One of the joys of having dogs in our lives is watching them play, or finding ways that we can play with them. As humans, playing is something we usually associate with youngsters, but dogs often play throughout their lives. This raises the question of why dogs play.
As puppies, play is a vital part of learning, both about themselves and about how to interact with others. Playing together with their littermates aids in developing coordination and strengthening young muscles. This is when the early lessons of canine communication are instilled. During this time, puppies also learn to control the strength of their bite (bite inhibition) as, if they bite too hard with those needle-like little puppy teeth, their littermates or mother will stop the fun. During this time, a puppy begins to learn the body language and signals that they will use for the rest of their lives.
Why dogs play as young puppies is easy to see, continuing on to when they leave their mother and the rest of their litter and join their new human home. Play continues to help them learn about their world and grow. Through play, they are interacting with the people around them, and continuing to develop their social skills around other dogs, which is so important during their first few weeks with their new family. The critical socialisation period during which the puppy’s formative learning around social interactions and being comfortable with their world ends at around 14 weeks of age, which is why this time is so vital.
Does this mean that when our dogs are older, we have less need to consider why dogs play? The answer is no, it does not. Dogs continue to play throughout their lives, and interactive play is a wonderful way to strengthen the bond between canine and human. Play burns energy, it exercises body and mind and enriches the dog’s life. Different dogs will have different ways that are their favourite when it comes to playing, and dog and human can have a lot of fun together finding out which these favourites are.
There is a need to be conscious of why dogs play, as one type of playfulness is not beneficial or fun for the dog. A lesser-known form of reaction to stress is the ‘fool’ response. This sees the dog start to ‘fool around’ as something that worries them come closer, perhaps dropping to the ground and rolling around, ragging the lead or generally acting like a clown. Careful observation is needed to spot stress signals before this stage if this is something that may apply to a dog in our care.
Most of the reasons why dogs play are good ones, so find the ones that your dogs obviously enjoy and have fun watching or playing together.