No one would argue that dogs like their play time. We accept it as an adorable part of who our dogs are. Remarkably, no two dogs are exactly alike in how they prefer to play. Dogs enjoy the games we invent for them as much as the ones they make up for themselves. But did you realize that play is an important part of dogs’ development and overall health throughout their lives? It seems that old saying “All work and no play…” applies to our canine companions as well.
I swear, Rizzo, our one year old, probably spends about a third of his day swishing his tail and trying to get Tiramisu to play with him. He can be relentless. Whether he’s got his butt in the air staring her down and huffing a mock challenge or doing one of his Ninja “drive by” air snaps to get her to chase, Rizzo is almost constantly looking for a game of something. And no wonder, he’s a young dog who’s full of beans.
Part of Growing Up
We have long puzzled over why animals play. Play serves no useful purpose for survival and may even put young animals at risk. But science now believes that play is essential in many species for the development of survival skills. In fact, science believes that the more intelligent the species, the more frequently the animals engage in play.
One example of learning through play is that young animals of many species engage in different play games for the development of motor skills, but dogs in particular learn many lessons from play games, even from a very young age. A common dynamic among young puppies is play fighting, and this game is essential for learning bite inhibition.
One play behaviour that has puzzled dog owners for quite a while is mounting. It seems to cross genders with boys mounting boys, girls mounting girls, and even girls mounting boys, none of which seems to serve a meaningful purpose for rehearsing reproductive behaviour. There are, in fact, some trainers who advocate allowing mounting behaviour in play to continue without interrupting it because it seems to foster more engagement and more active play between dogs.
Part of Bonding
One interesting aspect of play is that it seems to be considered a “primary” reinforcer for dogs; it is something they find intrinsically rewarding. It can be as important as food for them. Play can be used as a reward in training through Operant Conditioning to teach behaviours. In fact, may Mark and Reward trainers specifically include play as part of their reward systems when training.
There is another aspect of the rewarding properties of play. Just as consistent delivery of food for meals or food treats during training can create a positive association via Classical Conditioning (thank you, Pavlov!), engaging in play with your dog can also help create a positive relationship between you and your dog.
So long as the games you play with your dog are fun and rewarding, you can create strong bonds with your dog through games and activities. Whether it’s a game of fetch, a game of tug, or even just wrestling around on the floor, all of these activities can be very rewarding for your dog. Since these activities come from you, your dog will begin to see you as rewarding too. I can’t think of a better way to bond with my dog than spending a few minutes just being silly.
There are obvious games and not-so-obvious games to play with our dogs. Some take a while to set up and play; others are just spontaneous events that only last a minute or two. But they can all be valuable and fun. I love to load my dogs up in the van with balls and Frisbees and head off to the local park for an hour or two of play but it’s just as much fun for them if we play “chase around the kitchen” with me pretending to be afraid of “the big bad wolves.”
Regardless of the game, the important thing is that I am engaging my dog in something she wants to do. And most times these activities involve some instinctive behaviour that is natural for a dog. While human games might be very interesting to us, games that involves very “doggy” things are the most interesting to my dogs — things that involve biting, chasing, hunting things down, and physical interaction. For example, throwing a ball for your dog involves a few things that will engage his or her engage instinctive behaviours. There is the “chase” to get the ball, the “hunt” to find it when your dog nears the spot where it landed; and there is a “bite/retrieve” component to grabbing and bringing the ball back. So while we may see this as a game of “catch”, it’s a very doggy-type game to our dogs.
Another game we play in ou house is “Go Find It”, which appeals to the scavenging nature of dogs and can engage their incredible sense of smell. Hiding food treats or favorite toys around the house and sending the dog after them can provide your dog with hours of amusement. Once you have set this game up, you can sit on the couch and let your dog amuse himself.
Rules are Rules
Some games we play with our dogs need rules. And because there are rules, some training may be involved to play these games comfortably. Perhaps the most basic of these rules is “Game On, Game Off.”
I like to have a signal for my dog to let him know that the game is on. It can be a body posture or a gesture or a verbal invitation. In many ways, I’m just trying to emulate what dogs do when playing with each other. Dogs invite each other to play. So I may make darting movements, or silly sounds, or even shove him playfully to get things started.
