Different forms of dogs’ play behavior involve a mix of touch, sight, and sound.
Play is a kaleidoscope–a frenetic potpourri–of the senses
Many, if not most, dogs love to play, and different forms of dogs’ play behavior truly are a kaleidoscope–a frenetic potpourri–of the senses. (Numerous essays focusing on dog play can be seen here.) Play nicely draws together previous discussions of how dogs use different senses alone or in tandem as composite signals to understand and interact with the world, other dogs and other animals including humans. (See “Dogs Should Be ‘Unleashed’ to Sniff to Their Noses’ Content,” “Oh Goodness, Why’d My Dog Erin Just Eat Something So Foul?”, “Being Touched Is Fine For Some Dogs, But Not for Others,” “How Dogs See the World: Some Facts About the Canine Cosmos,” and “Stripping Animals of Emotions is ‘Anti-Scientific & Dumb’.“) In addition to exercising their bodies, dogs also need to exercise their senses, and this is easy to do when they romp around with their friends or own their own.
What’s play all about?
Play obviously involves sight and touch, as dogs watch one another closely and chase, mouth, and wrestle with one another. Play also involves hearing and vocalizing, as dogs emit play pants and play growls, and smell might also play a role since odors are all-important to dogs. That only leaves a taste, which is probably least important during play, but who knows? Perhaps when dogs mouth one another they are learning more than we realize.
That said, what is play? This deceptively simple question has troubled researchers for many years. (See Animal Play Behavior by Robert Fagen, Gordon Burghardt’s book The Genesis of Animal Play: Testing the Limits, Canine Play Behavior: The Science of Dogs at Play by Mechtild Käufer, and Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do). We usually think we know it when we see it, but defining social play in a way that can guide research has been tricky. Some years ago, behavioral ecologist John Byers and I created a definition that incorporates many of the common features of play they and others have observed among various mammals. At the time we developed this definition, John had been studying wild pigs, or peccaries, in Arizona, and I was studying various members of the dog family, including domestic dogs, wolves, coyotes (captive and wild), jackals, and foxes. Here is the definition we came up with: Social play is an activity directed toward another individual in which actions from other contexts are used in modified forms and in altered sequences. Some actions also are not performed for the same amount of time during play as they are when animals are not playing. As you may notice, this definition centers on what animals do when they play; in other words, it names the structure that defines play, rather than focusing on the possible functions of play.
How dogs play
Defining play correctly, so that we can, in fact, recognize it when we see it, is the first step to understanding play’s many functions, or why it’s important. What this definition basically means is that play is a potpourri of different actions from different contexts, and a dog’s modifications of these actions and their use out of context are what help define them as play. For example, play often involves biting, but the biting is controlled so that it doesn’t cause pain or injury, as it would in the context of a fight. Restraint in play is called “self-handicapping.” High-ranking dogs will also often allow themselves to be “dominated” in play, and this is called “role reversing.” If this is done during play, there is no fear that they are going to beat up or that another dog will try to usurp their position. Dogs act these ways during play because they know it’s safe to do so. The canine play also has some unique behavioral elements that are not frequently seen in other contexts, such as the “play bow.” This action is called a bow because it involves a dog crouching on their forelimbs, sticking their butt in the air, and perhaps wagging their tail or barking. The play bow is recognized by other dogs as an invitation to play.article continues after advertisement
Just like the human playground, where playing children learn important lessons about fairness and socializing, animals learn to cooperate and to play fairly when they’re romping around with their friends. Research has consistently shown that animals follow four basic rules of fairness during play: Ask first, be honest, follow the rules, and admit when you’re wrong. A lot of people get nervous when dogs play roughly, but the vast majority of play bouts among dogs are fair and play only rarely escalates into real aggression. Melissa Shyan and her colleagues discovered that fewer than 0.5 percent of play fights in dogs developed into conflict, and only half of these were clearly aggressive encounters. If someone does something wrong while playing, dogs will correct one another with a mild rebuke that says something like, “Hey, I thought we were playing. You can’t do that if you want to keep playing with me.” Finally, play is always voluntary. During play, dogs can quit whenever they want to, and others often seem to know when one dog has had enough for the moment.
