Dog play: what’s the purpose?

dog playing in snowWhile 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.

  • Dog playing with familySocial 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.

Dog playingDogs 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.

Bradshaw JW, Pullen AJ, Rooney NJ (2015) Why do Adult Dogs “Play”? Behav Processes;110:82-7

Gains, S.A., Rooney, N.J., Bradshaw, J.W.S., (2008) The effects of feeding enrichment upon reported working ability and behavior of kenneled working dogs. J. Forensic. Sci. 53, 1400-1404.

Kaulfuß P., Mills D.S., (2008) Neophilia in domestic dogs (canis familiaris) and its implication for studies of dog cognition. Anim.Cogn. 11, 553-556.

Pullen, A.J., Merrill, R.J.N., Bradshaw, J.W.S. (2012). Habituation and dishabituation during object play in kennel-housed dogs. Anim. Cogn. 15, 1143-1150.

Rooney, N.J., Bradshaw, J.W.S. (2003). Links between play and dominance and attachment dimensions of dog-human relationships. J. Appl. Anim. Welfare Sci. 6, 67-94

Rooney, N.J. (2004). A review of environmental enrichment for kenneled dogs, canis familiaris. Appl. Behav. Sci., 85 (3-4), 307-317.

Tóth, L., Gácsi, M. Topál, J., Miklósi, A. (2008). Playing styles and possible causative factors in dogs’ behaviour when playing with humans. Appl. Anim. Behav. Sci. 114, 473-484.


Jennifer Cattet Ph.D. has been working with dogs for over 30 years, as an ethologist with the University of Geneva (Switzerland), a trainer and a behaviorist (in both Europe and the US). As Director of Training for a service dog organization in the U.S, she supervised and taught offenders in the training of service dogs. Today she's the owner of Medical Mutts (, a company dedicated in the training of rescue dogs as service dogs for conditions such as diabetes, seizures, PTSD, autism, etc. She's also part of a research team working on understanding the ability of dogs to detect changes in blood glucose levels through scent. Jennifer also works with Smart Animal Training System on the promotion of reward based training and the development of technology to support it (

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Posted in Dog behavior, Dog/human relationship, Misc, Psychology
15 comments on “Dog play: what’s the purpose?
  1. Always interesting questions, but especially difficult in analysis due to domestication and selective breeding. Thank you for the tug-of-war comments, as after several decades many still avoid that, while it is one of the best ways to teach mouth control and manners to dogs who are biting people in play.

    Relating to play buddies and established rules they form, that certainly happens often but it’s also interesting to watch very socially skilled and playful dogs when they first meet others at the dog park. For familiar ones you can mostly predict their “play negotiation” that takes place, as they may quickly try a sequence of varying play techniques, watching how the other dog responds to each. What many pairs of dogs do slowly over days or weeks, these few manage sometimes in minutes, including self-handicapping where needed. And with nervous and unskilled dogs, you can see the same interact/recovery sequence used by adults to train older pups in adult play and deference.

    It’s hard to tell if the play-bow is the most common prompt, or just the most often recognized by people, as it is more distinctive than others, and many other play prompts can also appear very similiar to other purposes.

    In (Rooney, 2000) comparing dog-dog and -human play, they conclude they are structurally different, supporting the idea that they are motivationally distinct. While I can only access the abstract, doing this from a questionnaire sent to dog owners does form a distinct bias towards their conclusion. Some of their examples comparing play between other dogs and humans can also be seen between selected dogs alone. But this would be less likely to occur in the sampled multiple-dog households due to extended play negotiation between them, which is far more flexible between dogs than with people. That is, the dogs in play would have adjusted to each other with more flexibility than would the human. And there are also physical differences here, where they say a dog may present a toy more often to their human play partner, but the human is unlikely to extensively chase the dog in play, as another dog might, resulting in a structural difference for that reason alone, and not a motivational one.

    I agree that when dogs play, it is often a sign they are relaxed and feeling good. However, when humans are upset sone of them will turn to vigurous physical activity to releave stress. When my dog knows I am unhappy with his behavior, he really wants to run hard after a thrown ball for relief. Normally playful dogs who come into a play group when too stressed may have to be removed for a time, as they will play too hard and ignore signals from other dogs. So, to extend your statement, dogs may also play in order to feel better.

    • All great points! Thanks for sharing Gerry.

    • Michele says:

      Gerry…I think your comment that overly stressed dogs introduced into a playgroup may ignore play signals of other dogs. I have a pack of 4 German Shepherds, one of whom is a fearful rescue. I have always described her play as different than the others…almost frantic, darting and overly rough and not as give and take as the others. Perhaps this explains the situation, she’s not recognizing the signals from the others that they are willing or unwilling to play and that it’s her turn to be the winner or the loser.

      Thanks for this insight. Now I just have to figure out how to use this knowledge to help her play more appropriately.

