Play is fun for our dogs. It’s fun for us to watch our dogs having fun. But we often don’t consider all of the possible benefits of play for dogs beyond just having fun. In my training, I point out that play is a great opportunity for our dogs to learn our rules. It’s a great opportunity for our dogs to learn how to interact appropriately with us as well as do what we ask even in states of higher arousal. Whether our dogs are playing with us or with other dogs, there are important lessons to learn during play.
“Why do animals carefully use play signals? Why do they engage in self-handicapping and role-reversing? It’s plausible to argue that during social play, immature individuals learn ground rules about what behavior patterns are acceptable to others – how hard they can bite, how roughly they can interact – and how to resolve conflicts in a situation that is safe, enjoyable, and nonthreatening. This is similar to the reasoning behind why human children are encouraged to play organized sports: it teaches them how to behave, how to cooperate and resolve conflicts in a setting where the stakes are not high. Through their behavior, animals show us that they place a premium on playing fairly and trusting others to do so. There are codes of social conduct that regulate actions that are and aren’t permissible. What could be a better atmosphere in which to learn about the social skills underlying fairness and cooperation than during social play, where there are few penalties for transgressions? It’s also possible that individuals might generalize codes of conduct learned while playing with specific individuals to other group members and to different situations, such as sharing food, defending resources, grooming and giving care.”
“Play is not only fun. It’s a useful behavior. And studies of play indicate that animals actively cultivate a sense of fairness and cooperation by playing.” – Marc Bekoff, Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder
So next time you think play is just for fun, consider that your dog can be learning far more than just how to have a good time. As I tell my clients, ALL of the time is learning time for your dogs. So make sure your dog gets plenty of play time!