Why Do Dogs Play Dead



Is there anything cuter than a well-trained dog performing tricks? Shaking hands, rolling over, playing dead, standing on rear legs… whatever the trick. So long as it is well-done (or even if it’s not well done) and the dog is trying hard, looks cute, and displays a willingness to perform the trick, it shows off a good relationship between the dog and her person. There obviously must be a lot of trust and affection between the two for a dog to willingly do something so unnatural.

Dog tricks are fun to watch, they are rewarding to learn, and they are great to show off. They develop the relationship between a dog and her owner. They also provide the dog with mental and physical stimulation. But have you ever wondered how dogs started doing tricks in the first place?

The Root of the Behavior

What’s wonderful about dogs is their urge to please their people. Dogs are smart and have evolved over thousands of years to perform tricks to please their people. For instance, it didn’t take long for dogs to figure out that keeping watch over a human encampment - and announcing and chasing off other predators - was a good way to get extra meals and even some affection. 

Over time, we learned along with the dogs that rewarding certain behaviors results in more of the same. This is a concept known as “operant conditioning,” which was first described by psychologist B. F. Skinner in the first half of the 20th century. Simply put, operant conditioning means that desired behaviors can be reinforced with positive rewards and unwanted behaviors can be discouraged with negative rewards. Dog training started out as a simple method of rewarding animals for doing things that were useful to people. These rewards started out as food and shelter and then began to include affection. An argument can be made that dogs also trained people at the same time, by doing tasks that humans desired in exchange for rewards. Regardless of exactly how it happened, the end result of all of this unintentional operant conditioning as of the early 21st century is dogs being ready to perform tasks and tricks for people. Another result is that people are usually ready to produce food and shelter for the completion of tasks. For our purposes, being adorable and affectionate is, in fact, a task.

Over time, and with the advancement of human knowledge, the tasks that dogs perform for people became less about necessity and more about pleasure. We still have working dogs, dogs that detect bombs and drugs, dogs that herd sheep, and dogs that help guide the blind. But the vast majority of dogs are more for pleasure than practicality. We need look no further than the shape and temperament of our dogs to confirm this fact. It’s hard to imagine, say, a Chihuahua acting as a guide dog, or a Chow Chow retrieving a duck.

Encouraging the Behavior

Much has been written about dog training, but most modern writing on the topic comes from the standpoint that positive reinforcement is the best way to train a dog. There once was a time when dog trainers paired negative reinforcement with positive reinforcement, but modern practice has shown that relying on positive reinforcement makes for the best relationship between an owner and a dog. 

Ultimately, dogs perform tricks and tasks for approval from their humans. Some may consider it debatable whether dogs truly love their humans, but what is not up for debate is the fact that dogs who see a reward for behavior will continue that behavior. Training a dog really boils down to finding an agreeable behavior in your dog and shaping that behavior with treats, praise and attention. Researchers have held that, on average, an adult dog is about as smart as a human toddler. Anyone who has spent time with a toddler knows that they live for attention. So it is with dogs. We have trained dogs to value attention from humans, and dogs have trained humans to value tasks and companionship offered by dogs. 

The work of B. F. Skinner was highly influenced by Ivan Pavlov, who accidentally found that dogs would salivate in anticipation of a meal and that a bell, before feeding, would evoke the same response. Ultimately, the sound of the bell alone caused the dogs to salivate in anticipation of a meal. Skinner’s theory of operant conditioning, that behavior changes in response to stimuli, is now used in modern dog training.

Other Solutions and Considerations

As stated above, negative reinforcement, the idea that undesirable behavior can be discouraged with punishment can also be used for operant conditioning, though it’s not used by reputable dog trainers today. There are some examples of negative reinforcement that have persisted. For instance, the idea that a dog who defecates or urinates in the house should have her nose rubbed in it is an example of negative reinforcement. Other examples would be yelling or physical punishment, such as kicking or hitting a dog. Negative reinforcement can get results in dog training, but the relationship between an owner and her dog suffers.


The relationship between dogs and people is long and complicated. Dog tricks are an illustration of the trust and communication between dogs and their people. Dogs will respond to negative reinforcement as well as positive, but put yourself in your dog’s place. Do you perform your best in hopes of a reward, or in fear of punishment?