The Seriousness of Play

by Pernille Monberg

A stick or any other object can serve as imaginary prey or food.
A stick or any other object can serve as imaginary prey or food. Dogs are often good at entertaining themselves with play objects. It is nevertheless best if there is another dog around to desire the object.
Chasing the owner of the "valuable" object.
Chasing the owner of the "valuable" object.

The mentioning of the word play has to most of us an immediate association with adjectives like joyous and carefree engagement in activities, whose sole purpose is entertainment of the participating parties. In the following I would like to show that the engagement in play is actually very serious business among dogs.

When all mammals play we create make-believe situations and enter an imaginary universe with rules. These rules are often different from or parallel to the rules of conduct expected in the real life. Play is an abstraction, which is not unique to human behavior. Many species of socially oriented animals play. Through the times the concept of play has intrigued us, especially social scientists. They have come up with a wide variety of theories in an attempt to explain why we engage in play. To mention a few of the many theories: Some believe that play serves as a means to get rid of surplus energy, others believe that play is simply a preparation for adult life, yet others see play as an activity that serves as relaxation from the stress of daily life. Some scientists claim that it has a compensatory function, where the engagement in play makes up for unsatisfied psychic needs in real life. All of these theories touch on important facets of the concept, but none of them seems to be all encompassing explanatory models.

A game of chase.
A game of chase.

When I watch my dogs interact and play, I am tempted to say that the nature of play among dogs primarily has two functions: preparation for adult life, and as a socially regulating mechanism, where rules of conduct as well as a social order is either established, maintained and occasionally altered. Surplus energy may also be an element in play among dogs, especially young dogs, but I mainly see that as an incentive to play, rather than an effect.

How and why dogs play

Play comes in many forms, but I have observed that among my dogs play comes in roughly two forms: 1) Solitary play, where a dog plays with an object that has a symbolic status of either food or prey. A stick, for example, may be attributed the symbolic status of a highly prized bone and the ball the imaginary fleeing prey. 2) Group playing is where two or more dogs engage in games such as wrestling, catch, possession /ownership games or play hunting.

Playing, where two or more dogs are involved, appears to have rules known to the participating parties -- and deviation from the agreed upon rules usually results in punishment of the one who deviated. Not all pack members play with one another, friendships and animosities are part of the social life in the pack. Generally, friends play together unless there is a collective chase after someone.

Play as I have observed it among my dogs would be labeled an activity with "out of the ordinary" status. More specifically, there is a slight difference in the way rules are applied for the conduct of everyday interactions and for what is allowed during play. During play, dogs can train how to deal with potentially dangerous confrontations, without actually being hurt. Younger dogs learn the importance of submission towards higher- ranking dogs; they learn all the rules, which count in "real life" through playing make-believe situations. Other than functioning as a social training mechanism, play helps youngsters develop their motor skills, hunting skills, stamina and muscle tone. They also learn fighting techniques and, if necessary, how to flee. There simply wouldn't be enough real life situations to teach and prepare the individual for what awaits in the future, therefore play is of the utmost importance for survival.

The bitch is mounting the dog, in hope of forcing him into submission, so he will hand over the ball.
The bitch is mounting the dog, in hope of forcing him into submission, so he will hand over the ball.

As humans, we tend to believe that dogs simply need to play in order to enjoy themselves. I am certain that dogs and other social beings find pleasure in the activity in order to make them play, because it is so important.

Over the years, as the size of my pack has increased, I have observed that playing has become more formalized and less pronounced among the elders. Play can be dangerous, in the sense that one false move on behalf of one of the participants may bring out an unresolved conflict, and thus result in an actual fight.

The social order in a pack is never static, but an ever-challenged structure. Democracy does not exist in a pack of dogs. Basically, no one except high-ranking females dare engage in half-hearted games of chase with the alpha male. It is not uncommon to see him invite a pack-member to play, by bowing in front of him or her, but he is usually politely ignored, since his form of play inevitably ends up in a demonstration of rank. He will knock the other dog down with physical force and a half serious growl. Among the adult bitches playing is often expressed in the games of chase and catch. The games take the form of spurts, and often end just as sudden as they have started, by one of the participants getting irritated with one of the others. There will be a quick exchange of nips, bites and growls and nothing further.

Killing the prey.
Killing the prey.

