Dog Play: Not Just for Fun

February 27, 2018
JoAnna Pendergrass, DVM

Dr. Pendergrass received her DVM degree from the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine. Following veterinary school, she completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Emory Universitys Yerkes National Primate Research Center. Dr. Pendergrass is the founder and owner ofJPen Communications, a medical communications company.

Play behaviors in dogs serve important functions and can indicate positive or negative welfare.

Play, according to previous studies, is “voluntary behavior repeatedly expressed in benign situations that differs from related functional behavior and is accompanied by a positive affective state.”

Why we play, though, has long been debated with little empiric evidence to settle the debate.

Dogs’ long domestication history makes them ideal for studying play’s function. The artificial selection of playful traits in dogs and a living environment with humans that encourages play further support studying dogs to determine the “why” of play.

For several decades, researchers have investigated how play and animal welfare are related. The authors of a recent Applied Animal Behavior Science review paper on dog play noted that “understanding the function of play is relevant to welfare.” In their paper, the authors described several theories for why dogs play and the animal welfare implications of play.

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Play Functions in Dogs

Theory 1: Developing Motor Skills

The locomotion of play improves motor skills. During play, juvenile dogs fight, chase, and bite, helping them acquire versatile movements and prepare for adult dog behaviors. Brain development may facilitate this motor skill development, suggesting a developmental window during which play should occur; further study on this window in dogs is needed.

Theory 2: Training for the Unexpected

Play helps dogs physically and mentally prepare for future unexpected events. Stress and reward system hormones are secreted during play, improving coping strategies. In addition, dogs engage in self-handicapping during play; assuming this subordinate position helps dogs rehearse how to handle unpredictable social situations with other dogs.

Theory 3: Social Cohesion

Play in dogs reinforces social status, increases familiarity, and strengthens relationships, all of which improve social cohesion and reduce aggressive behavior. Dog-human play, which uses elements of canine communication, improves the human-animal bond.

Theory 4: By-product of Biological Processes

Play may occur due to “insufficient environmental stimulation, excess energy, displaced behavior, or artificial selection,” the authors wrote. For example, dogs may play to relieve boredom. Notably, playfulness could be linked genetically to paedomorphism (adult retention of juvenile traits) and may have been indirectly selected for during breeding.

Welfare Implications

Individual Play

Individual play with objects can improve welfare by increasing arousal and decreasing fear and stress, which is especially important for shelter animals. However, individual play can also indicate an unwillingness to interact with other dogs or a coping mechanism for insufficient environmental situation, suggesting poor welfare.

Intraspecific Play

Intraspecific play improves social relationships, particularly when dogs begin playing as juveniles. In groups of adult dogs, such play can improve welfare by reducing social tension. However, morphologic changes due to breeding (eg, shorter legs, docked tails) have reduced dogs’ ability to communicate playful behavior, potentially increasing intraspecific aggression and reducing welfare.

Interspecific Play

Dogs rarely play by themselves if humans are present. Dog-human play can improve welfare by reducing aggression and improving the human-animal bond. However, because humans largely control dog-human play interactions, dogs may exhibit playlike behavior to please their owners, potentially indicating negative welfare.

Conclusions

The literature mostly supports the theories of motor skill development and social cohesion for dog play functions, the authors concluded, with play function likely influenced by stage of play (initiation, performance, cessation). In addition, play may indicate positive or negative welfare, depending on play stage and type.

Taken together, “early experience, prior life-history and the context of the interaction define the association between play and welfare,” the authors wrote.

Dr. Pendergrass received her DVM degree from the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine. Following veterinary school, she completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Emory University’s Yerkes National Primate Research Center. Dr. Pendergrass is the founder and owner of JPen Communications, a medical communications company.