The Dog Days of Summer: How Dogs Play

Adapted from pages 92-95 of The Dog:

Rough and tumble is a form of play-fighting for dogs and only rarely escalates to real conflict. To ensure harmless play, dogs need to get the necessary experience as puppies. Photo credit: Dora Zett, Shutterstock

In social species, play represents one of the most complex interactions between two members of a group. The behavior elements displayed during play are actions borrowed from various other behavioral contexts (including agonistic and predatory), but they are modified versions of the original actions and can be combined in novel ways. At the higher level of complexity, during play the partners need to cooperate and adjust their actions in order to achieve their common goal of playing together.

Social play appears to serve many functions in juveniles, improving physical fitness and motor skills, and helping the puppy to learn social skills such as bite inhibition. Social play allows dogs to practice and combine actions they will use later in their lives, and in general play also prepares them for the unexpected. In dogs (and wolves) social play is not limited to juvenile individuals—adults play too— so one main role of play is to maintain the social cohesion of the group.

One of the biggest questions in the study of dyadic play is whether intentional descriptions are appropriate when we interpret the dog’s behavior. Play can take many forms, from simple learned play, such as ball fetching, to pretend play, where the dog displays signals indicating an inner state (aggression, for example) that is not real, such as when the dog pretends he is defending an object.

Play signals have several functions: They clearly distinguish such interactions from real competitive situations, and they serve to initiate play and also to synchronize the actions of the partners. Play signals can be highly variable and can include open mouth display, high-pitched barking, bounding over to the other dog in an exaggerated manner, a bowed head, pawing, or exaggerated retreat. Barking used as a play signal is specific to dogs; it is absent in the play of other canines.

The best-known, highly stereotyped play signal in dogs is the play-bow. It not only conveys the playful intent but it is also used after ambiguous behaviors (such as a playful bite or snap) to display the dog’s willingness to continue the interaction. When the play partners are familiar with each other, bows most often occur after a brief pause with the aim of reinitiating play.

It was once assumed that competitive games increase agonistic tendencies in behavior, suggesting an effect of play activity on later sociability with partners. It turned out, however, that competitive games do not increase aggressive tendencies in real-life situations. On the contrary, it seems that the type of game dogs prefer to play depends on whether they have a cooperative or competitive personality.

Over time dog and owners develop a routine of games, and dogs do not generalize these behavior routines to other, functionally different situations. Thus, it is very important, starting during puppy age, that the dog gets many opportunities to play with other dogs and also humans. Play is one of the best ways to improve the physical and social skills of dogs, and it also facilitates people’s understanding of their companion. A day without play is a lost day!

The Dog: A Natural History
By Ádám Miklósi

As one of the oldest domesticated species, selectively bred over millennia to possess specific behaviors and physical characteristics, the dog enjoys a unique relationship with humans. More than any other animal, dogs are attuned to human behavior and emotions, and accordingly play a range of roles in society, from police and military work to sensory and emotional support. Selective breeding has led to the development of more than three hundred breeds that, despite vast differences, still belong to a single species, Canis familiaris.

The Dog is an accessible, richly illustrated, and comprehensive introduction to the fascinating natural history and scientific understanding of this beloved species. Ádám Miklósi, a leading authority on dogs, provides an appealing overview of dogs’ evolution and ecology; anatomy and biology; behavior and society; sensing, thinking, and personality; and connections to humans.

Illustrated with some 250 color photographs, The Dog begins with an introductory overview followed by an exploration of the dog’s prehistoric origins, including current research about where and when canine domestication first began. The book proceeds to examine dogs’ biology and behavior, paying particular attention to the physiological and psychological aspects of the ways dogs see, hear, and smell, and how they communicate with other dogs and with humans. The book also describes how dogs learn about their physical and social environments and the ways they form attachments to humans. The book ends with a section showcasing a select number of dog breeds to illustrate their amazing physical variety.

Beautifully designed and filled with surprising facts and insights, this book will delight anyone who loves dogs and wants to understand them better.

This post is part of a series, explore additional posts here<< Dog Days of Summer: Communication & RitualizationThe Dog Days of Summer: Social Behavior & Hunting >>