Four Scientific Studies on Dogs and Play

Having fun is serious business
By Karen B. London PhD, June 2009

As members of the dog-loving community, we should all be proud of our emphasis on play as an important aspect of our dogs’ lives. We have long understood that for most of our pups, playing with other dogs and playing with humans enhances their quality of life and improves their overall comportment.

During the past few years, scientific research into play has emerged from a long period during which play was not considered a proper topic for serious inquiry. Luckily, the flurry of research on this subject has included canine studies, many of which have practical applications for those of us who both love playing with our dogs and place a high value on play.

1. Response to Signals. Rooney, Bradshaw and Robinson (2001) investigated dogs’ responses to human play signals. They found that humans do communicate playful intent to their dogs, and that their various behaviors when doing so can be considered interspecific play signals. Additionally, they found that the success of signals used by humans to instigate play was unrelated to the frequency of use. For example, patting the floor as well as whispering were both often used by people attempting to initiate play with their dogs, but dogs showed a low rate of playful response to these signals.

In contrast, when people ran toward the dog, ran away from the dog or tapped their own chests, the signals were highly effective at communicating an intent to play and thus, at initiating play with dogs; none of these was used frequently by human study participants, however. Human play signals were more successful at eliciting play when accompanied by play vocalizations. This study indicates that we should pay attention to whether or not the ways we try to entice our dogs to play with us are actually effective at getting them to do so. It also suggests that we should consider adding vocalizations to our play-signal repertoire to make them more effective. [See: Do dogs respond to play signals given by humans? Animal Behaviour, 61:715– 722.]

2. Effects on Relationships. Rooney and Bradshaw (2002) found that dogs scored higher in “obedient attentiveness” after play sessions with people than before the sessions; this suggests that there is good evidence for the common belief that training after a play session can be highly effective. In the same study, the researchers found that the relative status of a human-dog pair was unaffected by whether or not dogs were allowed to “win” at games by, for example, retaining possession of the toy after playing tug. There is a caveat, though; the most playful dogs in the study exhibited significantly higher amounts of playful attention- seeking when they were allowed to win. These findings indicate that while there is no problem from a status point of view in allowing a dog to “win” at games, it may be better not to allow it with those dogs who become relentlessly pushy about seeking more play time. [See: An experimental study of the effects of play upon the dog-human relationship. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 75:161–176.]

3. Influence on Attachment. Rooney and Bradshaw (2003) found a correlation between games with a lot of physical contact and decreased amounts of low level separation-related behavior, such as staying by the door through which the owner had just left or vocalizing in the absence of the owner. It is worth considering that certain types of play may influence our dogs’ attachment to us, and also exploring the many ways that increased physical contact, including that which takes place during play, may shape our relationship. [See: Links between play and dominance and attachment dimensions of dog-human relationships. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 6:67–94.]

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).

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.