Play is a critical aspect of the behavior of domestic dogs. It’s not just an outlet for excess energy or a way to pass the time, but rather, a complex behavior with numerous implications for a dog’s physical health, mental well-being, and social relationships.
Play and Its Forms
Dogs engage in various forms of play, namely locomotor-rotational, object, and social play (Rooney et al., 2003). Locomotor-rotational play involves self-directed physical activities such as running, jumping, twisting, and rolling. Object play focuses on interactions with inanimate objects, such as toys or balls, while social play involves interactions with other dogs or humans.
Play Throughout the Lifespan
Interestingly, dogs, compared to many other species, maintain high levels of play throughout their lives. Although play peaks at around 8-9 weeks of age, it continues into adulthood at relatively high levels (Pal, 2010). This extended playfulness may be a result of selective breeding for playful traits or a product of neoteny, the retention of juvenile traits into adulthood. Both factors are thought to be byproducts of the domestication process.
Intrinsic and External Benefits of Play
Research suggests that play is not only intrinsically rewarding for dogs (Burghardt, 2005) but also brings about numerous immediate and long-term benefits. Play contributes to a dog’s positive welfare (Held & Spinka, 2011), reduces social tension (Arelis, 2006), and can even indicate a dog’s well-being (Boissy et al., 2007). Play also fosters a successful dog-human relationship, promoting bonding and understanding between the two (Rooney & Bradshaw, 2003).
Implications for Canids in General
While dogs are a focus due to their close relationship with humans, play behavior also extends to wild canids. Even captive adult wolves have been observed to engage in play (Cordoni, 2009). This underscores the possibility that play has intrinsic benefits for canids in general, beyond just being a “luxury” activity.
Understanding and appreciating the importance of play in dogs not only enhances the quality of life for our dogs but also further deepens our bond with them.
- Rooney, N. J., & Bradshaw, J. W. S. (2003). Links between play and dominance and attachment dimensions of dog-human relationships. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 6(2), 67-94. http://esbt.us/hc.
- Pal, S. K. (2010). Maturation and development of social behaviour during early ontogeny in free-ranging dog puppies in West Bengal, India. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 123(3-4), 144-153. http://esbt.us/hb.
- Held, S. D. E., & Spinka, M. (2011). Animal play and animal welfare. Animal Behavior, 81(5), 891-899. http://esbt.us/ha.
- Cordoni, G. (2009). Social play in captive wolves (Canis lupus): not only an immature affair. Behavior, 146(10), 1363-1385. http://esbt.us/h9.
- Burghardt, G. M. (2005). The genesis of animal play: Testing the limits. MIT Press. http://esbt.us/h8.
- Boissy, A., Manteuffel, G., Jensen, M. B., Moe, R. O., Spruijt, B., Keeling, L. J., ... & Bakken, M. (2007). Assessment of positive emotions in animals to improve their welfare. Physiology & Behavior, 92(3), 375-397. http://esbt.us/h7.
- Arelis, R. (2006). Play and social tension reduction in a captive pack of gray wolves (Canis lupus). Behavioral Processes, 73(3), 289-292. http://esbt.us/h6.