Play is governed by an essential emotional circuit in the mammalian brain. Play circuits may also exist in other animal classes, such as birds and reptiles, but that is still yet to be proven. The impulse to play is inborn and has many theoretical purposes for survival. What does that have to do with your dog? Read on.
Since there is an energy cost, and risk of harm, to play it is assumed that play provides a competitive fitness survival benefit. A general theory of play describes a joyful self-handicapping activity without any immediate goal, comprised of stereotyped behaviors, which facilitates and helps develop and maintain emotional, cooperative social, and cognitive skills; information sharing; and motor fitness to prepare for the future. Play is observed in three general categories: locomotor, object and social. And as a rule, juveniles tend to play more frequently than adults.
Environmental enrichment involves stimulating both play and exploratory behaviors, as well as sensory experiences. However, when using environmental enrichment with dogs, some people make the mistake of assuming that exploratory behaviors are the same as play. They aren’t. Exploratory behaviors will precede play, however, as an indicator of whether and when the dog is ready to play. Put a typical dog in a new environment, and all else being equal, they will first explore and familiarize themselves with an area before playing. What if the dog senses it is in the territory of a strange dog? Then the urge to play will be depressed until that is sorted out. If there are other people or animals there, then the accomplishment of safe greetings will be a priority over play.
I think all that sounds important. So, if it is important, then we should probably pay particular attention to whether our dogs are set up to play appropriately, don’t you agree?
For the most part, dogs work out play among themselves, and with us, starting as soon as their little eyes open around 2 weeks of age and onwards. It starts out a lot looking like fighting, but the behaviors are laying a good foundation for the future. However, we also have a role in dog play. Our primary goal is to facilitate polite and fair play between ourselves and other dogs. There are justifiable times when we should interject ourselves into the play situation if dogs are being impolite, too rough, displaying concerning negative emotions, or being bullies. In addition, we should begin play with our dogs from the first day they come home to transfer all those behaviors learned in the litter to play with us and others.
I’ve seen many dogs who were stunted in their ability to play because no one, and no other dogs, politely played with them as puppies. When I see a healthy adult dog that can’t play, that is a sign something went wrong, and the dog probably has behavioral or medical issues of some sort.
Dogs which were previously isolated as puppies, and stressed dogs, are less likely to play. This is where we must set the stage to see if we can draw play out of the dog. You start first on familiar and safe ground, often in the home. I’ve seen many fearful dogs that wouldn’t play at all unless they were alone or alone with a favored person in the home. if the dog doesn’t have a good, warm social relationship with someone, then that is the second part of this. A playless dog can only feel the confidence to possibly try to play if someone can gain their trust and affection. From there, as play develops, a range of other emotions and behaviors can be experience and processed by the dog.
Play often simulates fighting, and novice dog owners can become concerned when they aren’t sure what they are observing. I highly recommend watching dogs play so you get familiar with what it is supposed to look like. It is easier to see it than to try and decipher it from an article or a video. Go sit outside an off-leash park, for example, for a couple hours a day for a week. Note the playful dogs, that there is often noise and chasing but no one gets hurt, the biting isn’t hard, the dogs look happy, and when a dog decides it has had enough it is able to walk away. Often, you’ll also see scuffles that must be broken up by the owners. Pay attention to the dogs that get in these scuffles, or fights, so you can learn to see warning signs. There is no substitution for observation, and even taking notes. I’m NOT saying you should put your dog into an off-leash park and see what happens, however. That could be a formula for disaster. There are some dogs suited for off leash parks, and some who should never be there at all. Also get a read on the people who own dogs that fight, because you’ll develop a behavioral profile for them, as well. Also, when playing with a dog, I don’t want them to be excessively hungry since that can stimulate the play into predatory or fighting behavioral patterns. We all know how we feel when we are “hangry”. I also don’t play with a dog that has a full stomach since there are medical risks that aren’t worth taking.
I try to stimulate the three types of play in all dogs. locomotor, object and social. For locomotor play, I engage in a fun game of Tag. Dogs will naturally play this kind of Tag game with one another, so if I can arrange play sessions with well socialized dogs, I am hoping the subject dog gets stimulated to engage. I believe that “doggie racetrack”, where puppies go zooming around the house, are a form of self-locomotor play bouts. I don’t discourage it; I just open the back door so the dog can do it around the yard to not slide into a wall or jump off a piece of furniture and get seriously injured. Locomotor play between dogs often results in roughhouse play, which is generally a good thing. For object play, there are a wide range of fetch and tug toys, including those that squeak, which are good to use. All object play starts with exploratory manipulation of objects, and then learning how to play with them. However, I don’t believe that puzzles and chew objects are true object play toys, but instead are engaging in a dogs exploratory or feeding behaviors. Lastly, social play involves locomotor and object play, but involves species specific rules. Well socialized dogs invite and engage other dogs in appropriate social play and help teach social rules, such as bite inhibition, play cut-off signals, play invitations, and learning and interpretation of various body postures and vocalizations. With humans, many of these same lessons are taught, such as and including prediction of human intentions, teaching dogs to take and give up objects and locations, drive capping, acceptance of touch and handling, starting, and stopping play, engagement in fetch and tug games, and facilitating the learning of all the basic commands. Dogs also need to learn to engage with other dogs and people when highly aroused. Dogs that are only taught to do things when calm can’t then translate those abilities when they are in full drive, aroused and very active. Many dogs are punished for having too much fun because their owners are the “fun police”, and thus the dogs can’t be managed when they do get free of the owner’s physical control. That is totally unfair to the dog. I’ve seen dogs that became alarmed when the play became a lot of fun, immediately becoming inhibited, tails tucked, and shutting down. That’s abnormal.
Sometimes, however, what appears to be play isn’t play. Some dogs engage in what I call pseudo-play, engaging another dog into play but the outcome is a full-blown fight instigated by the first dog. I’m always on the lookout for when play isn’t play. A key observation is whether the dogs are retaliating against one another, if the biting is too hard, and if the pursuing dog will respect the other dog’s signals that they want a break. This type of pseudo-play sometimes begins during adolescence. So, the age of the participants is relevant. True play involves self-handicapping so that the stronger doesn’t harm the weaker.
As I work with any dog, I work to incorporate play. The dog’s ability to play acts both as a guide of how the dog is doing, and a way forward towards normal mannerly behavior. I believe play is essential to having a mentally and physically healthy dog. There are also a variety of toys and tricks I use to stimulate dogs into playing since not all dogs want to chase a tennis ball all day. This article just gives a glimpse of ideas I incorporate into the training; however, specifics would require a much longer post.