Dogs, which live solitary lives with their human families, will have a need to play for burning energy and for physical and mental training. Some of my friends call me from time to time and ask if their dog can come over for some doggy-play-time. If they have only one or two dogs, they will see a different approach to play than what I experience with many dogs. Play will not be as charged with tension if you only have one or two dogs. When dog-guests arrive, my pack will receive the familiar dog with the usual greeting rituals of sniffing and walking around each other in circles. The usually well-mannered dog guest will exhibit various calming signals to make sure that the pack understands that his intentions are friendly. When the greeting ceremony is over, 9 times out of 10 the guest will be left to entertain himself, while the resident dogs go about their business as if they hadn't been interrupted at all. My pack has no need to play with anyone but each other. To them, play is important in establishing and maintaining their social order within the pack. According to my dogs, play is mainly an "internal affair". Well-known guests come and leave again, so if they are well mannered in dog terms, they have no greater importance. Strange dogs are not welcomed in the same manner. If I don't make sure that the introduction is done in the right manner, the newcomers will be treated as intruders -- a threat that will be dealt with accordingly.

I believe that when you have a pack of about 10 dogs, a great deal of their time is spent on functioning within the order, or challenging it. An extraordinary situation, such as a bitch in season, affects the entire pack. I have observed that under these circumstances play generally becomes more controlled, since it can be potentially flammable. It is also during these times that the social order will be challenged and, perhaps, even rearranged.

Learning situations: The social adjustment of Andy

As a wellajusted youngster, Jazzmine shows passive submission towards a couple of elders.
As a well adjusted youngster, Jazzmine shows passive submission towards a couple of elders.

Learning is best brought about by situations that are out of the ordinary. If everything functions as expected, and everybody goes about their business according to the rules and norms, then our senses are in repose. However, the instant and extraordinary situation occurs, we become alert and observant. During my 28 years of living with a pack of domesticated dogs, I would say that I have learned the most from them and about them because of extraordinary situations like in the case of Andy.

Andy injured his back when he was 12 weeks old. There was a hairline fracture and substantial swelling from the impact of the blow, which made him paraplegic (caused a paralysis of his rear end). None of the professionals said that it would be futile to attempt rehabilitation, so I began a programme with every possible approach towards his improvement. First with conventional medicine, then acupuncture and hydrotherapy, and finally a chiropractor became incorporated. Andy was paralyzed for about 1 1/2 months before he suddenly could stand up on his own. This meant that he was pretty much isolated and protected from interaction with the other dogs during a very important period of his mental development. At first I feared that the pack would eliminate him -- he was a weakling and therefore "useless" seen with pack-logic -- but once the puppy was pain free, I allowed the other dogs in to visit him one at a time. Much to my surprise, almost all of them showed gentle affection towards him, only a couple of the dogs showed indifference. His litter sister was very persistent in contacting him. She would lie down in front of him and play very vocal, soft mouth games with him. She would never get rough with him as she would with her other playmate.

Who is the loudest?
Who is the loudest?

As Andy grew older I allowed some supervised interaction with the other hounds. However, he has never regained 100% use of his hind legs. His gait somewhat resembles Grouch Marx's walk. Because of his wobbliness, we were extremely protective of him. He grew up under the delusion that he was immortal, that nothing could hurt him, and as a yearling, he became a complete nuisance in the pack. His father Mana, the Alpha male, clamped down hard on Andy a couple of times, which made the youngster well-mannered, but only in his father's presence. He continued to annoy everyone else in the pack when Mana was not around. Apparently, Mana was very much aware of the problem. I noticed that he was watching Andy like a hawk, and since Andy was careful never to make any wrong move when watched, his father took a new approach: he invited Andy to play. No juvenile dog can resist such an invitation, and Andy immediately took the bait. Their play, which at first had a gentle character, quickly increased in roughness. Mana finally knocked Andy over, partly by physical strength and partly by the force of his accompanying roars and growls. It looked terrible, yet Andy camed through without a scratch, and only a slighly bruised ego.

