Reggie is almost seven years old and darn it if he doesn’t want to play constantly. He is not so much enthused with taking walks (although I make him), but put a ball in front of him- especially throw it in water!- and look out world. His appetite for play has never waned although his ability to go for long periods has certainly diminished in the past couple years. Ever the thinker, I wonder why do adult dogs even play? Is it sheer boredom because the majority of dogs are home alone all day? Is it some kind of domesticated evolutionary prey drive thing? Well let’s see…
It is generally considered that domestic dogs are juvenile wolves, genetically speaking. That being so, some juvenile behaviors would be normal. A juvenile wolf playing in the wild would be easy prey for a predator and that behavior would not last last long- certainly not into adulthood. But dogs are, again, genetically considered wolves that never grew up so play behavior lasts a lifetime.
Play provides social interaction. Just because they have outgrown puppyhood doesn’t mean they have stopped learning. Dog-dog interaction is critical to how dogs learn to communicate with each other. A poke in the side or a play-bow is an invitation to play, whereas a nip on the muzzle or a growl is a signal that someone has had enough. A study involving adult Labradors to assess if they play differently with humans versus others dogs found that in dog-dog play dogs were less likely to give up a toy and more likely to compete over it, such as a tug toy. In dog-human play dogs were more likely to surrender the toy, indicating that the game of play is different depending on the species.
Play is fun. Have you ever seen your dog go get his favorite toy and then run around and play by himself? I have. Reggie will grab the toy-du-jour and run around tossing it in the air, shaking his head, and throwing it- and then running and pouncing on it. And then he’ll run over to me and drop it in front of me as if to say, “ see how fun this is? Now you do it!” Rewarding activities increase the happy hormones like oxytocin and create a good feeling in our dogs. If it makes you feel good, why wouldn’t you want to do it again?
Of course, opportunities for training are everywhere, everyday. Use play as training! If your dog is doing something that they love and is rewarding to them, training can be easier for you. A tip from Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist Patricia McConnell, PhD, is to use toys and swap them for something different, like a treat. If you want whatever your dog has (toy, your shoe, piece of pizza, etc.) offer her something she finds better than what she already has- like a treat she rarely gets or a piece of cooked chicken. The idea behind this is not that you are reinforcing bad behavior (getting a treat for eating your shoe) but the opposite (getting a treat for releasing your shoe). Your dog will learn that there is something better than whatever it is they are presently doing. You can turn this into a game! I have had Reggie chasing me around the house with a treat in my hand to make him “work for it” before receiving it. Just make sure you actually give them the treat otherwise that’s mean.
Do you ever stand outside with your arms out and spin in circles? Ok, maybe only with your kids, and when no one is looking? It’s actually pretty fun right? It gives you that carefree happy-happy feeling. That’s probably what your dog feels like when playing. Domestic dogs exist just to make us happy, so when I walk in the door and Reggie wants to play I want to make sure he has that feeling as much as possible, to have the best life as possible!