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Ethology and veterinary practice: Ethology of canine play

Unless they think about it, most people feel convinced that they recognize animal play when they see it. But when they think about it, some also will recall at least one occasion when something about the play struck them as off for some reason.

Whether this is true depends on the kind of play and the context in which it’s displayed. My first inkling of this occurred when I serendipitously included the question, \"How does your dog/cat play?\" on my pre-consultation canine and feline questionnaires.

I quickly discovered that this simple, open-ended question revealed a great deal about how those animals with behavioral problems play — or don’t.

The majority of play displayed by my canine patients falls into one of four general categories. The animal plays:

  • Only with people
  • Only with other animals
  • Only by themselves
  • Never

All of some dogs’ play may consist exclusively of that with the owners and members of the household, and the dog always initiates these sessions. If the session occurs within the house, the dog often brings a toy for the owner to play tug with or toss for the dog to fetch.

Some dogs also display similar behavior toward visitors to the client’s home. Outdoors, these dogs grab balls, handy sticks, or even snap branches off trees to initiate the game.

Whether playing indoors or out, clients note that their dogs can be quite insistent about their chosen person’s participation, even going so far as to ram the toy or stick into the person’s hand or some other, more private — and sensitive! — body part.

Although some clients mention that their dogs would never stop playing, others note that, despite their pets’ high-energy attempts to initiate any game, their dogs will terminate the game after only a few minutes. Some of these dogs then would ignore the person or take a nap, but others would continue to initiate and terminate brief play sessions over a period of several hours.

Clients whose dogs played keep-away and hide-and-seek reported similar experiences. Their dogs also would initiate the games, but then suddenly abort them and ignore the person.

Those people who had read or heard that \"a well-exercised dog is a well-behaved dog\" or whose veterinarians had recommended increased exercise for weight loss or weight-control found this canine behavior disconcerting.

When combined with these dogs’ complete histories and in-clinic observations, I determined that what looked like play wasn’t play at all. Instead, these animals had adapted play behaviors to control a person’s movement for some reason.

Because most of these animals inadvertently or deliberately had been placed in protective mode by their owners, the trigger for the play could be anything these dogs perceived as a threat to their ability to do this. Controlling the owner’s movement makes it easier for these dogs to focus on the threat.

When the sound of the motorcycle, scent of the coyote, or other perceived threat ends, these dogs lose interest in the game. On the other hand, controlling the movement of a visitor who might pose a threat to the dog’s household via play poses less of a threat to the dog’s safety than using aggressive displays for that same purpose.

Other times, my canine patients and their people have no play interactions whatsoever. All the dogs’ play is with other dogs in the household or canine playmates in puppy playgroups, daycare, or dog parks.

This kind of play may create two problems for dogs with certain behavioral problems, e.g. certain kinds of aggression or separation-related ones.

Because dogs evolved to learn via a combination of social learning and emotional contagion, it’s easier for most dogs to learn from another dog than a person. Consequently, those canine playmates can share any bad behaviors as well as any good ones.

Some clients express concerns that their dogs’ play with other dogs has an edge to it that makes them or other dog-owners uneasy. \"He doesn’t do a fly-by sham body slam like the other dogs,\" one client told me. \"He hits some of them way too hard and he’s way too serious when it does it. I don’t blame their owners for being upset because I know I am, too.\"

Conversely, tolerant canine playmates could be the answer to a stressed dog’s prayers because they possess the confidence, patience, and self-control most stressed animals lack. This frees some stressed dogs to relax and enjoy true celebratory play in the other dog’s presence.

\"What could possibly be wrong with that?\" you may be thinking. And the answer is \"Nothing… As long as the stressed dog remains in the presence of that more mature stabilizing canine influence.\" But if that stabilizing canine disappears or the stressed dog returns home where nothing has changed to make it more mentally and physically secure for him, then the stressed animal may become more stressed than ever.

Dogs in the third group of dogs with behavioral issues only play by themselves. These animals suck, shred, and sometimes eat a variety of toys and other objects, typically those carrying the owner’s or other comforting scents.

Some of these dogs are so aggressively protective of chew treats of animal origin — e.g., pig’s ears, hooves, antlers, rawhide, bones — that the clients no longer provide them. Compare this to dogs engaging in celebratory play who toss, chase, hide and \"discover\" their hidden toys, and play other made-up games with their toys.

Yet another group of dogs doesn’t play at all, and multiple factors may contribute this. Heading most practitioners’ lists are concerns about the animal’s ability to play without experiencing physical discomfort.

For dogs with a range of musculoskeletal and health limitations, the discomfort associated with chasing toys with their people, playing with other dogs, or even playing by themselves outweighs any benefits.

However, even physically fit dogs involved in energy-sapping human-canine role reversals that throw the animals into protective roles beyond their capacities may have no interest in play.

Unlike the dogs who use play with others or by themselves to dissipate the stress associated with their position, these animals may need all their energy just to secure their physical and mental spaces.

And finally, I see canine non-players who never learned to play. Because celebratory play signals optimal conditions, puppies born into or subjected to conditions such as capture, maternal separation, or care by an equally stressed same-species parental canine adult may never experience the security that permits it.

Because the amount and quality of early experiences may trigger epigenetic and genetic changes, changing this behavior can be difficult. It also makes changing other problem behaviors more difficult, because play can enhance learning.

Like all other behaviors, play behaviors don’t always communicate the same message. And taking the time to determine the context in which these behaviors occur can teach us a lot about a dog’s behavior in other areas, too. Although always important, it’s especially so when the dog has behavioral problems.