More Than Fetch and Catch

This is a subject I first wrote about 15 years ago because I noticed how many companion animals with behavioral problems I saw had lost their sense of playfulness. Coincidentally, their owners seemed to have lost theirs too. The subject seems even more relevant now as the human stress level continues to rise, as does the desire for our pets to dispel it. The loss of playfulness in our animals shouldn’t be taken lightly because  play serves a vital survival purpose.

Ethologist Paul Leyhausen once stated that the more animals need to learn, the more they need to play. For small wild cat kittens and members of other solitary species who must learn all they need to survive before weaning, that makes for a very playful early life indeed! But even though young animals of all species do spend more time playing than adults, adult animals play, too. For many years scientists missed this reality, and that probably explains why some owners (and those who work with animals) may overlook the playfulness-learning connection in their relationships with their animals, too.

Despite all the talk of scientific objectivity, the fact remains that “human objectivity” is an oxymoron. Regardless how hard we try, we can’t help but view any situation through the lens of our own knowledge, prejudices, and experience. In the case of animal scientists in the Victorian era, that meant projecting their views of childhood play as a means for children to learn the serious business of being an adult onto animals. And although these folks quite readily might acknowledge that their own children found play highly enjoyable and creative, their mechanistic view of animals didn’t allow them to attribute these benefits of play to the young of other species. Similarly, while those same scientists might enjoy some rollicking fun in their off-hours at their private clubs or at their country estates, they projected their notion of adulthood as a deadly serious business on adult animals, too.

Aside from all that work and no play making Jack a very dull boy, it may have far more serious consequences for those who adopt this approach, be they wild or domestic animals or those who study or own them. Fifth century Greek historian and philosopher Herodotus described these consequences in The Histories of Herodotus, Book I:

If a man insisted always on being serious, and never allowed himself a bit of fun and relaxation, he would go mad or become unstable without knowing it.

When we limit our view to only that which we can see through the lens of our own knowledge, prejudices, and experience, it’s hardly a surprise that practically all we see supports those views. Consequently, if a group of acknowledged experts doesn’t believe that adult animals play, even if the experts see evidence of this they may overlook it completely or attribute it to some fluke, such as a brain tumor or other abnormality. Do you see the irony here? The unplayful accuse the playful of crazy or unstable behavior when it’s their own lack of stability that leads them to this conclusion!

If you’re familiar with my work, you know that I’m convinced that the co-evolutionary process of human and domestic animals leads domestic animals to at least attempt to take their cues from us. To me, this makes perfectly good sense because animals aren’t stupid. (No matter how foolish, bizarre, or inappropriately hostile their behavior may appear to us, it invariably occurs for a valid reason once analyzed in terms of that animal’s physiological and behavioral criteria rather than our own.) That being the case, what could be more reasonable than orienting toward a member of a species with a bigger brain plus an opposable thumb that enables that individual to do marvelous animal-energy conserving feats such as open cans and bags of pet food or drive a car? It makes sense to me.

Unfortunately, though, sometimes we humans think that our bigger brains automatically come hardwired with everything we need to know about animals, and particularly about dogs and cats. That projecting our human thoughts and emotions on them willy-nilly might not be the right thing to do never crosses our minds—until problems arise. And when problems arise, the first thing that often goes out the window for both animal and human is that sense of playfulness.

“Who but an idiot would feel playful when their dog attacks the letter carrier or their cat pees on their expensive down comforter?” you might logically ask. Aren’t such problem behaviors very serious events that may lead us to give up the pet or worse?

I agree that the consequences of not resolving such behavioral/bond problems are very serious for animal and owner alike. However, a grave demeanor won’t help resolve the problem nearly so quickly and well as a sense of playfulness and humor.

It works like this. First, I think that all behavioral scientists agree that evolution has primed young animals to learn from play. That tells us that this constitutes the most deeply embedded and thus energy-efficient way to teach animals new things. And because we know that domestication more or less suspends an animal in a physiologically and behaviorally immature state, this link between learning and play most likely lasts throughout a domesticated animal’s life.

Second, celebratory play in adult wild animals signals an animal who has established and protected a territory, found food and water, mated, reproduced and raised young, and has energy to spare. If this weren’t the case, the potential for adult play wouldn’t exist in the gene pool. That says to me (and I admit that some anti-adult-animal-play scientists don’t agree) that a playful adult possesses more confidence and ability to cope with stressful situations than a non-playful one.

Because of all this, the more serious the animal problem, the more critical for any people involved to ferret out and appreciate the humor in the situation. This will communicate that person’s confidence to the animal which, in turn, will help reduce much of the stress that leads to problem behavior as well as interferes with learning. The more joy we take from understanding the cause of the problem and making any necessary changes to resolve it, the easier it is for animals to make these changes themselves. Surely the awareness that we can use playfulness to harness the power of the human-animal bond to do this should be more than enough to bring a smile to even the most serious pet owner’s face.


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