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There is nothing more sweetly than watching the puppies play. But why do they do it? It turns out that the game has several functions. In a new review, Rebecca Summerville (from the Royal School of Veterinary Research, University of Edinburgh) and colleagues examine four theories about why dogs play, and find evidence to support three of them.
“After studying a lot of research, we found that the game is not one of the behaviors – and there are several types of behavior, each of which serves its purpose. Despite the widespread opinion, the game in dogs is not necessarily a sign that she is doing well. Independent games can be a sign of boredom, while games with other dogs can be one-sided. The usual, real game between the dog and the owner is not to execute the commands, but serves to strengthen their connection, “Rebecca Sommerville said.
The article considers four theories about why dogs need games.
One of the theories is that the game helps pups to master motor skills. If you look at how the dogs play – they chase each other, ride on the floor in a game fight, make cages, pick up objects with a mouth, pull, tear and shake them. Puppies learn how much they can bite their comrades in the game (learning to control the strength of the bite), and how to make game bows so that the game continues on. Thanks to such game activity they acquire real skills of movement, getting food and protecting themselves. Scientists say that this theory explains a lot, but not all.
Another theory is that the game is training for unexpected events: through the game, the dogs learn how to properly control the balance, when the ground goes from under the feet, and how to cope with the fact that they have witnessed something amazing. This theory explains the fact that dogs love new toys, but are cautious about new things that are not toys. This also explains why dogs should be in a difficult situation during the game and put themselves at a disadvantage; this can be seen as a practical behavior that may be needed later, as a way to resist real aggression. But again this theory explains only some aspects of the game.
The third theory for which they found evidence is the idea that the game contributes to social cohesion between dogs. The game helps dogs to cooperate as a group, and this includes building social relations with people. Dogs prefer to play with people they know, and if they win, it has nothing to do with domination. Thus, the game is to build relationships as cooperation, and not in the form of social ranks. But again this is not a complete explanation for games.
The fourth theory that scientists have learned is that the game is only a side effect of other processes, such as an excess of energy or a depleted environment that does not provide the proper stimulation. However, the depleted environment is rather associated with the development of stereotypes (repetitive movements), rather than with the game. If the game was associated with an excess of energy, then playfulness would not be a suitable feature for dogs. Because the game is something that people like, it could arise from domestication or as a result of breeding on other grounds, such as neoteny (the preservation of childish features in adulthood). But the game does not at all seem like a by-product of other things.
More attention is paid to the well-being of dogs, and therefore the study also examines the impact of various types of games on the well-being of animals. Independent play with toys is an important activity to enrich the environment, which in itself is useful and can reduce stress, but in some cases it may reflect poor well-being (for example, a depleted environment, lack of attention from people).
Scientists say that social games with other dogs have a good effect on the welfare of dogs, although there may be risks of injury if the game goes into aggression. Dogs that do not get enough opportunity to play when they are young can exhibit inappropriate adult behavior in playing with dogs or with people. If this is misinterpreted by the owner as aggression, and the dog as a result is protected from further games, this can lead to a reduction in well-being.
Finally, dogs also like to play with people, and prefer playing with a man than with themselves when there are toys. Scientists distinguish between indirect play (when a person moves a toy, for example, on a fishing rod) and a straight line, when the dog and the person are involved in the process on an equal footing. Games with people can be a reward in themselves and can also improve the contact between a person and a dog.
Nevertheless, there are times when playing with a person may not be a sign of good well-being: when dogs make game movements as a way to avoid something unpleasant from a person, or in those cases when the game itself is stressful, for example, in a game in tug-of-war when a person controls a game using commands, not allowing the game to develop spontaneously.
Scientists say that although several studies have examined the different types of rewards in training dogs, additional studies of the game are needed as positive reinforcement. They also argue that using the game to promote the “adoption” of dogs from shelters is another example of improving well-being.
Eventually dogs play because it helps them develop motor skills, learns to build social bonds and prepare for surprises so that they can better cope when they arise. Different stages of the game can have different functions, and the beginning and the end of a game duel are especially important for social connections, while the bulk of this game is important for learning motor skills and preparing for surprises.
“The usual, real game between the dog and the owner is not built on the basis of commands, but serves to strengthen their communication.”
In the review there was no evidence that the game is simply a side effect of other processes. But it was discovered that games are not always a sign of good well-being; in some cases this may indicate a problem in well-being.
Scientists also say that other possible causes of the game need further research, for example, whether they help in developing cognitive abilities, and whether they help to cope with stress.
This is an exciting study. The idea is that the game is multifaceted, and is probably one of the criteria for domestication, which is also confirmed by Bradshaw and colleagues (2015) in a review of games in adult dogs. I look forward to further research on the theme of games in dogs.
Although the review does not specifically address the importance of dog games for owners, there are some things that you should pay attention to.
The game performs several important functions. So the next time you see a playing puppy, remember that it’s not just entertainment – they practice useful skills and learn to build social relationships.
Owners may find it difficult to find suitable (safe) playmates for new puppies, so classes for puppies should include time for games. This will help your puppy develop useful skills for later life. The game should bring positive emotions, so watch it along with the coach. If it seemed to you that your puppy did not like the game, follow the consent test: divide the puppies apart and see if they both want to go back to the game or not.
Remember that puppies bought at pet stores might not have the opportunity to play with littermates. In this case, it is even more important to conduct game sessions during puppy classes so that they can learn the appropriate social skills for dogs. (Note that puppy classes are only for puppies, not for adult dogs, because of the risk of contracting infectious diseases, or for negative consequences if adult dogs are not socialized enough).
If your dog is one of those who do not have the skills to play, contact a good coach.
Of course, the main conclusion for dog owners is that it is important to play with your dog, because it helps to strengthen the connection between a person and an animal.
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