Similarly, when I’m finished playing, I signal my dog by relaxing my body posture, dropping the toy, and we train a verbal “Enough” to signal that the game is over for now. This way our dogs know when it’s ok to engage in play with us and when the game is over so we can go back to relaxing.
Other games have to have additional rules. “Fetch”, for example, can be a very short game if my dog won’t drop the ball for me to throw it again. And while “Keep Away from Dad” might be a fun game once and a while, you certainly want to both be playing the same game as your dog is playing most of the time.
One game that has got a bit of a bad reputation is “Tug.” Letting your dog play “Tug” with you has been said to increase aggressive tendencies in the dog. I consider this to be a myth and it’s probably based on owners who did not properly teach their dogs the rules of playing “Tug.” In our house, we have found the opposite to be true: playing “Tug” according the the rules teaches our dogs a few things: no cheating by re-gripping, no teeth on skin, drop when asked, take it when allowed. If these rules are broken then it’s “Game Over” for now. Since play is a reward for our dogs, they learn quickly that the best way to keep the game going is to play by the rules.
Learning By Playing
If you work things creatively, playing games with your dog can be a tremendous learning opportunity. Play is a great way to teach a dog valuable life skills in addition to the bonding and burning off energy. The rules we set up for our dogs in our games with can transfer to real life as well if we do things right.
A fun game we play with our dogs starting when they are puppies is “The Zen Game.” It begins very simply. I put a piece of cheese in my closed hand. I say nothing. As soon as my dog decides to leave my hand alone, they get the cheese. See? To get the cheese, my son, you must give up the cheese!
This is how we teach the “Leave It!” behaviour to our dogs. Once they learn to leave the cheese in the closed hand, we use an open hand. Once the open hand is mastered, the cheese is moved to the floor or table. Soon our dogs are learning to “Leave It” no matter what it is or where it is.
Similarly, I always play “The Hand Game” with our young puppies. I simply wrestle with them and allow them to bite my hands. As soon as they apply the slightest pressure when they bite down, I yelp in alarm and pull away from them, stopping the play. After a few seconds, I resume playing. The puppies quickly learn that humans are real WIMPS when it comes to mouth games and so they barely grip at all in a very short period of time.
I’ve just taught my dog “bite inhibition” with humans. This came in very handy once when I had to reach in and pull Tiramisu out of a scrap with another dog. She turned and bit at my arm in surprise when I grabbed her, but she quickly recognized it was a human and she inhibited her bite. What should have been a serious wound was barely a red mark because of all that play when she was young.
Do you know what the best part is? I learn something too. For example, I have learned that my dogs each prefer different games. Our recently departed Vince lived for his ball and the chase. Tira would rather chase other dogs than anything in the world. Rizzo is a tug monster and will even shove his toy into your leg as if to say, “Come on buddy! Game on!”
Play is a wonderful way to learn about your dog while you both blow off a little steam. It can be as simple as fetching the stick on a walk or as complicated as playing dog agility or other dog sports. What’s important is that all of this fun can be used for learning as well — something for our dogs to learn and something for us to learn about them.
Something I haven’t talked at length here is the mental aspect of play with our dogs. That’s a whole topic in itself. Play can be tremendously enriching even if it’s just games of “figuring stuff out.” Mental exercise is just as important for dogs as physical exercise. There are hundreds of games people have devised for dogs, and in a future column we’ll talk about some of those and the value of stimulating your dog’s brain through play.
For now, I should really let you get back to playing with your dogs. Don’t be afraid to be silly. Remember, for most of us, our dogs are among the very few who have seen us naked — and they don’t judge, so be thankful for that. Roll around the floor and make goofy noises and silly faces with them. Dogs are the best playmates ever.
Until next time, have fun with your dogs!
Fetch! – Travis Hornung 2006 from Flickr
A Boy and His Dog – CJ Sorg 2008 from Flickr
Wrestling – Geoffrey Fairchild 2009 from Flickr
Tug – Hillary H 2007 from Flickr