Of course, it can take some work to become skilled at distinguishing playful encounters from fighting, or from encounters that have an aggressive or agonistic element. We hope this chapter helps. It’s unfortunate when people don’t realize when play is just play and so break up a play session. People frequently do this at dog parks, for example; they misinterpret growling and barking as meaning that dogs are angry, when in fact they are only playing. Data show we need to give dogs credit for knowing what they’re doing when they play. So, be a careful observer, let dogs be dogs and have lots of fun with their friends, and remember that play rarely escalates into real aggression.
Why dogs play
Providing our canine companions with ample opportunities to play with their friends and to meet new playmates is one of the easiest and most important enrichments we can offer. People may mistakenly believe that play, because it’s fun and frivolous, is “extra” or not necessary. However, the opportunity for play—and lots of it—is crucial for a dog’s happiness and well-being. In addition to being fun and enjoyable, play serves many functions and helps satisfy a whole range of biological, emotional, social, and cognitive needs. It provides social and physical engagement with others that’s necessary for individuals to develop the social skills they need to be card-carrying members of their species.
Play helps develop and maintain social bonds and skills, builds motor skills, and is a great form of aerobic and anaerobic exercise. Play is cognitively challenging because, for example, it involves animals learning how hard they can bite, how to avoid running into things as they go nuts with their playmates, and how to read the complex composite signals of other dogs and people, often while on the run. Play is emotionally engaging because it makes dogs feel happy. When dogs and other animals play, they’re clearly enjoying what they’re doing. Animals often play just for the hell of it because it feels good. Play can also be an icebreaker and have what’s called an anxiolytic effect; that is, it reduces anxiety during tense situations, thereby preventing escalation to an aggressive encounter.article continues after advertisement
For all these reasons, social play is essential for sheltered dogs, since it helps them learn the requisite social skills they need for when they’re adopted and sharing a home with human companions. In addition, play helps dogs and other animals “train for the unexpected,” or develop behavioral flexibility. The kaleidoscopic nature, unpredictability, and randomness of the actions that arise during play are inherent to play itself. Animals lost in play truly don’t know who will do what next. Based on an extensive review of available literature on play behavior in numerous species, my colleagues Marek Špinka, Ruth Newberry, and I have suggested that this is one reason animals play: to practice improvising when faced with novel situations. (See “How and Why Dogs Play Revisited: Who’s Confused?” and “Mammalian play: training for the unexpected.”) For example, humping can follow biting; chasing can follow mouthing and wrestling; growling can follow face-licking; and at any moment, dogs may jump up, run around frenetically, and then leap at one another and wrestle once again. By increasing the versatility of movements and the ability to recover from sudden shocks, such as loss of balance and falling over, play can enhance the ability of dogs to cope emotionally with unexpected stressful situations. To obtain this “training for the unexpected,” dogs actively seek and create unexpected situations in play, which may be another reason why they actively put themselves into disadvantageous positions and situations.
It’s especially important for puppies to play. Play is part of the natural behavioral repertoire of many infant and juvenile wild and domesticated animals, including the wild relatives of domestic dogs. Indeed, play behavior among infants and juveniles has likely evolved in a wide range of species because it helps young animals develop into more successful adults. Much the same is said about human children. Play is critical for individuals to become functional members of their species, and during childhood, it provides early training in many of the skills individuals need to learn.
Play can be its own reward
Some dog owners get downright angry if they arrive at the dog park and their dog refuses to play with other dogs, or they worry that something is wrong with their dog. However, remember that play is voluntary, and for a number of reasons, dogs may prefer to do something else in any given moment.
Some dogs may simply be more interested in sniffing along the fence, while other dogs may not see anyone they want to play with; dogs can be extremely picky about their playmates. There’s nothing wrong with this, and a picky dog will often get coaxed into playing eventually because dog play is contagious. Of course, dogs who have not been well socialized or who have experienced past trauma may be uncomfortable around other dogs and may be reluctant to play. Tragically, some dogs who never learned how to play as puppies can struggle with it as adults. However, even with these dogs, patience, time, and opportunity are usually all that are needed for many nonpaying dogs to become players and learn to do it well.
