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It started when two canine scientists decide to become pen pals in an era of digital media...


13 March 2018

Do Dogs Just Want To Have Fun?

Please welcome Rebecca Sommerville, today’s guest contributor. Rebecca joins us to discuss her recent review on the function and welfare of dog play with co-authors Drs. Lucy Asher and Emily O’Connor. 

Photo by Jenni Chen, license CC BY

The sight of a dog playing, whether tearing around a park after another dog, or throwing their favourite toy in the air, rarely fails to draw a smile. It seems like dogs just want to have fun. Yet all of that playing uses a lot of energy and puts them at more risk of getting hurt. There must be a good reason they play, but it’s hard to see an obvious one. In the modern world all of their needs should be provided for – food, water, shelter, companionship. So why would dogs do zoomies, if not for fun?

In our recent review paper, we explored research on animal play to help answer this question. Dogs and modern-day wolves share a common ancestor, but during the last 10,000 years, their bodies and minds have been shaped by living with us. They can live harmoniously alongside people and be very attentive to us, and their behaviour is affected by these influences, including play. Our paper looked at the main reasons why animals play and put those reasons to the test with dogs.

The first reason was playing to get stronger, or to develop ‘motor skills’. Dogs play the most when they are young, which suggests that play could strengthen their bones and tissues while they are growing. Many types of movement are seen during play, from fighting to biting, mounting to chasing and manipulating objects – which could all be practice for doing these for real as an adult. However, play is not the best practice, or the best way to get fitter, so it doesn’t make sense why it would exist for this reason alone. It is not the best practice for the muscles and bones because it is sporadic and it doesn’t truly represent the later serious behaviour, only parts of it and in different ways.

The second reason was playing to be prepared, or ‘training for the unexpected’. Play can be quite unpredictable, especially when it is social, and it could prove useful practice for future situations when dogs need to think flexibly and be able to cope. Another interesting aspect is ‘self-handicapping’, where dogs deliberately put themselves at a disadvantage during play, such as to play with a smaller dog. This gives them skills in showing flexible behaviour, for example to signal that they want to back down to avoid a fight if another dog is aggressive towards them, which is particularly important for young dogs to learn. But again, this can’t explain all types of play that dogs do.

The third reason was making friends through play, or ‘social cohesion’. Through play, dogs build their social skills and bonds with others. Dogs prefer to play with someone they know and play can also be used to get to know a new person or dog. There was quite a lot of evidence for this in dogs because the games they play, who they choose to play with, and how they play all revolve around improving their social relationships. 

The final reason was play by accident, or a ‘by-product of biological processes’. As play appears to not have a function, it could be a by-product of something else. For example, play may simply occur because the dog has too much energy, or wants something to do in boring surroundings. It may make up for a lack of contact with other dogs, which is why they play a lot when they meet up with them during walks. Play could also be a learned response, either because it feels good, or because someone taught them to do it, it happens more over time. Through selective breeding, dogs have many qualities of young animals, and play may be one of these. We were not convinced that these are the only reasons play exists though, because there are so many types of play and each dog has their own level of playfulness, which is stable over time.


We also considered what play means for animal welfare. Most people believe that dogs have fun when they play and many scientists think that play is a sign that animals feel healthy and happy. Yet ‘play’ is not one thing. Play can be done alone, with a person, or with other dogs. 

When play is done alone, it is often with a toy or another object. This could improve their physical skills, but be caused by a lack of other stimulation in their surroundings. In some cases tail chasing, that looks like play, can be a sign that something might be wrong.

Play with other dogs is good for welfare as it improves their physical skills, social skills, and coping abilities. However, if play is one-sided, not evenly matched, or turns into aggression (owners aren’t always able to tell the difference), this would not be good for welfare. Some dog breeds are less capable of showing other dogs that they want to be playful, because they have features such as shorter legs, longer bodies, or docked tails. It’s important that dogs have access to other dogs (of various shapes and sizes) from a young age so they can learn how to communicate properly in social situations.

Finally, most dogs prefer to play with their owner than another person. They can play with them as a play partner, or the person can move toys for the dog in a way that acts as a substitute for prey. It’s worth noting that play might not always be fun for the dog if it involves too many commands rather than being spontaneous. There are other ways play between people and dogs could improve dog welfare, such as using play as a way to positively reward training or to improve adoption from shelters by having dog play with prospective owners. Contact with dogs has been shown to make people feel better too! 

Take-aways for dog lovers:
  • There are many types of play and each type builds different skills in a dog.
  • Play is self-rewarding (fun) for dogs.
  • Play is not always a positive sign of a dog’s wellbeing. 
    • Play with other dogs and games with people build their social skills, but take care if play partners are not evenly matched.
    • Excessively playing alone or tail chasing may indicate a lack of stimulation in their surroundings or another problem. 
  • Playing with a dog is good for bonding and consider including play that does not revolve around commands.

Rebecca Sommerville
Animal Welfare Advisor

Sommerville, R., O’Connor, E. A., & Asher, L. (2017). Why do dogs play? Function and welfare implications of play in the domestic dog. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 197, 1-8.

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