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Dogs at Play: Feeling Safe, Having Fun, and Playing Fair

Hattie and Eric having fun on the run.

Source: Dale McLelland, with permission

Many, if not most, dogs like to play with their friends, including other dogs, possibly other nonhumans, and their human companions. Fair play predominates, as dogs follow the “golden rules of fairness.” When dogs and other animals play, they use actions such as vigorous biting, mounting, and body-slamming that could be easily misinterpreted by the participants, and individuals need to be clear that what they really want to do is feel safe, have fun, and play fair.

That’s basically the moral landscape of play. Play evolved because the benefits of playing outweigh the costs and risks. Many people don’t realize that dogs and other animals can have too much fun that makes play risky. As an ethologist, I want to know how play evolved, why it’s adaptive—what it’s good for, what causes dogs to play, and how it develops. Context is key—who’s playing, who’s involved, and where it’s happening.

I was recently interviewed by dog experts Lisa Tenzin-Dolma and Dale McLelland about different aspects of play in dogs that centered on a series of questions they asked as part of the curriculum for The Advanced Diploma in Canine Behaviour, part of The International School for Canine Psychology & Behaviour Ltd.’s level-6 degree program. Here are some questions we considered. (More details, including discussions of available data, are available here.)

Lisa and Dale: You mention that play is contagious and that when others are playing, an animal can assume they’re safe. Of course, the opposite can also be true in that if the play is over energetic, rough, or there is too much excitement, a dog won’t engage if they don’t feel safe. Does this also imply that the dog can make judgments about not only the situation but the individuals involved?

MB: Yes, they can. They carefully watch what’s going on and use this information to decide whether or not to join a playgroup. I’m sure their decision also is based not only on how the other dogs are playing, but also on who’s playing—for example, familiar or unfamiliar dogs, who’s around, and where they’re playing. 

Lisa and Dale: The play mood is contagious with us, too. We generally laugh, enjoy, and respond positively to seeing dogs play—even though we are not joining in, we must “get” something from observing. Does watching play occurring between others encourage obse
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