Here Melody Maker is trying to force Saragh, one of the alpha/ senior bitches into submission
Play here is used as an avenue for adjustments in real life. Melody Maker is trying to force Saragh, one of the alpha/senior bitches, into submission.
Here Melody Maker is trying to force Saragh, one of the alpha/ senior bitches into submission
Saragh is not moving her body. She is baring her teeth a little, and her ears are back. Her tail is neither raised nor tucked between her legs. She is signalling that she wants to be left alone.
The male pauses for a second, to assess the situation. He lowers his tail just a little and she has closed her mouth.
Melody Maker pauses for a second to assess the situation. He lowers his tail just a little, and Saragh closes her mouth.
But no, he is not satisfied yet, and continues to provoke her in his playful manner.
But no, he is not satisfied yet, and continues to provoke her in his playful manner.
But no, he is not satisfied yet, and continues to provoke her in his playful manner.

He now slows down a little again she is still not giving in completely.
He now slows down a little again. She is still not giving in completely.
Finally Melody maker gets what he wants
Finally, Melody Maker gets what he wants: Saragh gives in, she lowers her nose and turns her head to the side as a sign of submission. He is also exhibiting a much more relaxed posture, with head and tail lowered. The whole thing was done without any physical contact at all.

One of Andy's problems was that he had a difficult time accepting and showing submission, even when flattened and pinned to the ground, he would continue to growl and bite left and right. Mana was not satisfied yet. For an entire summer he would work on Andy, who soon grew wise enough not to engage in play with his father. Time after time I would see Andy sitting completely still on the grass, while Mana would gallop around him in circles, bucking like a bronco in hope to lure the otherwise playful youngster into playing with him. When the bucking and clowning did not work, Mana would throw himself on the ground in front of Andy and pretend to be galloping wildly while lying on his side. This was too tempting for Andy, who threw himself into the trap, and again within a split second Andy was knocked to the ground, still only reluctantly showing submission. He was then about 13 or 14 months old and his sexual maturity was in full bloom. At this point we decided that, in order to protect Andy from himself and from too many physical confrontations, it was time to have him neutered. We have three other entire adult males, and Andy being completely ignorant of his disability, would not hesitate to take on any of the two younger males. After 3 or 4 months, the castration seemed to have done its part in toning down some of Andy's provocative behavior. Nevertheless, there is no doubt in my mind that his father has done a wonderful job of setting him straight. Mana knew that he had to create an extraordinary situation in order to correct the misbehaving juvenile. Andy is now 4 years old and is still complying with what he learned as a puppy.

The nature of play according to the stages of life:

The first signs of playing behaviour are detected in puppies as young as 10 - 14 days of age. Even before their eyes have opened completely you can see a couple of puppies sitting face-to-face attempting to bite at each other, often missing the target and tumbling. Within a few days they will begin making growling noises at each other and soon start wrestling. This is very fumbly-tumbly at first, but within a few weeks it becomes obvious that playing rules begin to form. If a playful pup approaches another pup for a good wrestling match and the other puppy just isn't in a playful mood, then the proposition will be turned down by an infuriated pup. Puppies soon learn that play is best initiated by inviting rituals, so both parties can come to an agreement that "now we will enter the imaginary universe of play." The mother plays an important role outside of being the one who provides the care for their basic needs. The mother will teach her pups through play. She spends a lot of energy on teaching them submission, which is important when they later have to fit into the social order of the pack. She also brings them toys and teaches them the rules of ownership. They learn that it is illegal to take anything that currently belongs to another dog. This is a ground rule that is pretty much respected by all pack members, i.e. that dominant dogs usually acknowledge possession, even if the owner is young or in other ways low ranking.

Puppies continue to play, pretty much undisturbed by the older dogs in the pack, until they reach sexual maturity as adolescents. At this point, which is around the age of 1 - 1 1/2 years in Irish Wolfhounds, the older dogs seem to engage in constant harassment of the youngsters, who in turn show signs of depression and their playing activities are drastically reduced to half hearted attempts. The reason for this harsh treatment is that the sexually mature youngsters have to be kept submissive to the more dominant elders, who usually are the only individuals which "have the right" to reproduce offspring. In wild canine packs such as Dingoes and wolves it is not unheard of that an alpha bitch might kill the offspring of an inferior bitch, whereas lower ranking bitches often participate in the care of a litter out of the alpha bitch.

Generally speaking, puppies play to prepare for adulthood, whereas adults play to establish or to secure a social order.

Situations where my dogs play:

Wrestling and vocal soft mouth games are seen from the very early stages of puppy-hood. Juveniles and adults mostly play soft mouth games when confined to indoors or in smaller areas. An adult will also gently engage in this type of game with a youngster.

