Should You Play with Your Dog?

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

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA
5-minute read
Episode #050

Play Between Dogs Seems to Reflect Their Rank

According to one study, by Erika Bauer and Barbara Smuts of the University of Michigan, play between pairs of unrelated adult dogs reflected existing rank relationships between those dogs.  Studies of rats, squirrel monkeys, and human beings suggest that the same applies to them.  Relatively little of the play the dog researchers observed was what we’d call fair with respect to “who’s on top.”

 “Uh-oh,” you might be thinking, “if play reflects rank relationships, I’m in trouble! My dog always hangs on to the ball when we’re done playing fetch. He even carries it home.” Or “My dog wins an awful lot of our games of tug.”

Do Dogs See People the Way They See Other Dogs?

If we want insight into how dogs perceive their relationships with people, we have to study their behavior with people – not their behavior with other dogs.

Here, a little detour. My dogs generally cooperate with my house rules, most importantly that goodies such as treats, walks, and attention become available to those who do as I ask when I ask them to. But do they think I’m the Alpha Dog Queen of England or the village goatherd? Beats me – their behavior seems deferential, but I can’t read their minds. Many dog trainers and behavior specialists state with certainty that dogs perceive humans as more or less exalted dogs. But – and this might be one of the most important things I’ve ever said in these articles -- there is no evidence that dogs perceive people, or their relationships with us, the way they perceive their relationships with other dogs.  If we want to develop insight into how our dogs perceive humans, then it’s their behavior toward humans we need to study.

Dogs May Be More Eager to Play with People Than with Other Dogs

Fortunately, Nicola Rooney and her colleagues at the University of Southampton, in England, have been doing just that, in the context of play. Here are some of their findings. Access to play with dogs doesn’t spoil dogs’ appetite for play with humans. This suggests that play with dogs and play with humans may have different motivations. Dogs playing with people are more likely to present a tug toy to their play partner than dogs playing with other dogs. In other words, they seemed more eager to engage a human play partner. Dogs playing with people were also more likely to give up the tug toy. They hung on to the toy longer when their play partner was another dog.

Neither Winning Nor Losing at Tug Made Dogs Act More “Dominant”

Wait, there’s more! In a study of how play affected the dog-human relationship, Rooney and her colleague John Bradshaw assessed confident, supposedly dominant behaviors in a group of Golden Retrievers before and after 20 rounds of tug in which the dogs mostly won or mostly lost.


About the Author

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA

Jolanta holds professional certifications in both training and behavior counseling and belongs to the Association of Professional Dog Trainers and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She also volunteered with Pet Help Partners, a program of the Humane Society of the United States that works to prevent pet relinquishment. Her approach is generally behaviorist (Pavlovian, Skinnerian and post-Skinnerian learning theory) with a big helping of ethology (animal behavior as observed in non-experimental settings).

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