Games Dogs Play.

We all know that our dogs love to play with us, but they also seem to enjoy playing games by themselves and each other. This Holidays 4 Dogs article will consider what purpose there is, if any, to why dogs play.

Even as adults, dogs will regularly engage in play activities with their owners or with their canine peers and appear to have a great deal of fun doing so, but the scientific reason for this behaviour is unclear and there is a surprising lack of research in this field.

For puppies, it is quite probable that play between their litter mates is a way of learning the social interactions that occur between other dogs. Many of the behaviours employed in games between dogs consists of actions such as mouthing or biting which might normally be associated with aggression or fighting for instance, but puppies learn how to inhibit their bites during play and learn to read signals from other litter mates when play becomes to rough. It can sometimes be a little alarming to watch play between dogs because this does often involve the use of mouths or teeth – (deciding when play is too rough between dogs is covered in our other Holidays 4 Dogs article elsewhere on the website).

Types of play.

There are different sorts of play behaviour that dogs will tend to adopt, such as oral play, predatory play, sexual and social play.

SAM_2960Young puppies need to mouth and chew objects particularly around teething time at about six months of age, when chewing helps with tooth loss and relieves discomfort.

SAM_1658Predatory play involves chasing moving objects such as balls, sticks, leaves and each other. For some breeds of dog, this sort of play remains important well into adulthood and if they are unable to do so in socially positive ways, their behaviour can develop into negative activities such as chasing vehicles or becoming obsessive about chasing shadows, for example.

Social play between dogs is highly important for understanding the rules of communication and very often this involves ‘role reversal’ where the dogs take it in turns be the pursuer and the attacker. Through this type of play the dog learns which of his behaviour patterns are appropriate. Every dog has a different style of playing and so it should always be remembered that not all dogs are comfortable playing with other dogs, possibly because they have not learnt these skills enough when puppies – but also perhaps because they simply prefer interaction with people. Different breeds also have different styles of playing with other dogs – collies love to race in circles and partake in ‘fly bys’ scooting closely past other dogs with an invitation to chase. Boxers are pretty adept at body slamming and pawing, while terriers and lurchers enjoy physical combat and rough and tumble with lots of noise!

Sexual play is seen in both male and female dogs, often more prevalent in younger dogs, especially those that have not yet been neutered. This sort of play involves practicing mounting and ‘humping’ in order to ensure more success for actual reproduction. Sexual play, unfortunately, can be directed onto inanimate objects or people.

While dogs like to play with their own canine friends this does not necessarily stop them from wanting to play with their owners and they are quite happy to play similar games especially when toys are involved. However, although some researchers claim that toys only really become exciting and desirable when they are included in a game with a human, many dogs will happily amuse themselves with toys for hours on end.

My own two dogs are certainly testimony to the fact that dogs are quite happy to engage in solitary play. Floss the collie, in particular, will play with her soft toys for great lengths at a time and with great gusto – she will shake and ‘kill’ her toy before tossing it high into the air, then pounce on it with her front legs pinning it to the floor while she pulls at its head. What is more, she appears to thoroughly enjoy this experience which is a fairly interesting factor when you consider she does not actually like or enjoy interacting with other dogs, let alone playing with them. Jasper, the Labrador, also plays with his toys on his own but he does so with a little less enthusiasm and enjoys real interaction with other dogs or games with people.

Little research has been carried out on dogs at play with each other and what it all might mean, other than seemingly a great deal of fun. Professor Marc Beckoff, a cognitive ethnologist at the University of Colorado has been studying animal behaviour since the early 1970’s and spent four years of that time observing and filming wolves and coyotes at play in a large enclosure.

SAM_1666It was Beckoff that noticed the ‘play bow’ – by slowing down film he was able to study this particularly behaviour the wolves displayed during play. He also noticed that dogs reverse roles during play or even deliberately provide the other dog with an advantage. Beckoff realised that throughout the play there were many signals such as a particular way a tail was wagged or a certain change in direction of gaze. Beckoff postulated that without these signals a happy rough and tumble could easily turn into a nasty fight. There seems to be rules to the game and in wild coyotes it has been observed that members of the pack who don’t stick to the rules are excluded.

Dogs have inherited this form of communication from their wild cousins which demonstrates their skill in cooperation. This is why it is important to socialise your dog with lots of different dogs and in different situations so they get the chance to learn the rules and signals of the game.

Watching dogs at play is one of the nicer aspects of dog owning – when you see your dog signalling the ‘play bow’, with his bottom in the air, lolling tongue, wagging tail and perhaps the odd bark – you know the fun is about to start!

Andrea Gordon BSc. and dog trainer.