Puppies learn bite inhibition and stable, emotional temperaments by playing with their littermates and inanimate objects. It is agreed that that whilst dogs take great delight in playing there does seem to be some more serious and practical purpose behind it also.
Miller (2008 p.7) suggests that dogs that play are more mentally and physically healthy and that the benefits of play are:
- develops a solid relationship between you and your dog
- helps your dog develop and retain valuable social skills
- provides superb mental and physical exercise, preventing boredom
- adds valuable and varied reinforcers to training
- teaches us about the dog’s personality
- acts as an outlet for the dog’s natural instincts
- stops inappropriate behaviour developing
- assists with behavioural modification programmes
Play is a powerful tool which can influence puppy development, motivation levels in adult dogs and has emotional and physiological benefits as well as communication and general behaviour improvement (London & McConnell, 2008 p.1). If this is the case then why do only some dogs like to play?
Research has found that there are dedicated parts in the mammalian brain for the ‘elaboration and expression of play’ and that these are ‘highly sensitive’ to fear, aggression and nutritional deprivation which causes lesions on the brain. The research suggests that these may cause play activity to become inhibited. Whilst play can have a calming effect on fearful or aggressive dogs, this effect can be overwhelmed as arousal level increases: “play and fear are motivationally antagonistic to each other – fear however asserts a stronger influence over play than play asserts over fear” (Lindsay, 2001 p.90). We must therefore consider that dogs that do not play may feel overwhelmed by their environment or the pressure exerted from the guardian to do so.
There are so many great play activities for our dogs. These include: tugs, chew toys, rubber rings, squeaky toys, balls, knotted ropes, soft toys and fetching items. How you play with your dog has benefits and it has been found that the most effective methods of initiating play with dogs are running toward or away from the dog or the guardian tapping their own chest, mimicking the start-stop of dog to dog play; the vertical bow or a human version of the ‘play bow’ are the most successful when accompanied by vocalisations. We can also use ‘play faces’ to initiate play; open, circular, smiling mouth, open eyes and relaxed facial muscles. Run away chase games could condition our dogs to ‘keep away’ from us or over-excite them causing them to grab us with their mouths. Behaviours that happen naturally are easier to train e.g. ball retrieval and these have a hedonistic effect on our dogs and that this can be more rewarding than food rewards. When enough reinforcement history is made from ‘play’ we can conclude that the actual play activity becomes a reinforcer itself for other behaviour. It is important to keep the dog on a long line whilst teaching this behaviour to encourage the dog to retrieve and drop the ball by feeding treats when the ball is brought near the guardian.
I attended a fantastic workshop with play master Craig Ogilvie last year. He states that ‘play sparks a great feeling of fun and excitement for both dog and handler’ but reminds us that we must not overpower our dogs during the act of play, if we do then play can become punitive and our dogs can lose the desire to play. He advises us that frequent unintentional mistakes include: over-shaking toys so that the dog lets go of the toy; lifting the dog off the ground; running too fast with the toy; erratically moving when the dog has hold of the toy and boisterous physical contact. This type of interaction can result in our dogs preferring to play with toys by themselves, becoming possessive over the toy or losing interest altogether. It is well worth reading his book – Interactive Play.
We must strive to achieve a connection with our dogs. Clothier (2002) states that this is achieved by developing our understanding to a spiritual level. She believes that a scientific approach when used in isolation can hinder our connection development. She suggests that this connection is more than a technical (mechanistic) skill to get dogs to do our bidding; more than an understanding of what motivates a dog (food, toys or a desire to play) and utilising this to manipulate the dog’s internal environment; it is actually about letting go of our egos in a favour of a heartfelt approach to ‘partnership’ and a recognition that connection is occurring all the time, not just in the moments of engagement and that it is deeply individualistic to its relationship participants. Play is perhaps not a skill but is in fact an art and an abandonment between each party to simply enjoy themselves in a mutual bond.
So get out with your dog and play! Your relationship will benefit enormously from it. The dog walk is a human construct and too often it is about our convenience and not meeting our dog’s needs. Try adding 5-10 minutes of play in each walk.
Clothier, S. (2002) Bones Would Rain From The Sky. New York: Grand Central Publishing.
Lindsay S.R. (2000) Handbook of Applied Dog Behaviour & Training: Procedures & Protocols. Vol.1. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
Lindsay S.R. (2001) Handbook of Applied Dog Behaviour & Training: Procedures & Protocols. Vol.2. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
Miller, P. (2008) Play With Your Dog. Washington: Dogwise Publishing.
If you need a helping hand please get in touch using the button below. I offer individually tailored 1-2-1 Canine Coaching to help you develop your relationship with your dog. We will work together to improve your training skills. Sessions can be in the comfort of your home or in a real life setting to suit your needs. Each session is 1-2 hours long and include a follow up email and telephone support. Sessions start at £45, packages are available for multiple sessions.
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