Behaviorist Patricia McConnell has observed that when it comes to dogs and people, “play isn’t what makes our relationship with each other better, play is what creates the relationship in the first place.” With that in mind, recent findings of a Bristol University survey are worrying: most of the 4,000 respondents simply didn’t spend enough time playing with their dogs. The UK-based study also found a clear link between “limited playtime and animal behavior problems, such as being nervous when left alone, disobedience and snapping at other animals.”
Others have taken note of the role of play in our dogs’ lives as well. Marc Bekoff, one of the leading scientists of animal play, has said, “We train too much and play too little. … Whenever you are playing together, you and your dog learn the most important rules of social interaction: mutual trust, accepting the limitations of the other individual and dealing fairly with each other.”
Play is also ripe with opportunities for shared joy. As Mechtild Käufer, author of Canine Play Behavior, writes, during play, you and your dog experience “moments in which two species— human and dog—really become one.”
So, how does all this research and insight play out (no pun intended) in real life? Here are some data points to keep in mind.
> Play develops trust and increases the degree and amount of attention your dog will pay to you. (Particularly if you let your dog win occasionally, including when playing tug.)
> It also develops communication. To get your dog’s attention, hold a toy out in front of you, slap both hands on the ground, play bow or make a quick forward movement.
> Dogs will play longer with humans than with other dogs; they’re also less competitive and will both present and surrender toys to the human more frequently.
> Play signals given by humans are more likely to elicit a response when accompanied by play vocalizations.
> Dogs in multi-dog households are more (rather than less) interested in playing with humans.
> Dogs who frequently play rough-and-tumble games with their humans have fewer problems with separation anxiety and are more self-confident.
> Dogs score higher in “obedient attentiveness” after play sessions than before the sessions, according to researchers Nicola Rooney and John Bradshaw, which suggests that training after play can be highly effective.
> They call it “play” because it’s not goal-oriented. Try not to focus on winning ribbons or breaking records—in that case, it’s more like work, and the positive aspects disappear.
So, what are you waiting for? Go have a romp with your dog!
For more on this fascinating topic, add Canine Play Behavior by Mechtild Käufer and Play Together, Stay Together by Karen B. London and Patricia B. McConnell to your reading list.