At its core, play is a pleasurable activity that features highly throughout a healthy dog’s life. It is hypothesised to have a promotional effect on physicality and social skills. When dogs play together, what is observable is a series of activities and repetitive behaviours which when performed in a different context may have a highly different meaning. Play is about fun, but sometimes the behaviours observable overlap with other behavioural mechanisms such as predation or aggression. This is why it can be difficult for us to know what is play and what is not.
Behaviour in play is different from reality. Whilst play may involve predatory chase there are stark differences between that and the real thing. Behaviour in play is generally incomplete, exaggerated, uneconomical and unpredictable. Each game is unique and cannot generally be predicted. Importantly, play is only fun if both dogs are enjoying what is happening within an interaction. To assess play, all dogs involved must be watched, not just one party.
Dogs are unusual in that they play with conspecifics, humans, and asocially with objects. This enhanced playfulness may be a side effect of paedomorphosis, the continuation of juvenile traits into adulthood, as a result of domestication.
There are at least three separate play systems that emerge in juvenile dogs at different times:
- Object play
- Play predation (pretences)
- Social play
More social play is associated with an enlarged amygdala and hypothalamus within the brain, but not more object or locomotor play. This highlights the different motivations of the different kinds of play. Solitary play with objects appears to be derived from predatory behaviour - toys that can be dismembered are generally preferred.
When observing play and interactions between dogs we must hold ourselves back from immediately passing judgement.
When we describe dogs in a particular way e.g. “fun police”, “the boss”, “bull in a china shop”, we are placing our judgements onto them in an unhelpful manner. Our judgements and feelings are often due to our past conditioning and life experiences. When we make a judgement about a dog, due to our resistance to cognitive dissonance, we often then succumb to finding further evidence that backs up our judgement. We lose objectivity. We start to see a dogs behaviour as “good”, “bad”, “right” or “wrong”.
In terms of safety we need to know when to step in on a dog-dog interaction; however, making judgements means we may step in too soon, or too late.