As Stuart Brown outlined in his TED Talk in 2009 “Play is more than Fun”, Play is an essential part of cognitive, emotional and physical development. True Play doesn’t have a purpose more important than playing itself.
Neurologist Frank Wilson (author of The Hand) also points out that Play—especially Object Play early in life—enhances the ability to problem-solve. Play is part of exploration and learning. This is no different for humans than other mammals; including dogs. Play is vital. Play is also not just a rehearsal for life, as we previously believed. Play is more. Play serves an important biological function, like sleeping and dreaming. In addition, Play Deprivation has been observed as a major contributor to anti-social and even criminal behaviors.
When a mother and her infant make eye contact, each experience joy. This is a personal, emotional play.
Body Play and Movement:
Body movement fosters learning. Innovation, flexibility, adaptability, resilience, all have their roots in movement.
Curiosity about and playing with objects/toys is fun. Skills of manipulating objects develop through playing with toys and generally using our hands (or paws) help build richer brain circuits. Effective adult problem-solving skills develop from manipulative skills acquired at an early age.
A key aspect of Play behavior. Learning to belong is developed in Social Play. A specific variation is Rough-And-Tumble-Play, which helps develop social regulation and cognitive, emotional and physical development.
Imaginative and Pretend Play:
The ability to create our own sense of our mind is key to innovation and creativity.
Stories help us to understand ourselves and others.
A good imagination and the ability to fantasize are key to developing new ideas.
Obviously, some of these patterns apply more to humans than any other species but essentially, Play helps brain development, social regulation and is fun—those elements are universal. Interesting side note: the opposite of play is not work, it’s depression.
Dogs love to play! Some dogs prefer playing with toys and will enjoy some toys more than others. Some dogs enjoy playing with food and some dogs enjoy personal play. Just like with humans, Play is an essential part of canine development. Dogs that play and socialize regularly are healthier, more balanced, more curious, calmer, less reactive and just a lot more fun to live with.
If you want to have the best relationship you can have with your dog and you want your friend to be happy, make sure your furry family member gets to play with you, with other dogs, and with toys.
For this reason,play-based-training is the most enjoyable for your dog and leads to the fastest training results, while also improving your relationship. If learning doesn’t feel like work, you want to do more and learn faster, that is no different for your dog.
The best way to play with your dog, is playing in a way your dog enjoys. You may want to throw a ball and have your dog bring it back to you, but if your dog doesn’t enjoy that sequence as much as you do, he won’t be enthusiastic about it and quit early. It’s only fun for your dog if he gets to play the way he enjoys it. Some dogs love the throw-ball-fetch-and-throw-again-game and for those dogs, that is the best game in the world. But if your dog doesn’t want to bring the ball back or ends up sitting away from you after retrieving it, to chew on it, he is clearly more interested in a different kind of game.
The aspects of play dogs enjoy, are all part of the predatory hunting sequence: Searching—Stalking—Chasing—Fighting—Celebrating—Consuming (if you want to take a deep dive into this, I recommend the lecture Tug: A Deeper Perspective by Jay Jack from Next Level Dogs).
Not all dogs enjoy all play aspects equally, but these are the six key elements. The other differentiator is the kind of player your dog is: supportive or competitive.
A supportive player wants to play WITH you. A dog that brings the ball back after you threw it, is such a player.
A competitive player wants to play AGAINST you. Such a dog enjoys conflict in Play and may keep the ball from you, as he wants you to chase him. Voracious tug-of-war-players are another example.
Of course, you can train fetch-and-retrieve to a dog that prefers playing different games, but then it’s no longer Play, it’s work. It may be how you want to play, but if your dog doesn’t, you have two options. You can either spend the time to train your dog to play the game you want but that may no longer be fun for you (and now you know how your dog feels about that game), or just play with your dog the way he enjoys. I recommend the latter.
This is how you get started:
Observe your dog when playing. Throw a ball, see what he does. Try playing tug, see what happens. Watch him play with other dogs or on his own. Pay attention to what you see.
Does your dog explore? Run under bushes? Is curious about things? He may enjoy searching. Play hide and seek games with him. Hide treats for him to find. Or get him involved in a tracking club. Or scent work.
Does your dog freeze in place to stare down smaller animals before chasing them? He is stalking. Good hunters know how to stalk well. If your dog seems to like this, make him wait for toys or treats. If he moves towards them, pull them back and try again. Encourage him to stalk the toy or treat. He only gets it if he patiently waits for the toy/treat to come to him.
Does your dog enjoy chasing after toys, or other dogs or food you throw? Does your dog try to catch squirrels, rabbits, or birds, etc.? Your dog enjoys chasing. Most dogs enjoy chasing. Throw balls or other toys for your dog to chase after.
Does your dog enjoy solving problems or dog puzzles, overcome obstacles, show interest in figuring out how to get into something? Those are all fighting activities. Overcoming obstacles or resistance is fighting; don’t just think of it in terms of physical altercations. Obviously, we don’t want physical fights with other animals or people. So, surrogate activities that include the element of overcoming resistance are great alternatives your dog will enjoy.
Does your dog have a swagger in his gait after getting a ball and bringing it back? Does he like carrying things around in his mouth after he got them? Your dog is celebrating. Make sure you always let him hold on to things for a bit after he retrieves something for you. Always allow for celebration before asking for the ball or toy back. Too many people deprive their dogs of their celebrations.
Does your dog chew a lot? Does he keep toys, lie down somewhere and chew on them instead of bringing them back to you? Does your dog love to work for treats? Your dog like consuming. Let him consume. Offer food to get toys back. Add food to toy play routines at the end of a play round.
Once you understand how your dog likes to play, design games he will enjoy. You can include all these play aspects when playing with food or toys or even in personal play. You can also combine different play types. For example. you could play tug with a tug toy (or rope, or a large roll of rawhide) and for consumption offer high-value treats.
Let your dog tell you what he enjoys and play accordingly.
By figuring out what kind of player your dog is and what aspects of play he enjoys, you can create and play the most fun games with your dog. It will take your relationship to a new level. And if you need help designing the perfect games for you and your dog, give us a call. We offer in person and virtual sessions for game design.
Play is the way!
Ralf Weber is a certified dog trainer and behaviorist. A professional member of the International Association of Canine Professionals (IACP), an AKC evaluator for Puppy S.T.A.R., Canine Good Citizen and Community Canine certifications, author of the dog behavioral book: "If Your Dog Could Talk" and owner of the dog training company Happy Dog Training. Ralf works with clients in Southern California and can be contacted through his website at HappyDogTraining.info.