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Should You Play with Your Dog?

The science of play, and what it might offer your relationship with your dog.

By
Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA,
Episode #050

Dogs and other animals play because playing is fun – seems obvious. As an explanation of play, though, fun puts the cart before the horse. Behaviors, like body parts, evolve because they confer a reproductive advantage – that’s how natural selection works. The experience of fun probably makes an animal more likely to play. But what advantages might play offer? And how can we use scientific knowledge about play to improve our relationships with our dogs?

How Do Scientists Define Play?

People usually recognize play when we see it, but an explicit definition can help us bring what we’re seeing into sharper focus. Here’s a definition I like: play is “an apparently purposeless activity with no immediate adaptive goal, utilizing species-typical motor programs that are exaggerated in intensity or number of repetitions, or misordered compared to mature behavior, or mixed together with behavior appropriate to different contexts.”  In other words: play has no immediately obvious purpose. Playing animals do things that are typical of their species, such as chasing and leaping. But they do those things in exaggerated and mixed-up ways, and they do them out of the usual context. Chasing, for example – outside of play, it’s usually a food-getting behavior. But if playmates wind up eating each other, you know the play went seriously wrong.

Why Do Animals Play?

So, why do this crazy mixed-up apparently pointless thing called play? One early hypothesis was that young animals play to burn off steam and because they’re bored.  There might be something to this if we’re talking about our pet dogs, who mostly get their food for free. Animals living on their own, though, rarely have surplus calories to waste.  Indeed, that’s probably one reason why social carnivores, like wolves and dogs, show so many conflict-avoiding behaviors, and why most aggression, like those noisy fights that scare the heck out of the humans at the dog park, results in little or no injury. A hurt animal has a tougher time getting food and must use precious energy to heal. 

These days, behavioral scientists are throwing around several hypotheses about the purposes of play. One, play develops motor and cognitive skills. Two is closely related -- play helps young animals learn to deal with physical surprises such as losing one’s balance, and with unpredictable behavior by other animals. The idea is that animals develop behavioral flexibility and resilience by coping with surprises in a safe context.  Third, social play helps build and maintain social bonds.

Nobody Knows for Sure Why Animals Play

Now let me astonish you. All those hypotheses seem intuitively obvious, and none of them has been proved. Any Animal Planet fans out there have probably heard of meerkats, social carnivores related to the mongoose. A researcher who studied social play among meerkats couldn’t find any connection between play and social cohesion, or between play and later success in fighting.  On the other hand, if you’re a brown bear cub, your odds of survival seem to improve with social play.  So maybe play has different effects in different species. We don’t know – there are so many kinds of animals in the world, and it’s so hard to measure the effects of play.

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