Why Do Dogs Play Dead?

Dog playing dead on the lawn

Dogs possess many weird behaviors, but one of the strangest might be playing dead. We won’t blame you if you’ve wondered why dogs do this. It seems like it wouldn’t serve that much purpose. So why exactly do dogs play dead?

Well, the simple answer is because they are trained to do so. It might not come as a surprise, but playing dead isn’t something a wild canine does. In the same way, wild dogs don’t roll over on-demand or shake when a human asks them to. Playing dead is a trick dogs have been taught, not a natural behavior for them.

Of course, playing dead isn’t a behavior all dogs have been trained to do. For the ones that have been trained in such a way, why do they agree to the charade? Does it amuse them? Is it for treats or praise from their owner? This article will discuss the various possible reasons that your dog may choose to play dead.

Safety From a Threat

In the mind of a human, it seems pretty reasonable to play dead to protect oneself from perceived danger. Some animals do this even in the wild. However, it should be noted that dogs are not one of the animals that do this, at least not naturally. They can do it, but only under certain circumstances.

For one, playing dead is something a dog would have already had to learn to do. A human would have not only needed to teach them the trick, but the dog would also have had to determine somehow that playing dead might convince a danger or a nuisance to leave it alone.

A dog is much more likely to either bark at a perceived threat or simply run away from it. So while a dog might play dead as a reaction to such an outside stimulus, it is very unlikely. It’s not a natural response for a dog when faced with such a situation.

In Search of a Reward

Many dogs are taught to perform tricks to get a treat from their owner. The reward system is one of the most popular ways to teach a dog tricks, meaning that many dogs play dead because they have been taught to do so and have been conditioned to believe they will receive a treat afterward.

You can be almost sure that this is the reason your dog is playing dead if you used treats to teach them to play dead in the first place.

If you teach them that they are likely to receive a treat for a specific action, they are likely to perform that action even without any direction from you in hopes of receiving a treat. Who doesn’t like to get a tasty snack, after all? Dogs certainly do!

Looking for Praise or Attention

Not everyone uses treats to teach their dog new tricks, and in some cases, that’s not what a dog is even looking for. Because tricks are usually something taught to a dog by an owner, dogs will often come to associate tricks with attention from their owner, which is something that most dogs crave regularly.

Sometimes, a dog may perform a trick, such as playing dead, because it wants attention or praise. Depending on how needy your dog is, it may have nothing to do with whether or not you are paying enough attention to your dog: sometimes, even if you pay frequent attention to your dog, they want even more of it.

Of course, that doesn’t mean the opposite can’t be true. If you don’t pay enough attention to your dog and it simply feels lonely, it may perform tricks that have garnered your attention in the past, including playing dead. After all, if a dog has learned that doing a trick will get it noticed, it is likely to do so if it wants attention.

After all, we believe all dog owners know how much dogs love their attention. They want to be noticed, touched, played with, and more by their owners at nearly every waking hour of the day unless they are resting. Getting attention is such a big motivator for a dog to perform a trick, like playing dead.

Pleasing Their Owners

Another thing to note about dogs is that they like making their owners happy. With thousands of years of cultivation and relationship building between dogs and humans, dogs are very attuned to human emotions. They know when you are happy and when you are sad. And of course, they usually want you to be satisfied.

Considering that you probably reacted positively in the past when you taught your dog a new trick and they did it successfully, your dog likely believes that successfully pulling off a trick pleases you and will make you happy. This may be why your dog chooses to play dead if it is a trick you taught at some point.

It could be specifically because your dog acknowledges that you are sad. Many dogs can pick up on their owner’s sad feelings, and they often strive to make their owner feel better if at all possible. If they believe doing a trick will help facilitate that, they may go for it.

Of course, you don’t necessarily have to be sad for your dog to feel like making you happy. A dog usually wants you to be happy, even if you aren’t particularly sad. So they might just perform a trick like playing dead just because they want to see you smile. Dogs are just pure like that. That’s probably why humans love them so much!

Do Dogs Really Understand What They Are Doing?

Dogs probably don’t know that they are pretending to be deceased. Instead, they only know the very basics of what they are doing: ‘flop over, don’t move, and the human will be happy.’ This is how most dogs understand ‘tricks’ and why humans ask them to do them. 

They simply know that there is an action and reward relationship present.

Not that there is anything wrong with this, of course. The dog is still a willing participant in the exchange, especially since they are getting something they want out of it too. Maybe a treat or just attention from their owner. They may not fully understand the true meaning of ‘playing dead,’ but they enjoy doing it all the same.


So, why do dogs play dead? Well, it’s primarily because people have taught them how to do it. Many of us are aware that asking a dog that has not been trained to play dead will not result in success. After all, a dog that has not been trained to do this specific thing will have no idea what you are asking it to do.

As for why humans have trained dogs to do this, it is for no other reason than the fact that it amuses us, frankly. After all, there is no real benefit to a dog knowing how to pretend to play dead in the domesticated lifestyle in which they live. But there’s nothing wrong with doing stuff just for entertainment.

Regarding the dogs themselves, there are many reasons they comply with requests to perform tricks and whatnot. Usually, they do it because they know that it makes their owners happy or that it will get them a treat. Dogs react very well to positive reinforcement, so they like doing things that get them approval.

There is no secret reason that dogs play dead or perform any trick. In fact, if humans never taught them specifically how to do this, there is next to no chance that dogs would perform tricks on their own. That’s why humans are solely responsible for dogs playing dead or doing any trick.

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