Breed and Environmental Influences on Play in Dogs

A recent study shows neither environmental factors nor breed effect social play.

Posted Dec 21, 2017

Some dogs just want to have fun

Happiness is never better exhibited than by young animals, such as puppies, kittens, lambs, etc., when playing together, like our own children.” (Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, p. 99)

Watching dogs who like to play and frolic with friends or on their own is a joy to see and to feel. Clearly, they're having "fun on the run." Anyone who lives with a dog or who has spent watching them knows they and other animals sometimes play for the hell of it, just to have fun.

Whenever I watch a dog play with friends or play by themselves, I feel euphoric and can feel their own delight as they romp around here and there, often throwing a frenetic "zoomie" into the mix. Sometimes I want to jump in, but I know I might not be welcomed, and surely I can't perform dog-like zoomies. Zoomies, also called FRAPS (Frenetic Random Activity Periods), are high-energy bursts of activity in which a dog looks like they are possessed, after which they often lie down exhausted as if they've run a marathon or played to their hearts' content and need a break. On these zoomies, some dogs chase their tail until they spin so fast they fall over, only to do it again and again, some dash here and there alone or with playmates, but somehow seem to know the dimensions of their body and rarely run into an object, other dogs, or people (for more on zoomies please see "It's OK For Dogs to Engage in Zoomies and Enjoy FRAPs"). 

Royalty free stock photo, Dreamstime
Source: Royalty free stock photo, Dreamstime

Zoomies also can be contagious. I've seen other dogs join in when my dogs went nuts, and at dog parks, it's rather common for other dogs to look at a dog engaged in a zoomie and go off on their own "frapper fugue." Zoomies surely are part of what it's like to be a dog.

Because of my decades-long interest in play by dogs and their wild relatives, I was pleased to see a recent research paper by Lindsay Mehrkam and her colleagues called "The influence of breed and environmental factors on social and solitary play in dogs (Canis lupus familiars)."

This essay is available online so here are a few highlights to whet your appetite for more. Thirty pairs of dogs representing three different breeds of dogs "with distinct predatory motor pattern sequences (herding dogs, retrievers, and livestock guarding dogs [LGDs])" were studied. The research team was interested in learning whether solitary and social play differed among them. They also were interested in how social and non-social environmental factors influenced play. The researchers write, "The aim of the present study was to examine experimentally the impact of breed and environmental manipulations, and their interaction, on play in domestic dogs. Breed-matched dyads with working experience and of equivalent age, sex, and neuter status ratios were placed in four experimental test conditions and two control conditions in randomized orders. In the experimental conditions, the dogs were exposed to owner attention, attention from a less familiar person, a toy, and escape from aversive, and in the control conditions to an inattentive owner and being left alone. We hypothesized that breed differences would be observed in dogs’ predispositions to engage in solitary compared to social play as well as in the experimental conditions that would motivate certain breeds to play." 

Solitary play was defined as "Non-reciprocal motor patterns (e.g., pawing, play bow) directed toward an inanimate object without engaging or orienting toward another conspecific. May also include locomotor behaviors (e.g., inhibited running, voluntary downs) not necessarily directed toward inanimate objects, conspecifics, or people."

Social play was defined as "Simultaneous, reciprocal affiliation between conspecifics that are not agonistic and included at least one of the following components: self-handicapping, inhibited biting, wrestling, chasing, and exaggerated predatory behaviors. Play initiation behaviours (e.g., play bow, pawing) from one dog were only recorded if they led to a reciprocal play bout within three seconds."

The results of this study are very interesting and are summarized in their Table 3 (page 375).

The influence of breed and environmental factors on social and solitary play in dogs (Canis lupus familiaris)
Source: The influence of breed and environmental factors on social and solitary play in dogs (Canis lupus familiaris)

Basically, across all breeds, toys produced the highest levels of solitary play, with retrievers engaging in more solitary play than livestock guarding dogs. However, there were no significant effects of environmental context or breed on levels of social play. When the influence of neuter status in playing pairs was analyzed, there were significant effects on social play, "with mixed-status dyads engaging in significantly higher levels of social play than same-status dyads." It's also worth noting that factors such as age and sex did not significantly influence social or solitary play levels in this study.  

All in all, the researchers conclude "breed types with inhibited predatory motor sequences may engage in lower levels of solitary play than breed types with intact predatory motor sequences in contexts that stimulate those motor patterns." And, "In light of these findings, although predatory motor patterns may be observed during social play, social play may not necessarily have a motivational basis linked to predatory behavior; rather, social play may serve to regulate stress or competition between dogs." 

Let dogs who like to play romp around and engage in zoomies to their heart's content

I really enjoyed reading this detailed study and learning more about factors that influence play in domestic dogs. I look forward to more studies on this topic that involve a wider selection of breeds. We owe it to the dogs who love to play to learn more about an activity they seek out and in which they engage with unbounded energy and enthusiasm. And, for dogs who don't like to play, it's important to honor their wishes as well and not force them to play. It's really wonderful that many researchers are seriously studying various aspects of play in dogs, asking why it evolved, why it’s adaptive, what causes play, how it develops, and what animals are feeling when they play.

It's also perfectly fine to get down and dirty with your dog and play with them if they so choose. It's got to be done on their terms, honoring them as unique individuals with their own personalities, likes, and dislikes. Playing tug-of-war can also be fun and can be important in bonding and maintaining a positive and friendly relationship and training experience with your dog. In her book Play With Your Dog, dog trainer Pat Miller offers, “Tug to your heart's content,” and don’t worry if your dog growls. It’s all “part of the game,” and if the dog’s other behaviors are appropriate, “Let him growl his heart out!”

When you play with dogs you can learn a lot about them, such as what they consider playful, how they like to play, who they like to play with, and who’s not their favorite playmate. It’s really easy, and you’ll discover more about what that particular dog wants and needs and with whom they love to hang out and romp around. It's can be a win-win for all as long as they want to engage with you.  

The bottom line is when dogs want to play, let them do it to their hearts' content, and let's rejoice that they're truly having fun as they zoom here and there with friends and others. I’ve been nose deep in dog play for decades, and I never get bored thinking about it or watching dogs play quietly or zooming around here and there without a care in the world.

Some dogs just want to have fun. And why not? For dogs who love to frolic with friends or on their own, there simply isn’t enough time to play, so it's essential that we provide that time and enjoy it as well. It's a great way to give them the best lives possible

1For more details about various aspects of play in dogs please see "The Power of Play: Dogs Just Want to Have Fun," "Dog Play Is Socially Contagious and Now We Know Why," "How and Why Dogs Play Revisited: Who’s Confused?", "What's Happening When Dogs Play Tug-of-War? Dog Park Chatter," "Theory of Mind and Play: Ape Exceptionalism Is Too Narrow," "Chimps Seem to Know What Others Know—So Do Dogs at Play," "Get Down and Dirty With Your Dog: Bow, Hug, and Tug" and links therein.

People often worry about playing escalating into fighting. Data show that play only rarely escalates into aggression. For example, Shyan, Fortune, and King (2003) reported that fewer than 0.5 percent of play fights in dogs developed into conflict, and only half of these were clearly aggressive encounters. Their data agree with our own observations of wild coyotes and free-running dogs at play.