The Play's the Thing

why do dogs play ?

by Pam Green, © 2010

Various writers on the topic of dogs have asked "why do dogs play?" That question can be seen as either laughably simple or truely profound.

Why Dogs Play

Why do dogs play with one another, with humans, and with toys ? Various writers have asked this. It may seem like a silly question, given that anyone who lives with dogs can see so clearly that dogs enjoy play. Dogs just wanna have fun ! Do they really need any other reason ?

Analyzed from either a behaviorist / trainer perspective or an evolutionary biologist / ethologist perspective, the question becomes worthy of serious thought.

When an evolutionary biologist or ethologist asks why a particular behavior occurs , they are asking what survival function the behavior serves. How does that behavior contribute to the individual's immediate survival , long term survival, and sucess in reproduction ? Behaviors like food seeking are very easy to explain in this way. Likewise behaviors leading to mating and behaviors that are needed for rearing of offspring or that enhance survival chances of offspring.

When a trainer or behaviorist asks why a particular behavior occurs (or changes or ceases to occur), they are asking what's the consequence of that behavior in pleasure or displeasure for the individual ? Behaviors that have an immediate pleasureable consquence (reward) will be performed more frequently and with more intensity in the future. Behaviors that result in the cessation of anything unpleasant also will increase because the ending of unpleasantness is rewarding. Behaviors with less immediate pleasurable consequences may also be increased, but the effect is weaker than for immediate consequences. Behaviors can have an immediately pleasant consequence because of the built in senory apparatus and brain interpretation of the individual. Other behaviors are done becase the individual has learned that the behavior will lead to an inherrently enjoyable consequence. Even long behavior sequences can be learned in order to obtain a reward, and each behavior in the sequence will come to be classically associated with the ultimate reward and thus come to feel pleasant in themselves.

Sometimes the personal enjoyment viewpoint is acting in concordance with the survive and breed viewpoint. Indeed most of the behaviors essentail to survival or to breeding will be experienced as pleasurable by the individual. (Likewise behaviors involved in a working drive that the breed of dog has been bred for. For example herding dogs enjoy herding enormously.) Sometimes that is not the case, especially for humans, where an action with an immediately enjoyable consequence may have a much larger delayed bad consequence for that person or can be detrimental to survival and /or reproduction. (note : the credit card industry depends entirely on the human tendency to choose an immediate small reward over the long term penalty of paying and paying and paying for the item.)

For dogs, as all empathetic observers know beyond doubt, play with other dogs is usually highly enjoyable for both of them. It has an immediate strongly rewarding consequence. Dogs can be quite creative in the ways they will modify any of the basic doggie games so that the play partner can enjoy it and remain interested in continuing play. It's touching to see a strong young dog "self-handicap" in order to play with a more fragile dog ; likewise an adult playing with a puppy or big dog playing with small dog. Dogs who play with toys also appear to be enjoying themselves, and some are very creative in the ways they find to enjoy a particular item, either playing solo or engaging another dog in play with the object. . Dogs also appear to enjoy various games with their humans, just as they enjoy simple body contact with their humans. So the immediate payoff for play is pretty obvious.

But what role does play have in the dog's survival and reproduction ? That's a bit more speculative. How does play fit into the evolutionary aspects of the dog ?

I'm going to give you my own speculations, for whatever they may be worth.

First of all the dog , like the human , has evolved as a socially living co-operative hunter. Dogs need to bond with their packmates and to get along with them amicably. Dogs need to have a stable enough social hierarchy that there is rarely any need for a serious fight. Dogs are also cursorial hunters, running their prey in an endurance contest, a mode of hunting that requires physical fitness and stamina.

I think that play serves as a bonding glue. Because dogs who play together are enjoying the games, they will classically associate those they play with with enjoyment. Thus play tends to cause a dog to like his playmate. (This is also true of humans.) In turn dogs tend to pick other dogs they like as the ones they play with, thus probably increasing their mutual affection even more. Dogs who play nice, play by the rules of the game (and most dog games clearly have rules, though a human might be hard pressed to write down the rule-book or the scoring system), are probably also learning to trust each other. Play probably also keeps the playmates better tuned in to the nuances of one another's body language.