Chase, catch and tackling are outdoor activities which are usually much wilder and of a somewhat more serious nature than indoor games. Youngsters can engage in this for hours on end. As they mature, the games become more flammable. Frequently someone oversteps the boundary and bites too hard or tumbles into another dog on the chase, which may bring about anger and a confrontation that stops the game instantly.

The pack enjoys their bones.
Well socialized pack members enjoy chewing bones in each others company, as long as the strict rules of ovnership are followed and respected in every detail.

Possession games and trickery are abstractions of obtaining food, whether protecting it or guarding territory. A dog can gather a stick, and by paying special attention to the stick, give it a symbolic value. Other dogs will acquire an interest is this prized possession and desire it. The owner of the stick will guard it tooth and nail, while the other dogs will make various attempts of luring to owner away from the stick. Favourite tricks are to run to the gate barking wildly, as if announcing the arrival of visitors. If the owner falls for the trickery and leaves the prized possession, the trickster will immediately run to the stick and seize it. The object will remain valuable until the holder looses interest and give it up voluntarily. After the abandonment, there seems to be no one who wants it any longer.

Possession can also take form of a territorial possession, such as playing "king of the hill" where one dog will take ownership of a particular spot, perhaps a grassy knoll. The others will try to trick the owner into leaving his spot, in pretty much the same ways that they do with bones or sticks. A wolfhound owner was attempting to rest on his sofa in front of the TV, and lured away from the sofa 3 times by his 16-week-old puppy, which went to the door and pretended to want to go out. As soon as the owner reached for the handle to open the door, the puppy whirled around, ran across the room and took the sofa into possession.

Luring and trickery is a part of everyday life among dogs, and a trait to which we humans can easily relate. Perhaps hunting, our once common field for survival, allows canines and humans alike to understand the nature of luring and trickery, which is necessary for successful stalking of prey. Tricking others is a big part of domestic life in order to get ones way. The door-trick is an all time favourite among domestic dogs. Mine do it simply to get my attention, and once they have it, they will turn around and ask for something else or use the door-trick to snatch a spot on the living room sofa. Trickery is used in play, for example, when a dog offers a stick or a ball to a person or another dog and, as soon as the object is reached for, snatches it back and runs. This can be either an act to attribute a symbolic value to the object by getting someone else to desire it and/or be a way of inviting to a chase.


When we play with our dogs, it is of great importance that we set the rules for when to play and when to end the play, so to avoid misunderstandings.
When we play with our dogs, it is of great importance that we set the rules for when to play and when to end the play, to avoid misunderstandings.

Humans and their companion dogs seem to have a mutual understanding of playing. If I wish to tease or play with one of my dogs he or she will catch on immediately, and we will enter a commonly agreed upon universe of make-believe. We can play tug-o-war, fetch, catch or we can wrestle. My dogs know humour and they too will tease in return. However, because we understand or even share some of the basic mechanisms of the universe of play, the very nature of the play serves slightly different purposes. Assuming that the basic aim of all play (human, dog or whatever) is social training and training in survival, then it must be pointed out that human survival and human social order is somewhat different from the canine survival and social order. In other words, this seemingly common understanding of play and trickery is also a common ground for great misunderstandings.

An example hereof is a man who took great pleasure in having wild wrestling matches on the living room floor with a young wolfhound male, who equaled him in weight and size. For the spectator this was a cute game, which they both seemed to enjoy tremendously. The only problem was that the wolfhound understood that this was the harmless way of establishing a hierarchy, while the man engaged in the game as a masculine way of showing affection for the dog, to feel some sort of connectedness with his four-legged friend. The man did not have the real element of competition in the game and did not care about any measurable winner. He simply stopped the game, when he was tired and withdrew. The dog most likely interpreted this as a retreat and soon began attempting to dominate the owner during several incidents in more and more situations. The sad outcome was that the much loved and misunderstood dog ended up being re-homed.

As long as we respect the different approach when playing with our dogs, this knowledge can be utilized in a most positive and rewarding way. Modern methods of dog training have now understood that the best way to teach a dog is through play, which is really the most enjoyable time for owner and dogs.

Copyright © 2004, Pernille Monberg. All rights reserved. Photography by Celso Mollo and Pernille Monberg.