While most species gradually stop playing as they grow into adulthood, our beloved pooches never seem to stop playing no matter how old they are. My 10 year old German Shepherd, Nala, still reacts like a puppy when an opportunity for play presents itself and no bad whether will deter her from chasing a tennis ball! In a recent article, Bradshaw & al. (2015) expose the different types of play in dogs and ask the question: “Why do adult dogs play?”
It was often thought that playing had learning benefits to the young animals, providing them with opportunities to practice their hunting skills. But playing isn’t without serious downfalls to the animals. First off, all that activity, those wild romps, tumbles and chases, will trigger an increase in calories with as a result: a need for more food. In the wild, playing might also draw attention of other animals, exposing the contenders to higher chances of being on the menu of a lucky predator. Finally, with higher speed, leaps, bounces and wrestles, the risk for injury also goes up. So with such potential for problems, there must have been outweighing benefits for evolution to keep around such chaotic behavior.
In other species, where playing has been seen in adult animals, play seems to be mostly related to sexual behavior, allowing potential mates to get more familiar with one another and develop trust. In dogs however, playing seems to serve a much broader function as they have many different forms of play displayed in all sorts of different contexts. Dogs take pleasure in various forms of play, from solitary games to playing with a partner, human or dog: the ultimate source of fun!
So let’s look at the different types of play that our canine friends enjoy:
- Solitary play with objects. When dogs play alone, they’ll prefer noisy, friable toys. It’s even better if they can move unpredictably, just like prey. How fun it is to pounce, grab, shake and tear! The only condition to this type of game: the toys have to be new to be interesting. Studies have confirmed what we had already suspected. Dogs can quickly get bored of the same old toys lying around (Kaulfuß 2008; Pullen & al., 2012). Once they get used to a toy, it loses its value and it really doesn’t matter how much money we’ve invested to buy it. For the dog it’s a constant “gone with the old, in with the new!” Fortunately, there are inexpensive ways to recycle Fido’s toys and keep the interest up. Rotating the toys for instance, always keeping certain toys out of sight for a while, is a great way to prevent the dog from habituating to them.
When the toys are filled with food however, the motivation to interact with them doesn’t wear off like it does for rubber toys. Not only do such toys stay fun, they have also been shown to reduce self-mutilation and stress-related behaviors (Gaines & al., 2008). For enrichment ideas, you can refer to the following post: Enrichment – 8 easy ways to increase your dog’s quality of life.
- Social play with objects. Even when a toy has lost all interesting properties, all it takes is for another person or dog to start playing with it to redeem it. Studies have also shown that the same object held by a person is more interesting than if held by a mechanical device (Rooney, 2004). So it’s not about the movement of the object alone, it’s in the interaction with another person that the object suddenly becomes highly desirable. We know how much dogs love a game of fetch or ‘tug-of-war” where both players pull on the same object, pretending to want it for themselves. For a long time it was thought that playing “tug-of-war” with a dog might encourage him/her to become dominant or aggressive so many owners still stay away from such games. Research however has found no evidence of this and dogs that are allowed to win “tug-of-war” games or other competitive games don’t show any change in behavior and certainly no increase in so called dominant displays (standing over the owner, high stance and tail position) (Rooney & Bradshaw, 2003; Toth & al., 2008). In fact, playing this way with our dog is actually beneficial has been shown to increase their attentiveness and compliance in training.
- Social play without objects. Play-fighting interrupted with bouts of chasing each other is one of the best ways for dogs to have a good time. Before they start this type of game, the dogs will generally display play-signals such as a play-bow, indicating that anything that follows is just for fun. This type of play can happen between dogs that have never met before. Between play buddies however, there seems to be established rules that develop overtime, such as self- handicapping, when an animal purposely inhibits their speed or strength to match that of their partner. When dogs have played together before, they tend to sustain the play for longer periods of time than with strange dogs.
Dogs can play with people in similar ways. We imitate their play-bow and pounce towards them before taking off running, in an exaggerated approach/withdrawal. Sometimes we’ll pat the floor, clap our hands, shove or tap the dog to get them to play with us. But of all the strategies that we use, bowing and lunging have proven to be the most successful at increasing playful behavior in the dog (Rooney & al., 2000).
Since these different types of play have different underlying motivations and happen under difference conditions, they are likely to have been affected differently by evolutionary pressures (Bradshaw & al., 2015). We can assume that some of the solitary play come from the selection of certain hunting behaviors. Similarly, it’s possible that in our selection of mating dogs, we have picked the animals that were more likely to get along with other dogs. It’s also probable that we have favored those with which we bonded the most. As we know, play contributes to the development of our attachment to others (Tuber, 2008). Playfulness in dogs is fun, cute and amusing to us. When dogs show playful behaviors, they also appear friendlier so breeding juvenile characteristics, creating neotenic breeds, could have helped in making dogs more useful, more manageable but also more appealing to us.
When dogs play, it’s a sign that they are relaxed and feeling good. Play generally happens when conditions are optimum. For good reasons, play has been successfully used as a reward in the training of working dogs. Overall, owners who play the most with their dogs also tend to score higher for obedience to basic commands (Rooney & Cowan, 2011). When dogs and humans are having fun together, positive changes happen in their brains: oxytocin, prolactin, beta-phenylethylamine and dopamine are released in both participants. So the more we play with our dog, the more we feel good, the more they feel good and vice versa…
Jennifer Cattet Ph.D.