I think that dogs who play together regularly also are keeping up to date with the playmate's physical and mental strength. Because some play games are mild and ritual versions of combat, I think the dogs remind each other of which one would win if there were to be a serious all-out fight between them, thus making a serious fight unnescessary. If so, then play would stabilize the social hierarchy. Since in dog play, one observes that the two dogs will seem to frequently switch roles as to dominant and submissive roles, perhaps play also is one reason why dogs don't take the dominance order as seriously as wolves do. Of course that lessened seriousness about dominance might also be because dogs never fully mature or because the whole business of earning a living is so much less of an issue for dogs (since we humans supply their needs).

Some dog games seem to be playful versions of various aspects of hunting. In chase games, one dog chases another and then they switch roles. The one doing the chasing is playing out the role of predator chasing down prey. Many dogs include a lot of dodging and turning in the chase games, similar to the way some prey animals (rabbits) dodge and turn. Most dogs these days don't actually have to hunt in order to eat. And of those breeds who do hunt, the actual kill is usually left to the human hunting partner. But biologically some of the value of play is that it would practice skills needed for the hunt.

Some writers (Jean Donaldson especially) have compared the game of tug of war to the process by which wolves tug to tear a killed large prey animal into manageable sized pieces. It's also certain to let the two dogs assess one another's physical strength and mental determination.

Many dog games are very active and thus are great for maintaining physcial fitness. The combination of games includes some balance and agility tests, strength builders, and cardi-pulmonary work-outs.

Since watching dogs play can be very entertaining for the humans, this play probably makes the humans like their dogs better. So it improves the bond. Actually playing a dog - human game is likewise enjoyable for the human and likewise probably improves the bond the human feels for the dog as well as the dog's affection and trust for the human. Dogs whose humans feel more affection for them and more commitment towards them undoubtedly enjoy a survival advantage. They are apt to receive better care and less likely to ever get discarded to the pound.

As to reproduction, well that's not an issue for most pet dogs. But given it's the human not the dog who decides if a particular dog is going to reproduce, it could be that dogs who are better liked and better admired are more likely to be bred.

The individual bitch is of course advantaged to her own health if she is spayed rather than bred, just as the individual woman is advantaged to her own health if she is never bred or bred very sparingly. Evolution works on the individual's welfare only to the extent that the individual's welfare results in increased production of offspring who survive to produce offspring in their turn. The individual is only her / his genes way of making copies of themselves. The evolution that has taken place in the past may well explain an individual's behavior in the present and future, but the individual's own behavior may terminate his / her evolutionary future. This current discussion has been about why dogs do what they do currently. It's not really about what they could be evolving to do some generations in the future.

I am going to try adding a motion picture clip, showing my Bouvier Grover playing with a plastic bottle, clearly having great fun with this simple toy. The picture should play if you have the QuickTime plug-in or anything else that can play MPG files. But in case you cannot see this movie on this page, just go to the Related topics and click on the external link , which will open in a new window.
You need QuickTime to see this movie.
And I will add a movie of my Queensland, Fox, playing with a bottle. Fox's play is especially predatory. This will also be a QuickTime, but it's got the ".mov" suffix on it instead of the ".mpg" (which is what the Grover movie has) and I want to find out if one or the other works better for my viewers. (Update : actually both were saved in QuickTime, so for you Mac people both have file type MooV and creator code TVOD).
You need QuickTime to see this movie.
What the difference seems to be on my own Mac is that when I specify a double size image size , the "mpg" file shows up in double size but less sharp focus (because it's being shown double size) but the "mov" file shows up in it's original size. The difference in lighting, ie Grover being less well illuminated, is in the original movie. But it might also be a difference in the way I saved the movie , as I may have saved Grover in double size. I need to play around with this some more. (UPDATE : I did indeed save Grover's clip in double size, but saved Fox's clip in normal size.)
The camera is an old Sony Mavica 200 which can take video of up to 15 seconds.
If anyone wants to e-mail me about any difficulties with either of these movies, please include information as to what type of computer (Mac or PC or ??), what opperating system, and what browser and browser version. My e-mail address is below.
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site author Pam Green copyright 2003
created 7/20/2010 revised 7/24/2011
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