When your dog presents the end of that tug rope or that battered tennis ball, complete with soft whines and wide, pleading eyes, that’s all the confirmation you need: Playtime is high on your dog’s priority list. (If you have to say “Not now,” it makes you feel like a real meanie.)
Given that drive to fetch, tug and even wrestle, you may be wondering: Why do dogs play and why is it important? The following is an exploration of a dog’s view of playtime, and what pet parents can do to be great facilitators.
Is playtime essential to dogs?
When it comes to talking about playtime with dogs, it can be helpful to take a look back — way, way back, to the dog’s wolf ancestors. During a wolf’s puppyhood, playtime is important to their physical and social development, because they develop their motor skills along with the social skills they’ll need to survive and thrive in the pack environment.
It’s not so different with domesticated dogs. Puppy playtime teaches important things like bite inhibition and communication skills with other dogs, so they can develop good manners and social skills in order to live happy lives. When dogs miss that window of development through puppy play, that can lead to negative behaviors around other dogs.
Unlike wolves, domesticated dogs keep on playing throughout adulthood. This is seen as an adaptive trait, as dogs play to bond with other humans and socialize with other dogs.
When dogs lack access to playtime, negative effects can follow. One study of 4,000 dog owners suggests dogs that don’t get lots of playtime are more likely to have anxiety and aggressiveness, along with other behavioral issues.
As renowned dog researcher John Bradshaw discusses in this piece, the contact, attention and interaction that accompanies play are rewarding to dogs. Though playtime teaches skills such as sniff-searching and retrieval, the “real treat is the interaction,” he says. “Withdraw your attention, ignore the dog, and the dog will find this withdrawal of attention aversive.”
How to play with your dog
Retrieving tennis balls or a game of tug are canine classics most dogs love. If you’re cooped up indoors during foul weather, looking for something that stimulates the brain, or just want to try something new, here are some ideas to try. Whatever you choose, view playtime as a way to connect and bond with your dog.
Advanced training, agility and obedience classes are fun ways to combine exercise and bonding time with your pup. Once you get the hang of the basics, you’ll have a bigger, deeper repertoire for those dog-human playtime sessions. Scent work, dock diving, treibball (which imitates herding) and running through weave poles are all great options worthy of consideration. Check your town for upcoming classes and get signed up.
Put those talented noses to work, and let them play a fun game of hide and seek. Here are three variations that make indoor play easy.
- Place a training treat in containers and boxes placed upside down on the floor.
- Hide their favorite toy in the room, and let them scout it out.
- Command your dog to sit and stay, while you go to another room to hide. When you’re ready, call the dog, lavishing praise when she finds you.
Fair or foul? How to tell playtime from aggression
A canine argument can bring an upsetting end to a trip to the dog park, or to the backyard doggie playdate. However, if you’re not accustomed to knowing what’s all in fun and what’s full-on dog aggression, it can be difficult to interpret the snarls, growls, bared teeth and body slams that characterize both behaviors. In other words, doggie play sessions can become intense!
As long as both dogs are well socialized, let their body language serve as your guide, so you’ll feel confident about whether it’s time to step in and break up the wrestling match.
Signs of friendly dog play
The play bow: At the start of the play session, the play bow will be on display. Look for both dogs to lower their front ends to the ground, while sticking their rears in the air with tails wagging. They may also flash their big, wide-open doggy grins. When dogs do this, that’s their signal that the ensuing play moves are all in fun, with no attack intended.
Dog laughs: Has your pup ever presented a toy while giving loud, full-breath pants, even though the running game hasn’t begun yet? Some dogs kick off their play sessions with these loud, almost vocal, enthusiastic pants. Dog behaviorists call this dog laughter.
It’s all in the belly: During a true dog-dog play session, you’ll see fluid movements and near-constant motion. Another key element is trading off, where they take turns being the “winner” of the fight. For example, you might see one dog in the tango take a deliberate fall. Exposing the belly to the other dog is a sure sign that things are still amicable.
When dog play turns into fighting
The walkaway: Yes, sometimes dogs mess up. A too-hard nip followed by a yelp can be alarming. Well-adjusted dogs should be able to manage this situation on their own. The “wronged” dog might walk away, giving an indignant head-to-toe shake to convey his ruffled emotions. From there, the second dog may try to initiate another round with more play bows, leaving it up to the other dog to take him up on a second chance.
If, however, the other dog walks way with tucked tail, that’s a sign they’re getting more anxiety than joy from the encounter. Maybe a game of chase is more their style than a title wrestling match for champion of the universe. (If three or more dogs are at play, keep an eye on the situation for signs of singling out and ganging up on one of the dogs in the group.) Take the tail tuck as a clear signal that the dog wants out.
Sometimes, dogs can end up offending each other, or they may fail to get along. If it escalates to a fight, that will, again, show up in their body language. In which case, it’s time for both pet parents to step in and separate the two before one of the dogs gets hurt. Look for:
- Rigid posture
- Sharp, sudden, focused movements that indicate attack moves
- Deepening, intensifying growls that become louder in volume
- Hair standing up on the back of the neck
Knowing what your dog needs from playtime, and how to keep it fun, is just one way to ensure your pup lives a happy life.
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