The power of play: dogs just want to have fun

Dogs just want to have fun and they know how to do it

Jethro bounds toward Zeke, stops immediately in front of him, crouches on his forelimbs, wags his tail, barks, and immediately lunges at him, bites his scruff and shakes his head rapidly from side to side, works his way around to his backside and mounts him, jumps off, does a rapid bow, lunges at his side and slams him with his hips, leaps up and bites his neck, and runs away. Zeke takes off in wild pursuit of Jethro and leaps on his back and bites his muzzle and then his scruff, and shakes his head rapidly from side to side. Suki bounds in and chases Jethro and Zeke, and they all wrestle with one another. They part for a few minutes, sniffing here and there and resting. Then, Jethro walks slowly over to Zeke, extends his paw toward Zeke’s head, and nips at his ears. Zeke gets up and jumps on Jethro’s back, bites him, and grasps him around his waist. They then fall to the ground and mouth wrestle. Then they chase one another and roll over and play. Suki decides to jump in, and the three of them frolic until they’re exhausted. When it’s over, they all look like they couldn’t have been happier. And then, Lolo comes, too, and it all happens once again. 

These are some of my field notes, which have been mirrored in thousands of other observations of dogs at play. I’ve been nose deep in dog play for decades, and I never get bored thinking about it or watching dogs romping here and there. Below is a general summary of what we now know about the hows and the whys of play in dogs and other animals. For more specifics about play, please see “How and Why Dogs Play Revisited: Who’s Confused?” and Mechtild Käufer’s excellent book called Canine Play Behavior: The Science of Dogs at Play (for a review of this book please see “Dogs at Play: What They Do, Know, Think, and Feel“).

We’ve all seen it. When dogs play, they look like they’re going crazy, frenetically wrestling, mouthing, biting, chasing, and rolling over, and doing it again and again until they can hardly stand. They use actions such as those seen during fighting or mating in random and unpredictable ways. Play sequences don’t reflect the more predictable patterns of behavior seen in real fighting and mating. The random nature of play is one marker that dogs are indeed playing with one another. They know it and so do we.

When dogs play they joyfully provide a pretty clear window into their heads and hearts. Play is a voluntary activity, and if a dog doesn’t want to play, he or she can opt out. Dogs can quit whenever they want to, and others often seem to know when one dog has had enough for the moment.

Read more at Psychology Today.