For dogs, play is a rehearsal for real life. Trainer Carol Price reveals the invaluable lessons dogs learn from playing with each other and with us.
Play is something we may think of as a purely pleasurable, recreational activity, but for the wider animal kingdom it has a much more vital purpose — particularly for animals like dogs who have long owed their survival to their ability to work together as a social group or pack.
Play is really part of the social glue that keeps them together, which is why you tend to see it so often in dogs who are related, live together, or have otherwise forged a close social bond when they were younger.
Play is also the way a dog starts rehearsing for real life, starting from very early puppyhood. To the more casual observer, the umpteen games and tussles of a new litter of puppies may seem like ‘fun’, but the puppies will also be learning so much about themselves and each other, like who is stronger or weaker, who they can more easily bully or take toys or food from, and the limits of how hard they can bite each other without triggering a painful retaliation (otherwise known as bite inhibition).
Lessons learned for the future
Often what puppies learn from their earliest play interactions with others can be carried on into their later life and behaviour. This can include a sense of greater inferiority or vulnerability, greater ability to bully or dominate others, or the rewards of using aggression to keep others away from their ‘stuff’. This is why it is so important for any breeder to try to better understand and control what puppies learn from their play (see ‘The lessons of play’ right) to ensure any potentially more harmful things aren’t learned by dogs during this highly formative phase of life.
Things that more greatly concern me, when watching any litter of pups play, are individuals who seem more persistently detached or distanced from their littermates, and less interested in becoming actively involved with their games, as this could suggest a dog with lower social abilities. Neither do I like bullying pups who not only play more roughly and aggressively with others, but do not stop when the pup they are bullying yelps to signify his unhappiness or distress. Again, the bullying pup could well take the same behaviour forward into his future interactions with other dogs. And the pup who is bullied, realising that the normal code for making another dog stop hurting them — namely a yelp — does not work, could learn to become more fearful of other dogs and their intentions, or even more defensive themselves.
More positive signs
Often the best place to get a pup is somewhere where there are also several other adult dogs present, capable of telling young pups, in an assertive yet essentially benign way, when their ‘playful’ behaviour is less socially acceptable to other dogs. All too often puppies who have not had their more presumptuous or over-boisterous approaches to play checked by adult dogs when they were younger can come a cropper trying the same behaviour later on less tolerant, older dogs.
Something I also like to see, as a potential puppy owner, is one who, when I throw a toy, immediately goes and brings it to me to play with them, rather than take the toy away to play with by themselves. The first suggests a dog who values the interaction with me more than the toy itself, and these usually turn out to be dogs who are far more rewarding to work with and train.
Dogs soon learn that playing with people can be rewarding too.
Playing with people
That said, it is still possible to teach most dogs the joys and rewards of interacting with people, if you start young enough and always make your games with them positive and fun. And it is also a massive part of their next major adventure in life — learning to live with humans.
Often the huge social adjustment puppies have to make from around eight weeks onwards is under-appreciated. They begin their lives identifying as dogs, and playing and socially relating to each other as dogs, then suddenly all this stops when they go to new homes, and they find themselves having to reset this whole social learning process with people instead. It can cause many young dogs confusion, during which they may still attempt to interact or play with humans as if they were other dogs, including a lot of boisterous behaviour and nipping; the latter of which should always be discouraged.
You can use toys to teach your dog to share and return items.
Another thing it is incredibly important to teach any puppy is how to share things — including toys — with others, and give back to you when asked anything they have got or taken.
Playmates often form a strong social bond when they are young.
Understanding different ‘play brains’ in dogs
The way dogs play, and how long in life they like to continue playing with others, often has a genetic element or will be breed-related. In terriers, for instance, play may revolve around more predatory behaviours like chasing things then tearing them to pieces, which is why few toys — especially furrier or squeaky ones — tend to last long with them.
Softer-mouthed gundogs/retriever breeds on the other hand may be gentler on toys and also keener on the experience of bringing them to you.
Herding breeds like collies can very quickly get obsessed with the movement of toys, and chasing them, so you have to be careful not to let this kind of play go on for too long, to the point where the dog is suffering from more intense mental and physical over-stimulation.
If not introduced to puppies at a specific phase of early social development, toys can become something that they can no longer relate to, or know what to do with, when they get older. This is a common issue in dogs who have come from more deprived early rearing backgrounds, especially those featuring minimum positive human input.
You can learn a lot by studying a litter of pups and how they interact.
For some dogs, play of any kind is something restricted to puppyhood, which they cease to have much interest in once they develop more adult brains or identities. And in the main, the older dogs get, the lower their interest can be in having boisterous games with others.
It is not always realised that the dogs with the greatest urge to keep playing with toys or others all their lives usually only do so as a result of retaining more ‘puppyish’ brains. This form of more arrested development in dogs is a genetic quirk selectively bred in them for generations, as a way of making them not only more appealing to us as companions, but also that much easier to bond with, train, and control.
The dangers of play
The size differences in many dog breeds today means that things are not always physically even when they play together — a reason why so many dogs, and owners, can get injured when dogs play roughly or enthusiastically together, and things get heated or over-excited. So, if you have a smaller dog in particular, do be aware of the risks of bigger dogs landing on them or bowling them over, and indeed how easy it is for any dog to get injured in play once things get a bit more physical or rough.