Watching dogs play is very exciting, and there has been a lot empirical research on how and why dogs (and other animals) engage in this activity with boundless zeal. A number of people have asked me to comment about dog play after reading this section in a new book by Raymond Coppinger and Mark Feinstein called How Dogs Work. So, I decided to do so.
The authors begin their chapter 9 on play by claiming, “Hundreds of scientific papers have been written on the subject of ‘play’ behavior—an activity for which dogs are, of course, famous.” Recognizing that there is a solid and growing literature on play—there’s really no reason to put the word play in square quotes—I assumed that what followed would be a detailed review of this research, but rather, what I discovered was a disjointed discussion of play and not an in-depth review of the scientific literature. Instead, the authors offer their own unpublished observations and the results of unpublished student projects, all of which are impossible to assess.
Do dogs and other animals actually play? Coppinger and Feinstein write that they put the word play in scare quotes because “in spite of the fact that people feel like they know it when they see it, it’s not at all obvious that play is a unitary ‘thing-in-itself’ that can easily be characterized, let alone explained in evolutionary terms.” No one I know who has spent years studying play would argue that play is a “unitary ‘thing-in-itself’,” nor would they agree that play cannot be explained “in evolutionary terms.” Indeed, some of the references the authors include show there are a number of highly plausible evolutionary explanations (and the University of Tennessee’s Gordon Burghardt, who has studied comparative aspects of play for many years and wrote The Genesis of Animal Play, provided the Foreword for Coppinger and Feinstein’s book).
Why do animals play? Briefly, various theories have been offered about why animals play, and there’s no one explanation that fits all examples of animal play. Detailed comparative data show play is important in social development, physical development, and cognitive development. And, neurobiological research strongly suggests play can be pleasurable and fun and animals may simply play because it feels good, “for the hell of it.” Indeed, many researchers are taking fun seriously, and the 25th anniversary issue of the journal Current Biology was devoted to the biology of fun with many play researchers weighing in on the topic. Coppinger and Feinstein write, “We agree that there is good reason to believe that animals derive pleasure from play - indeed they do from all of their motor activities.” (my emphasis) While animals might derive pleasure from play, eating, and sex, it’s difficult to argue they feel good running from competitors or predators, but the necessary research has not been done.
Based on an extensive review of available literature, my colleagues Marek Spinka, Ruth Newberry, and I proposed that that play functions as training for the unexpected by increasing the versatility of movements and the ability to recover from sudden shocks, such as the loss of balance and falling over, and to enhance the ability of animals to cope emotionally with unexpected stressful situations. To obtain this training, we suggested that animals actively seek and create unexpected situations in play and actively put themselves into disadvantageous positions and situations.