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Four Scientific Studies on Dogs and Play
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4. Appropriate Play. Bauer and Smuts (2007) conducted a comprehensive study of play between pairs of dogs and found that contrary to popular belief, dogs can maintain a playful atmosphere even if they are not equalizing their behavior according to the 50:50 rule so commonly considered to be essential for appropriate play. They observed significant departures from symmetrical behavior between dogs who differed greatly in either status or age. They found that role reversals were common during chasing and tackling, but that they never occurred during mounts, muzzle bites or muzzle licks. Their results suggest that when assessing play between pairs of dogs, both the specific dogs and the specific behaviors being observed need to be taken into account when determining whether any play asymmetries are potential problems. [See: Cooperation and competition during dyadic play in domestic dogs, Canis familiaris. Animal Behaviour, 73:489–499.]  The most profound insight into play that scientists can offer dog lovers isn’t necessarily new at all. There has long been ample evidence that playful behavior is associated with good relationships (see, for example, Fagen’s Animal Play Behavior, 1981). This is especially true of parents and their relationships with their children, among other close relationships. Across a variety of species, parents who are the most playful with their offspring enjoy the best relationships with them. Given the loving and fulfilling emotional connections many of us have with those of our family members who happen to be dogs, it’s no wonder that play is so vital a part of the miraculous phenomenon of dogs and people joyfully sharing their lives.

For more studies on animal play, see Marc Bekoff and John A. Byers, eds. Animal Play: Evolutionary, Comparative and Ecological Perspectives (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

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This article first appeared in The Bark,
Issue 50: Sept/Oct 2008

Karen B. London, PhD, is a Bark columnist and a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist specializing in the evaluation and treatment of serious behavior problems in the domestic dog.

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