It’s easy to feel sorry for this Bulldog when it looks like he falls and rolls down a grassy hill. Within 30 seconds, though, he has twice gone back up the hill and rolled down again. Clearly, he is playing, and having a great time at it.
Many animals engage in play seemingly just for fun, and dogs are arguably the champions, spending huge amounts of time engaged in play. The playful activities that dogs do for the sake of a good time include wrestling, chasing, fetching, tugging, rolling, leaping and pouncing.
To do something “just for fun”, scientifically speaking, is a bit weird because it takes away from the limited time and energy animals have for essential activities such as acquiring food, finding and courting mates, drinking, growing bigger than their rivals and fighting them. Play is costly in other ways, too. Injury is an inherent risk due to the physical, thrill-seeking nature of play. There’s also the danger of being attacked by predators while too absorbed in play to be on the lookout. Play must be highly valuable to offset its considerable costs, and in fact, it is. Generally speaking, playful behavior makes animals more competitive in the game of life. It increases their success by helping them to survive and reproduce more than less playful individuals.
Scientists have discovered a number of highly specific benefits of play in different animal species. Ground squirrels who engage in play frequently are more coordinated and rear more young than those who play less. The most playful feral horses are more likely to live until their first birthday than their less playful peers. More playful bears have a greater chance of surviving until they are independent of their moms than less playful cubs. Rats who are deprived of opportunities to play lack social skills as adults. Compared to rats who are able to play, they are more likely to behave badly in tough social situations, either running away and shaking, or having the equivalent of a rat temper tantrum. One study found that the more rats played, the bigger their brains grew.
Though canine survival and reproduction is heavily influenced by humans in many areas of the word, that does not mean that dogs are free of the evolutionary influences that made play such a valuable activity. Play still helps them develop a variety of social and cognitive as well as physical skills. Dogs who lack opportunities to play as puppies often have impulse control issues, poor bite inhibition and lack the social skills to interact properly with other dogs as adults.
Although scientists agree that play is valuable, there is still significant debate about the specific purpose of play, which may vary among species. Perhaps it allows animals a safe way to practice important behavior, such as predation or combat with members of their own species. The purpose of play may be to get physical exercise or to improve dexterity, agility, reaction time, or cognitive skills. Developing creativity or problem-solving skills could make play beneficial. Perhaps the opportunity to practice handling the unexpected is important, so that during life-or-death-situations, animals are capable of responding effectively to the danger. Socialization or relieving anxiety may also be important factors that favor play in animals.
Whether it is swans surfing on ocean waves, dogs treating a river bank like a luge course, dolphins playing underwater catch with seaweed, either by themselves or with other dolphins, many animals love to have fun by playing. Though playful fun is costly in terms of time and energy and imposes serious risks, it is worth it. The fun is just nature’s way of making sure that animals engage in the highly valuable activity of play. That is good news for dog guardians, many of whom view canine play as nothing more and nothing less than one of the great joys in life.
Karen B. London, PhD, is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral problems, including aggression. She is the author of five books on canine training and behavior.