Like Humans, Dogs Learn Through Play

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Play is how dogs learn, notes canine behavioral researcher Julie Hecht—whether it’s play with other dogs or with humans. Hecht manages Alexandra Horowitz’s Dog Cognition Lab at Barnard College in New York City. On the website of Scientific American, she writes:

“Play behaviors arise early in a dog’s life. From three weeks onward, puppies show behaviors like wrestling, rolling over, biting, rearing and reciprocal chase.

Social canids, like wolves and dogs, play earlier in life than those who are less social, like coyotes. For an uber-social animal like dogs, play appears to help them learn social skills such as bite inhibition, and they are practicing the behaviors they will use throughout their lives.

Since play incorporates behaviors also found in aggressive interactions—tackling, chasing and nipping—dogs need a way to let other dogs know that it is play time, not fight time. If you have ever seen a dog appearing to emulate a seesaw, rump high in the air with forelimbs pressed into the ground, you were looking at a play bow—one of a number of behaviors that signal a dog’s playful intent. Other play signals include a dog bounding over to another dog in an exaggerated manner, an ‘open mouth display,’ and a bowed head.

Dog-dog play is more similar to an episode of the Three Stooges than you might have imagined. During play, dogs use particular behaviors to get the attention of another dog. When one dog is not paying attention, or when there is a pause in play, a dog will present any number of attention-getters such as ‘bite,’ ‘paw,’ ‘bump’ or ‘exaggerated retreat.’ And if the first attention-getter does not work, a dog will up the ante, like Hardy giving Laurel a bop on the head.

But dog-dog play is only half the story. Dogs living under our roofs look to humans for any number of things: reaching a ball that’s waaay under the couch, opening doors and cupboards, and of course, play time!

From prior research, we know that our play with dogs is nuanced and intricate; it can be anywhere from fast and furious to slow and methodical. It might incorporate balls, silly ways of walking, chasing or tugging and, of course, deceptive maneuvers.

We talk to dogs (a lot) during play, but our phrases and word choices tend to be repetitive, similar to how we talk to infants: ‘Bernie, come! Give me the ball. Drop. Get it. That’s it! Come! Give me the ball!’

During play, objects become interesting to dogs when they are held by a person, which is one reason it might be hard for a dog alone in the yard to just play with a ball. Tugging games with humans seem to be about keeping the game going, not about possessing the object. And when humans use play signals like bowing and lunging, dogs respond in kind, and play can increase.

But with our handy opposable thumbs, tug, chase and fetch is just the beginning of the wide world of dog and human play. The Horowitz Dog Cognition Lab is cataloging all the ways—traditional, original, or creative—people play with their dogs. We are asking dog owners to submit short videos of their own dog-human play. Project: Play with Your Dog is open to anyone, in any country. If you live with a dog, we want to see you play.

To participate, find or make a 30-60 second video of you and your dog playing in whatever way you like to play together, and then upload the video to the study website and complete a short survey.

The play between you and your dog might look very different from the play between your next door neighbor and her dog. This is an opportunity for dog lovers around the world to get involved in scientific research into dog behavior.” (Read more here.)

A good reminder that animals—including humans!—learn how to interact with others and with the physical world  through play.

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