Variations on a Theme Called Canine Play

(Originally written for DogWatch, a newsletter for the general public from the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine)

Some friends and I got into a discussion about dogs and play and I was surprised how varied the responses were. My 7-year-old dog plays as much as he did when he was a pup, but one of my friend’s dogs only played as a pup, and another said her dog never played much at all. Do some dogs come pre-programmed for play more than others?

More driven by dour Victorian beliefs than any scientific fact, early behaviorists viewed play as strictly limited to young animals. Not only that, they claimed that what we viewed as entertaining animal fun and games served only one function: to prepare the young animal for the deadly serious adult responsibilities of fighting, killing prey, and mating. However, as more scientists studied more animals throughout their entire life cycles, a different view of play has emerged.

To be sure, young animals in general do play more than adults, and an axiom often quoted by ethologists, “The more you need to know, the more you need to play,” is typically used to describe the behavior of the young. However, as the research on play in adult animals accumulates, it appears that play in older animals communicates a message of confidence as well as learning. The wild animal with time to play with a leaf, or even another animal it would normally hunt for food, loudly and clearly communicates that it not only has enough energy to accomplish its basic survival function and reproduce, but also some extra left over for fun. Naturally, those animals who play before they attend to their essential needs get eliminated from the gene pool; but those who can get the serious work of life done first then celebrate afterward radiate a confidence not present in their less efficient cohorts.

Within the domestic arena, we see these same principles at work. Granted only the smallest percentage of domestic puppies need to learn the basic survival skills of their wild canine ancestors. Nonetheless, their early play with humans, other animals, and objects can do much to help them fit smoothly into our often complex human environments. Good breeders who routinely expose their pups to a wide variety of different experiences under playful, upbeat circumstances do much to make life easier for these animals as well as for their future owners.

As dogs grow older, play serves other equally important functions. Activities spanning the spectrum from the most simple game of fetch to an intricate round of hide-and-seek can stimulate the mind and body of even the most energetic dog living in the most limited human environment, thereby enhancing that animal’s physical and mental well-being.

But what about those pets who don’t play? Dogs who don’t play may not for physical, behavioral, and/or bond reasons. A canine couch potato’s extra weight, lack of condition, and mental sluggishness may make him reluctant to play. In that case, only the simplest games (such as hiding a ball under a pillow practically next to his nose) may appeal to him until he gets the hang of things. Other times the dog’s behavior negates play. Timid Rosie so cowered when her owners took her to the park to play frisbee, they took her right home. In that more secure environment, they used carefully timed, confidence-building playful distractions preceding and during stressful situations to help her over the rough spots. As the play sessions built her confidence, they moved these out of their home and into their yard and, finally, back to the park.

Of all the bond factors involved in play, a lack of human leadership in the human-canine pack serves as the primary squelcher of the playful canine spirit. Dogs who feel obligated to police up busy human households and their inhabitants rarely have time to relax, let alone play. Owners who resolve pack-related problems often comment how much more playful their pets become.

Enjoyment differentiates play from exercise or work far more than the nature of the activity. And while no scientific criteria exist to define canine enjoyment, who doesn’t recognize the special spark that lights up a dog at play? Just thinking about it is enough to make us smile.