Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Importance of Play with your dog

Things Owners Should Know 

We’ve talked about play in previous webinars and articles, including how to distinguish social play between individuals from true conflict, what characterizes healthy play, and how play opportunities can be used as a technique to work with aggression and fear related problems.
In our experience, many dog owners have questions as well as misconceptions about play.  Many of these will be the subject of this Biscuit series. 

In this first Biscuit we’ll talk about what play is, different types of play and why behaviorists believe play to be important.

In our dictionary of animal behavior terms, we found numerous definitions for play.  Two we thought were most relevant for our purposes are:

1. “A set of pleasurable activities, frequently but not always social in nature, that imitate the serious activities of life without consuming serious goals” (E.O. Wilson 1975) and 2. “Any behavior that involves probing, manipulation, experimentation, learning, and the control of one’s own body as well as the behavior of others, and that also essentially serves the function of developing and perfecting future adaptive responses to the physical and social environment” (K. Lorenz 1950).

So play is fun, it doesn’t satisfy an immediate goal, and it’s made up of a jumble of movements and postures from different kinds of behavior, such as stalking prey, courtship and fighting.

Behaviorist Robert Fagan, who spent most of his career studying play holds there are three forms of basic play: creative improvisation, play-fighting (social play), and object manipulation (object play).
Some research suggests that social play can help to strengthen social bonds between people and dogs. We can’t be sure, but suspect that social play may also teach the dog how to communicate more effectively with people and other animals. Various kinds of play may help develop strength, agility and physical skills in dogs.

The AKC just released results of a survey about activities people enjoy doing with their dogs.  Forty-one percent say they play outside, 32 % take their dogs for daily walks, 7% engage in some type of competitive dog sport, 14% engage in indoor exercise, and 5% take their dogs to dog parks.

So people engage in a wide variety of activities with their dogs, with outside social play and walks topping the list.

This brings up the question of what activities constitute play.  Is taking a dog for a walk play?  When a dog participates in certain dog sports such as agility and flyball, is he playing or working? What about manipulating objects (that we call toys) to get access to food?  Is this play or foraging/food getting behavior?  Each of these could be play if the dog seems to be having fun.

Can a dog’s behavioral needs for play be met by taking him on lots of walks but never playing with toys?  Owners have told us their dogs have a HUGE back yard to run around in so they don’t really need to go for walks.  Or that there are all kinds of toys lying in the house and around the yard, but their dogs never play with them so therefore they don’t like to play.  It’s important for owners to learn what kinds of play their dog seems to like and to adapt the play to the dog’s needs.
So what do we tell clients about play?
•            It’s hard to define but we can usually recognize it when we see it.
It seems to not have an immediate function,  it’s fun and it’s made up of a mixture of different kinds of behavior.
•            Sick and stressed animals seldom play, so if your dog stops playing,
look for possible medical or behavioral problems.
•            There are different kinds of play – play with objects like toys, play
with others (social play) and creative improvisation, usually a form of solitary play like running laps around the backyard.
•            Dogs differ in their interest in play. Some like all kinds of play,
some only like  a few or one kind (like tug or fetch games) and some don’t really seem to like formal play.
•            It’s normal for play to decline with age, with older dogs playing
less than younger dogs. 
•            We don’t know if dogs need to play to be behaviorally healthy, but
they do need exercise, mental stimulation and pleasant social contact.
Different kinds of play can often satisfy these needs.

Have a great rest of your week!

Reprinted with permission of BEN networks.