What Does It Mean When A Dog Bows?

What Does It Mean When A Dog Bows?

Dog Playfully Bows In Field

Pet parents often ask me, “Why does my dog bow?” The answer is more complicated than you might think, as it often is with our wonderfully complex canine companions.

Dog bows are building blocks of dog communication and also serve as a physiological function for stretching — but the reason behind each bow depends on when the dog engages in the behavior. Let’s talk about this unique form of stretching first!

 - What does a dog bow mean?

Dog bowing is most commonly expressed with what we refer to as the ‘play bow’. This common posture serves as a cornerstone of dog communication. Most often, it functions as an expression of "let's play!” Or it can signal an apologetic tone, such as, "Oops, I didn't mean to bite so hard. I wasn't trying to hurt you. Let's keep playing!”

With a play bow, social hierarchy is not a factor. Dominant dogs can offer play bows to lower-ranked dogs and vice versa. When two dogs meet for the first time, they may initiate interaction with play bows as a way of making friends. Sometimes as part of the mating ritual, canines will initially assume the play-bow position to communicate amorous intent. Even if you don’t know exactly what your dog is attempting to communicate, the context of the behavior can help clue you in.

If dogs are not properly socialized, they may not know how to respond to another dog’s play-bow invitation. Rather than responding in-kind, they may feel threatened and growl fearfully. If you witness any fearful or aggressive reactions, I recommend working with a professional dog trainer.

If your dog invites you to play with a bow, accept the invitation! Chances are that you’ll boost her well-being, as well as yours, by simply engaging in purposeful play for only five minutes. It’s a great way to bond with your furry friend (and reason to offer them a few delicious dog treats!) 

- Why do dogs (and other animals) bow at all?

Pandiculation is a brain-reflex-action pattern in which many animals engage. The word originates from the Latin ‘pandere’, which means "to spread out" or "stretch oneself".

Next time your dog gets up from rest, watch what he does. Most often, he’ll put his front paws out and lengthen his back as he relaxes his belly. Then he may pandiculate in reverse, by contracting the anterior muscles into a flexed posture. This “wakes up” the muscular system, particularly the rear extensor muscles responsible for running. In a very real sense, this motion activates the connection between the brain and the muscles.

Stretching and yawning upon awakening is one healthy habit that we could relearn from our companion animals. As children, we instinctively do this, but many of us lose the habit.

Remember when you used to stretch? You'd wake up, gently tighten your arms and legs, feel a yawn coming on. Then, you’d reach your arms above your head, then reach down to one leg and then the other. You would first contract your muscles, then lengthen them, followed by complete relaxation. Try it some morning … you might be surprised at how good it’ll make you feel!

Thank you for all you do to make the world a better place for companion animals,

Dr Jane Bicks  Dr. Jane Bicks

Comments (7) -

  • Jerry

    3/27/2014 5:09:41 AM |

    Thanks for this info, Dr. Jane. I had no idea what the 'dog bow' was all about. Now I understand my lab's play invitations.

  • JoAnne

    3/27/2014 5:14:55 AM |

    Love knowing more on the background on this movement.  Love watching all the dogs in the morning doing their little stretch, even my 3# Chihuahua.  

  • Marie Wolters

    4/4/2014 4:14:22 AM |

    Love watching my two Labs doing the stretch before the big play.  It's so cute to watch.

  • Laura

    4/19/2014 1:39:22 AM |

    This is very interesting and thank you for the enlightening information. My 6-month-old dobie female bows to everyone and every dog she comes in contact with. Her most frequent bows are for little breeds such as yorkies and shih tzu's whom she loves to play with but has to be so careful because of her size. Love watching this!


  • Pam Johnson

    12/28/2016 3:49:02 PM |

    Is the bow the only stretch that dogs do that is a pandiculation stretch?   My dog used to be really great at bowing but had herniated disc surgery and is recovering.  He is starting to walk well, trot and tries to gallop, however he can't seem to bow.  I have. When working on 1/2 bows where he goes into a bow a little and then have him stand again...  By working on his bow, will this help the muscles he needs in order to run again?

    Thank you for your article and thank you for your insight into my particular situation with my dog Twix.  

    Have a great day!

  • Ann

    11/11/2017 5:09:12 PM |

    I have a good friend that has a chi with pancreatitis and this chi does that bow thing when he has a bout with it because of pain.

  • Mary

    10/8/2022 7:14:38 PM |

    I’m teaching my dog to shake bells that I have over the doorknob when he needs to go outside. He goes to the door and lays there, when I tell him to shake the bells, he bows down. He will shake them after a few commands to tell him to do so.

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