- Many dogs love to zoom around, often recklessly and sometimes with a plan.
- They're having fun, and when we take fun seriously, science tells us that this is why they do it.
- There’s no reason to try to stop zoomies, but it's important to make sure a zooming dog can’t get hurt by running into things.
I was very pleased to read Stanley Coren's essay on zoomies, in which he concludes, "Zoomies are more likely expressions of excitement and positive emotion, although other factors may trigger the behavior." I've written some on zoomies, during which dogs energetically exercise their bodies and their senses, and I couldn't agree more. Zoomies, or FRAPs (frenetic random activity periods), are contagious—or as Coren puts it—"infectious fun"—and science tells us so.1
Zooming in on zoomies
Why do dogs engage in zoomies? Nobody really knows, and it may be different for each dog. Years ago two students in my animal behavior class and I did a detailed study of zoomies at a local dog park in Boulder and also on a few hiking trails where dogs were allowed to run free as long as they were under voice and hand control. The paper was eventually accepted, pending revision, at a journal but I couldn't locate either of the students, so I shelved it. Coren's essay prompted me to find a draft of the essay and I'm pleased to report what we learned because there aren't any formal studies I'm aware of concerning when zoomies occur, how long they last, and why dogs decide to do them.
Jamie, Sophie, and I collected data on 200 instances of zoomies and analyzed 156 for which we had enough information, including multiple observations of the same dog. We recorded information on the dogs, including their breed or mix, their age, their gender, and also some details about their personalities by talking with their humans and from our own observations. Interestingly, our assessments of individual personalities and those of their humans were in agreement around 65 percent of the time. Some of this variation was due to location—some people told us their dog underwent a personality change when they were able to run free and became more outgoing, while others said their dog was more exploratory and inquisitive, likely because they were able to run off-leash. Studying these changes would be a very interesting and important study.
Here's what we learned:
- We didn't observe any differences among breeds or mixes.
- Dogs less than a year old performed more zoomies than older dogs on average, but some senior dogs regularly engaged in them because, clearly, they were having fun.
- We didn't observe any differences between males and females in the frequency of occurrence of zoomies, nor any differences during same-gender or between-gender play.
- The duration of zoomies that began spontaneously and ended because the dog stopped, not because another dog or human put an end to the frenzy, varied for all dogs, likely depending on how tired they were, who else was around, or just because something else caught their attention.
- There was no clear reason why zoomies began. At least to us, they were spontaneous and due to something going on in the minds of the dogs themselves. We got the impression that seeing another dog zooming here and there got others to do the same, but couldn't collect enough data to make any definite conclusion.
- There was no clear pattern as to why zoomies ended. Some ended as abruptly as they began, some ended when a dog was clearly tired, some when a dog stumbled, and some when a dog decided to go find a playmate or saw a group of dogs playing and wanted to jump into the fray.
- One notable finding was that there weren't any marked differences among dogs who could be easily classified as to their different personalities. Happy dogs, edgy, uncertain, or insecure dogs, and dogs whose personalities "metamorphosed all over the place" as one owner quipped, performed zoomies the same amount of time and for the same duration.
- Dogs who were characterized as "loners" or introverts but were otherwise happy engaged in more zoomies than their extroverted companions, but these data were highly variable and we couldn't simply say it was because they were "social nerds" as Marie said about her dog Mabel. The "loners" might have done it because it was fun and they felt safe zooming around alone.
- On a few occasions, dogs zoomed here and there with a stick, rope, or rag in their mouths and it seemed like this was a stimulus for others to join and play tag or simply join in the fun, but we didn't have enough observations of this event.
- Zoomies when dogs were clearly running away from someone or something and appeared frightened were shorter and less random than those that were more playful.
Taking "having fun" seriously
Our data support Coren that "zoomies are more likely expressions of excitement and positive emotion, although other factors may trigger the behavior." What these other factors are remains a mystery, although one might be that a loner might feel safer zooming around alone than joining a playgroup. I also agree with Coren that, "the occasional bout of zoomies is not a sign of a mental disorder in dogs" and that feeling free after being restrained also might be why dogs begin zoomies. Some humans made comments indicating that they thought their dog was "certifiable," suffered from ADHD, or was a "loose cannon."
Zoomies also may be their own reward and that's all there is to it for some dogs. Animals often play just for the fun of it, because it feels good.1
Agency and consent. When dogs are given the freedom to choose whether or not to zoom around and their humans allow them to do so, they enjoy the fun and exercise. There’s no reason to try to stop zoomies, but it's important to make sure a zooming dog can’t get hurt by running into things that may topple or by tripping over something. And protect yourself—a super excited dog can easily take out a kneecap.
I hope people will take zoomies and having fun seriously and that researchers will study them in more detail. There's lots happening before, during, and after zoomies, and studying them also is a lot of fun. My students and I loved doing the work and some people were amazed—and sometimes insulting when they asked, "You get credit for this?" or "This is part of your job?"—when they learned this actually was legitimate research.
Fun-filled zoomies are very important to dogs and they also should be to us.
1) See "Dogs Just Wanna Have Fun: Birds, Fish, and Reptiles Too." For wide-ranging discussions about research on the topic of fun in various animals, including why it likely has evolved, see this special issue of Current Biology.