Some thoughts on play!


When we first got Betsy as a cute little pup, I read a lot of articles about how I shouldn’t play with my dog because only subordinates play together and I’d be teaching my dog not to respect me etc etc etc.

I wish I could go back in time and fix it. Not playing with Betsy during her first month with us is my biggest regret.

I remember realizing my mistake when Betsy was about 3 months old. I looked over at her, sitting in the corner (warning: you may accuse me of anthropomorphization in this upcoming bit) with such a sad, bored expression on her face, an expression she had far too often for such a little baby, and I turned to Ben, “I think we have made a big mistake with the whole play thing,” and Ben goes, “FINALLY.”

There is still a lot of conflicting information out there about whether or not you should play with your dog.

My instincts and my own experiences tell me without a doubt that yes, you SHOULD play with your dog, but as usual I feel like I need more justification than just, “it feels right.”

Patricia McConnell, one of my favourite dog behaviourists, wrote a book called Play Together, Stay Together and I seriously bought it just so I could stroke my ego, reading about how awesome I am for playing with my dog.

The book itself has general advice on how to play safely with your dog, warnings on games you shouldn’t play, and ideas for games to try with your dog. I didn’t find anything super groundbreaking in it – most, if not all, of the games Betsy and I have already tried… And the studies she cites are pretty much the ONLY studies I can find out there on dog-human play, so I’d of course already read about them by the time I bought this book.

Needless to say, I was a bit disappointed in the lack of new information, but I’d still recommend it because I don’t think most people spend as much time as I do researching play.

It often seems like the world of dog training is a big shoulder shrug of, “I dunno, I just learned from experience.” So it’s hard to find controlled studies to back things up.

BUT here are some of the arguments against play, and whether or not they hold any water:

#1 – Playing (tug, fetch) with your dog will increase their prey drive. Well, there’s no doubt that you can increase toy drive in your dog – e.g., the more you play with them, the more they want to play. Does this translate into wanting to kill small animals, too? Uncertain. This advice columnist asserts that dogs can tell the difference between a toy and a live animal. And while I’m sure she’s correct about that, it doesn’t really address the underlying issue. I googled and googled and googled but couldn’t find anything concrete, one way or the other. BUT an educated guess would be yes this is true, BUT….

Lots of people talk about how you can channel your dog’s prey drive by using a toy to distract them from the real deal: example here and another example here, and here is one by Patricia McConnell, who I have already mentioned once already!

Bottom line: While playing with toys may increase drive, if your dog is going to have prey drive, there’s a good chance they’ll have it regardless of whether you use toys. And it could be useful to teach them to funnel that energy into a toy so that you can train them not to chase squirrels, and instead to chase balls. You can also use toys to teach self control, for example, asking your dog to hold a “down” when you throw a ball, which can then be generalized into situations with squirrels. So responsible toy play can overall be beneficial, irresponsible toy play may cause problems. Seems reasonable.

Betsy practices impulse control during fetch.

#2 By playing with your dog, you are letting him know that you are peers on the social hierarchy.

This one has been pretty much disproven by science, hooray! An experimental study of the effects of play upon the dog-human relationship

Interesting quotes from the study’s summary:

After a play session with a human, dogs score higher in “Obedient attentiveness”

regardless of whether the dogs won or lost the tug game, it did not negatively affect their relationship with the human

Of course, the fact that many working dogs are trained with toy play rewards also indicates to me that toy play has no negative effect on your relationship with your dog. A police dog needs to have a very strong bond with its handler, and there’s no way they’d use toys if this argument held any water at all.

#3 Letting your dog win tug will let him know he’s stronger than you

See #2, but also, hm tricky. There is a LOT of (not scientific) stuff out there saying not to let your dog win, but there is also a TON (also not scientific) saying that it’s OK to let your dog win. In my experience, letting my dog win has been totally fine. The arguments in favour of letting your dog win make sense to me: Keeping them engaged with the game so they’re not endlessly disappointed by losses. I think it makes sense to let your dog win some and let your dog lose some. Do your own research if you like, but the majority of people seem to feel that this is the correct answer. The most important thing is just to make sure your dog doesn’t become over stimulated, make sure they don’t start resource guarding the tug toy, and make sure they don’t accidentally bite you when aiming for the toy. The ASPCA has a nice how-to on the rules of tug.

So what are some of the benefits of play?

  • Play has long been seen as a bonding activity, not just between humans and dogs, but between two humans as well.
  • (Proper) play creates a more obedient and motivated dog.
  • It’s fun for everyone involved. (That’s a good reason!)
  • It’s a good form of exercise for your dog.
  • It’s also mentally stimulating for your dog.
  • Play has a positive effect on emotional state.
  • Playing with your dog in a situation they are unsure of (e.g. at the vet) can help teach your dog not to be afraid. (The fact that you initiate play shows your dog that you are not afraid, plus once they start playing, it changes their emotional state, and having fun is incompatible with fear)

Interesting and useful resources:

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