal behavior in the early 1970s, spending four years videotaping groups of dogs, wolves and coyotes in large enclosures and slowly playing back the tapes, jotting down every nip, yip and lick. "Twenty minutes of film could take a week to analyze," he says.

The data revealed insights into how the animals maintained their tight social bonds — by grooming each other, for example. But what changed Bekoff's life was watching them play. The wolves would chase each other, run, jump and roll over for seemingly no other reason than to have fun.

Few people had studied animal play, but Bekoff was intrigued. "Play is a major expenditure of energy, and it can be dangerous," he says. "You can twist a shoulder or break a leg, and it can increase your chances of being preyed upon. So why do they do it? It has to feel good."

Suddenly, Bekoff wasn't interested just in behavior; he was interested also in emotions and, fundamentally, what was going on inside these animals' heads.

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