      • Michele says:

        Meant to say I like your comment….not I think your comment…sorry for the typo. 🙂

      • Jenny H says:

        Over the years I have had 10 German Shepherds, as well as the occasional short term visitor. And certainly they can have very different play styles to each other. I don’t know that very much can be done to alter the individual’s play style. Your ‘rescue’ might simply have gained that status BECAUSE she tended to be a social misfit.
        But, generally I’ve found that German Shepherds do not do well with a lot of dogs together.
        When I’ve been caught in a similar situation, I try to take each dog out for training/walks, etc singly. You sometimes can solve the worst problems by separating them and letting them interact as pairs.
        After all, even in a human family four kids together tend to form a threesome with one left out — speaking as someone from a four child family with four of my own kids 🙂
        As well, of course, as never leaving the four together unsupervised.

      • Gerry says:

        Curiously, in only the past two years have I seen an unusually high percentage of GSDs (as opposed to other breeds) who were shy with other dogs. Just as people, dogs are different. Some are flexible, with others limited as to the play styles they like or can manage. And several factors may be involved.

        Many fearful dogs who are very interested in play may show the behavior as you described. They may have trouble pacing themselves, and dart forward when they should be backing off for a few seconds of recovery (my earlier comment on pups learning). That behavior may block them from learning more skills and responding to signals. In a few cases, we can help by teaching them relaxation and fear-lessening behavior, so they use shorter play periods and learn to back away and recover whenever they become anxious. Cues not to simply stop, but to back off very briefly then engage again to allow learning.

        If she will play alone with you using a flirt pole or tug, you can use those games to teach the cues, as they often must be learned under high activity to be effective. Again, they will learn to varying degrees.

        For dogs who often show anxiety in other active situations also, they may simply not be able to handle the play excitement itself. We can work on those other and milder situations to help them, but progress will often reach a limit. So both controlling anxiety and recognizing dog signals both play a part.

        Then you have the odd-man syndrome, which again matches your description. Where her play style is simply different and not attractive to the others. And her frantic darting and ignoring signals is just from frustration and nothing more. That can only be proven by trying her with other dogs and watching the result. And as Jenny H suggested, you can try interaction with pairs.

        Finally, it’s not really a winnner-loser but how they like to play. A dog on their back with three others on top may be the one controlling the play. Or if one likes to chase and the other to be chased, both are the winners.

        • Jenny H says:

          I have had German Shepherds continually since 1969! The breed has certainly changed physically, but not so much, I feel, in nature.
          Their original purpose was as a “shepherd’ that lived with a flock and guarded the sheep from wolves. So being ‘social’ with other dogs was never bred for. The tend to only play in pairs — and their play style can be very rough, so many other dogs interpret their play style as aggression.

          Gun dogs and hounds are very different — and do well in large groups, and generally seem to like to play with large groups. I read years ago that in ‘the old days’ fox hounds were kept on large groups and the keeper slept with them, — fox terriers, on he other hand were kept singly because of their tendency to fight with each other.

  2. revkeo says:

    Let me pose a play question. Right now I have 5 dogs at my house 2 GSD’s, 1 young Dutch Shepherd, a Dachshund and a terrier mix. The terrier and Dutch Shepherd do the typical chase each other around and have great fun but the Dachshund just barks and the neighbors have mentioned it. I don’t want to deny him being outside with the others but what does the barking do for him and how can I redirect or substitute something. The other dogs basically ignore him. Thanks for your help.

    • What you describe is not uncommon. I have multiple dogs at all times and there always seems to be one individual or another who will run and bark while the others are playing. The barking can be an expression of the dog’s excitement, arousal, anxiety, etc. Just like any other behavior that we want to stop, it’s important to manage the situation in order to prevent the behavior from happening and reward an alternative behavior. You might think of different ways to achieve this. One way would be to have the dog on leash while the others are running around and reward for silence.

      • Jenny H says:

        My Current (now very old” Kelpie, NEVER wanted to play with other dogs, but he was stressed by watching other dogs play — especially roughly.
        I don’t know, but I used to suspect that he thought ‘those sheep are misbehaving and need to quieten down’.

  3. Jenny H says:

    I thought that it was simply that Domestic Dogs are neotenous wolves, just as Humans are neotenous apes. Humans and dogs play well into their ‘reproductive’ years 🙂

  4. Peggy Nalley says:

    I have a 6 yr old lab. Very sweet and not toy aggressive at all but when we play fetch he never knows when to stop. He gets so intense and will play until he drops if you let him. Is there anyway I can get him to calm down.. Play fetch is not fun. Help

    • Gerry says:

      You likely need more direct assistance from a good dog trainer, than simple advice you might get from an online blog. I have 3 dogs who will wildly play with a flirt pole until they drop, but after a few weeks with short, timed sessions, they learned to stop and relax every five minutes. But there are some dogs who will always have limited control in high-activity situations, and it’s primarily learning how to best help them manage. More than just exercises, you need somebody skilled to observe how you handle the dog in that situation, and offer suggestions there.

  5. I love watching my dogs, cats, and rats all playing together! Dogs need their play time. It’s important for their health both mentally and physically. It overjoys me when mine can play together! Humans have a lot to learn from these humble, kind pets. I tried to leave a comment before, but I think it was lost over the cyber highway 🙁

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