Understanding Dog Play

Not all species love to play, but both humans and dogs belong in the
category that do. If you’ve lived around dogs, you’ll have found that a lot of interaction comes naturally—throwing a ball, playing a game of chase, or coaxing certain behavior using treats are probably all activities you’ve enjoyed with your pet without even thinking about them. However, if you want to use play in a broader way, to train your dog or encourage his initiative, it’s worth learning a little more about how play develops in dogs and how you can take advantage of a dog’s natural behaviors.

Play comes naturally to dogs, and puppies are usually actively exploring their surroundings from the time they are three weeks old, using their paws and mouths and tumbling with their littermates. By four weeks, any time not spent feeding or sleeping will generally be taken up by an indistinguishable mixture of playing and exploration.


Small puppies spend a little time playing with their mother (and the dam will use
the “games” to start teaching them polite canine behavior—for example, holding
down with a paw a puppy who nips too hard), but they spend far more time, as
they grow, with their siblings. If you watch one-month-old puppies, you’ll see
recognizable games. They will play rudimentary chase and rollover games with
another puppy, and they will play solo, too, rolling a ball and running after it,
and exploring other objects with their teeth.

So far, so familiar: Many playful exercises could have originated as practice
for the life of an adult dog in the wild—a dog that has to catch or scavenge for
its own food. And to some extent, puppies’ games mirror the behavior seen in
plenty of other young mammal species that also enjoy playing when they’re
immature but lose their enthusiasm for play as they transition into the serious
business of adulthood.


Although not all species take their playfulness beyond adolescence into maturity, both dogs and humans do. Dogs appear to understand play for the sake of it much as people do, purely for the pleasure of the moment, either in the enjoyment of a toy or in the interaction with other dogs or with people. Most dogs can be encouraged into one form of play or other, and if they see the impulse in others, they recognize it. Dog to dog, they’ve developed a fluent body language that other playful dogs read and respond to, from the play bow that acts as an invitation, to the wide-open mouth that marks play nipping as not being serious. It’s worth learning by watching dogs play together, so that you, too,become familiar with the signs that behavior is only play or something more serious. You will then know whether or not to move in and interrupt play that’s getting too intense and learn to recognize when the dogs are just having fun getting too intense and learn to recognize when the dogs are just having fun together.


I'm a professional dog trainer who is sharing my journey as I transition to positive reinforcement based dog training methods.

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