In addition, all play is good play. It doesn’t always have to involve other dogs. Dogs typically love to play with their human companions, as we enjoy playing with our dogs, whether in games of tug-of-war and hide-and-seek or in informal, improvised games, tricks, and teasing—such as a dog grabbing the ball just as their human bends down to pick it up. Although there is no research into the canine sense of humor, many people will attest that their dog does, indeed, seem to find certain things amusing. Some dogs also develop games and forms of playful interactions with any other species who live in the home, whether cats or birds.
Finally, dogs also like to play by themselves. Jessica Pierce’s dog friend Poppy, for example, loves to toss socks and pinecones through the air so she can chase them, and Bella will sometimes use her front paws to bury her ball in the snow so that she can hunt for it again.
One kind of solitary play activity, particularly in puppies, is what are sometimes called “zoomies.” (See “It’s OK For Dogs to Engage in Zoomies and Enjoy FRAPs.”) Another, more scientific term for this behavior is “frenetic random activity periods,” or FRAPs. Zoomies are high-energy bursts of activity in which dogs look like they are possessed by the devil, after which they often lay down exhausted as if they’ve run a marathon. Dog trainer Steven Lindsay, one of the few people to write formally about zoomies, describes the behavior as solitary, spontaneous, and undirected play. He notes as follows: “The spectacle may cause first-time dog owners to suspect that their dog has momentarily lost its mind. Dogs exhibiting such behavior appear to be possessed by a torrent of spontaneous locomotor impulses. They rush about as though careening around obstacles or fleeing from a nonexistent pursuer closing in from behind. Occasionally, a dog may appear to scramble forward faster than its body can follow, creating a hunched-up appearance as it steers wildly along its frenetic path. As the playful release reaches a climax, the dog may display a wide open-mouthed smile, wedging its ears back.”
Why do dogs engage in zoomies? Nobody really knows, and it may be different for each dog. Puppies seem to engage in zoomies more than adult dogs, and some dogs zoom more than others. When she was ten months old, Poppy was very much into zoomies, and Poppy’s human, Sage, thinks that zoomies give Poppy an adrenaline rush. When asked what triggers Poppy to do zoomies, Sage answered, “Being a jerk.” When Poppy has been teasing other dogs through a fence, stealing things from other dogs, or disobeying Sage, the zoomies begin. Jessica’s older dogs don’t do zoomies very often, but the one reliable trigger for both dogs is a bath. As soon as they get released from being dried off, they zoom around the house for a few minutes before collapsing in exhaustion.
Another trigger for Bella is running through the tall grasses in an open field behind the local high school. Suddenly, Bella will just start to race around in playful circles and be crazy. Then, just as abruptly, she will stop and go back to the regular business of walking, as if nothing had happened. As I wrote above, animals often play just for the hell of it because it feels good.
There’s no reason to try to stop zoomies, but if you have a zooming dog, make sure your dog can’t get hurt by running into things that may topple or by tripping over an electric cord, and so on. And make sure to protect yourself. A super excited dog can easily take out a kneecap. Just keep watch, step back, and keep your knees bent, so your legs can absorb the shock if your dog accidentally zooms into you.
Research on play by different nonhuman animals is “hot” topic and I look forward to further discussions about how dogs and other animals play and why they do it. To sum up, it’s essential that people learn how to identify play behavior in their dogs and then let their dogs play to their hearts’ content. As with other types of behavior, play provides a great opportunity for us to learn about our own dog and about dogs in general. So make a play ethogram and carefully observe your dog’s playful interactions. Who knows what you may discover?
Some of the above is excerpted from Unleashing Your Dog: A Field Guide to Giving Your Canine Companion the Best Life Possible. I thank Jessica Pierce for her collaboration on this and other projects.
Marc Bekoff. How and Why Dogs Play Revisited: Who’s Confused? Psychology Today, November 29, 2015.