The Importance of Play

It’s Assistance Dog Blog Carnival Time. Brooke at Ruled by Paws is hosting and chose the theme of “lessons.” What lessons have we learned from our partnerships?

Assistance Dog Blog Carnival graphic. A square graphic, with a lavender background. A leggy purple dog of unidentifiable breed, with floppy ears and a curly tail, in silhouette, is in the center. Words are in dark blue, a font that looks like it's dancing a bit.


I thought of play.

One of the points that really struck me when I read The Other End of the Leash by Patricia McConnell is how dogs and humans are both unusual in engaging in play a lot as adults. In most species, the young play, but the adults mostly do not.

But play is one of the things we like best about our dogs. I recently had dinner with my family and brought Barnum. I brought along his favorite squeaky ball. When I thought he might be getting bored — he was not on duty — I gave him the ball. He squeaked it continually and shrilly, jumping around with it, running with it, lying on his mat with it.

I was concerned that it might be getting on people’s nerves, but everyone had big smiles. My niece and sisters-in-law both tried to play with him — throwing the slobbery ball for him, playing “I’m gonna get you,” etc. Everyone thought he was adorable. The more playful he was, the more people smiled.

I think most people don’t think of play when they think of assistance dogs because in public, they are usually working. Play is often something we do when it’s just the two of us. This can make play a wonderful time of bonding and togetherness.

It’s also an essential way for both partners to release tension from working and focusing. I just read a great article about decision fatigue, which affects humans and dogs (which makes sense, since we have pretty much the same brains, but it’s also been tested in both species).

Afterward, I was thinking about how many assistance dog tasks involve decisions. Dogs that alert or signal their owners are making decisions about whether or when to alert and sometimes about how to alert. Guide dogs make decisions constantly as a major part of their job — is this situation safe? Do I obey or do I say no?

Service dogs that do things you might not think of as involving decisions — such as picking up a dropped item — sometimes do. If the item is difficult to pick up because of its size or shape or where it landed or if it needs gentle handling, I have seen my service dogs assess the situation and choose an approach, or partway through, change their minds about their first approach and try another. Play — a time when the rules are relaxed and the point is just to have fun — is a break from all that thinking and focusing and deciding.

Play is also a terrific time to train certain behaviors. (You knew I’d bring it around to training, didn’t you?) Teaching or testing impulse control is often best achieved during play, when arousal is high and the rules are relaxed: Can the dog still let go of the toy on cue? The first cue? Can he remember to be gentle and keep his teeth off skin and clothes? Will he stop play to attend to a job when requested or called?

Likewise, training is most successful when it’s approached as a game. It’s a different kind of game than what we usually think of as play — tug or fetch or chase. Clicker training is a lot like a puzzle or card game where there’s a lot of strategy, and the thrill is in putting together the clues or building on a previous round’s success to get to the win.

Whenever training fell apart for me (and therefore, with the dog), it was when I got too serious about it, when I forgot that for the dog, it’s all just a game. Inevitably, the behaviors that I trained the most as a thrilling game became the strongest skills. The ones I had the most tension about often end up the most brittle.

This is a lesson I have carried into many parts of my life. Life is to be enjoyed. We never know what will come next, so we may as well have fun. My partnerships with my dogs have kept me laughing and thinking, have kept me playing. Some of my favorite memories of my dogs are just of times when we were goofing off. A year ago, when we participated in the Horowitz Dog Cognition study on human-dog play, we submitted this one-minute video of us playing. It’s completely unremarkable — a dog and person playing fetch and tug. But it still makes me smile.

Video description: Barnum, a shaved black brindle Bouvier des Flandres, has a big black plush spider with yellow eyes and legs made of seatbelt straps. It makes a squeaking sound like a duck quacking. He chews and squeaks the spider on a tan dog bed, then Sharon takes it and they play tug, with Sharon pretending to lose her grip on the spider periodically. Sharon sometime says, “Give,” and Barnum drops the spider and Sharon throws it. Barnum races enthusiastically after it, grabs it, and brings it back to his mat for more chewing and play.

P.S. If you want to learn more about dogs and play, there’s a roundup of four scientific studies on play in this article from The Bark.


The Importance of Play — 3 Comments

  1. Thankyou for the reminder to take the time to enjoy ourselves and cut loose. After reading this I pulled out his ChuckIt Squirrel flyer and it is so funny how a little difference in what we play with can just change him. He’s shaking the poor thing back and forth– too funny!
    Then I say *can I play* and the game begins again– throw the squirrel, catch the squirrel, shake the squirrel LOL

  2. When I first started training Hayley in Agility, that was the first lesson. Teaching people how to play with their dogs and why it was so important. It’s important on so many levels during all types of training. A happy dog that bonds through play is much more driven. 🙂

  3. Pingback: The 13th Round of the Assistance Dog Blog Carnival

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