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The Magic of Make-Believe for Our Dogs

Life-size dog dolls can be valuable tools for helping puppies and dogs.

Key points

  • Just as for humans, play offers dogs developmental and neurological benefits.
  • Make-believe companions can offer pet dogs physical, mental, and social benefits.
  • Individual animals respond differently, so it can be worth experimenting.

As a child, Kim Brophey collected stuffed animals. “It's all I ever wanted,” the dog behavior specialist recalls, describing the visceral joy of getting a new stuffed animal. “It felt like I had a new baby. I knew it wasn't real, but it didn't matter.”

Children gain many benefits from playing with dolls and imaginary friends. They gain social development, emotional regulation, a sense of competence, and other positive outcomes. That’s why mental health professionals often use dolls and other types of play when seeking to connect with at-risk kids.

As a child, Brophey experienced the magic of make-believe, and today in her professional life as an applied ethologist, she understands the deep biological and physiological value of play with dolls and similar toys. The satisfaction of make-believe play innately reinforces “behaviors that have been evolutionarily successful in the past," she says. "You're practicing on a subconscious level things that are going to be useful and relevant for later in life."

Brophey and other positive style dog trainers have been tapping into the many benefits of play—even make-believe—to help pet dogs thrive in modern settings.

ghdldlg/Pixabay
Source: ghdldlg/Pixabay

Puppies, Play, and Survival

For puppies, play is serious business. Play helps them master skills like pouncing, chasing, reading body language, and interacting appropriately with other dogs. During play, pups discover how far they can provoke one another and what the consequences might be. They learn give and take, how to wrestle using body and mouth, and when to inhibit the strength of their bite. Playtime benefits their brains, lighting up the developing nervous system with sensory input, leading to improved physical coordination and more balanced neurochemistry.

Many of us instinctively invite puppies and dogs to play with balls, ropes, and other toys; research suggests that dogs at play are energized by having an attentive human audience. Behavior professionals also incorporate play into training and rehabilitation. Amy Cook, Ph.D., for example, has developed a program that shows people how to mimic friendly, playful canine body language with their hands and bodies so they can coax shy and fearful dogs into gentle play.

Brophey takes a different approach to therapeutic play. For nippy puppies and dogs with various behavioral challenges, she recommends introducing a life-sized stuffed dog doll as a make-believe playmate.

Make-Believe With Dogs

Make-believe playmates can work magic because they let a dog “just go crazy and relieve their frustration from living in captivity in the modern pet environment,” says Brophey, author of Meet Your Dog. “They probably have more pent-up frustration than we can begin to even understand.”

Years ago, when Brophey first considered offering puppies and dogs a make-believe playmate, she wondered if it might backfire. What if the animals got too rough with the doll, developed bad habits, and carried those issues over into real life?

In practice, she found, the opposite holds true. Puppies and dogs will attack and growl and wrestle with the dog doll, but afterward, their behaviors improve—sometimes dramatically. Having a faux friend provides a wonderful outlet for normal developmental needs. It saves people’s ankles from attack, protects older dogs from tireless young dogs, and even increases confidence in fearful animals.

Fabric rips and limb breaks are common, so “surgical” repairs of the dog doll are often necessary, but Brophey doesn’t worry that unruly behavior will carry over to real companions. “Little girls may smack their doll babies up against tables, and they still know the difference when they're with a real infant,” she said. “I believe that just as we know the difference between real and make-believe, so do dogs.”

Ethan Kocak, used with permission
Source: Ethan Kocak, used with permission

How to Use Lifelike Stuffed Dog Dolls

Brophey typically chooses a dog doll designed in the standing position, which tends to elicit a more energetic response than those lying down, for example. She may let the animal interact freely with the doll, or she may attract interest by moving and animating it by hand or leash. Supervision is important, at least at first, to ensure that the dog doesn't swallow or choke on a piece of the doll. When first introduced to a faux friend, animals may sniff its rump and belly and greet it much as they would a real dog.

Roughhousing and gleeful mayhem can ensue. The make-believe friend may set off a happy cycle of wrestling, attacking, dragging, and pouncing. In addition to burning off excess energy, playing with a make-believe friend can help isolated dogs feel more comfortable in the presence of real dogs.

Additional Tips for Using Make-Believe Dog Dolls

  • Some dogs respond with joyful abandon, while others are standoffish or only interested at certain times of day, such as in the evening when they are brimming with excess energy and launching into “zoomies.” All responses are OK. As you watch, you’ll get to know your animal and its needs better.
  • A lifelike dog doll is especially beneficial for solo puppies who would otherwise take out their bitey urges on hands and ankles. This strategy can also work wonders for any dog with relentless energy that irritates other dogs or people in the household.
  • Dogs begin to understand that the make-believe friend is an “approved” outlet for roughhousing and may even begin to voluntarily redirect mischief onto the doll.
  • Shy or very small dogs can find make-believe a more relaxed opportunity for exercise and social-style play than a doggy daycare, where they can face real-life harassment from peers or worse. Small dogs, in particular, have high-pitched and squeaky barks with the potential to trigger dangerous predatory instincts in certain dogs, even of a similar size.
  • The doll, which can appear to “behave” reliably or calmly from the dog’s perspective, may have a soothing effect. In those cases, it can be used as a kind of security blanket or safe friend.
  • To find an appropriate dog doll, search online for “lifelike stuffed animal dog” and then browse for one suited to your animal’s size and breed.

Individual animals respond differently, so it can be worth experimenting. Captive animals, such as pet dogs, can struggle to get their natural needs met in the human environment. Playing with a make-believe playmate can sometimes make a world of difference.

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References

Akpakır, Z. (2021). Imaginary Companionships in Childhood and Their Impacts on Child Development. Psikiyatride Güncel Yaklaşımlar - Current Approaches in Psychiatry, 13(4), 820–830.

Nash, J. B. (2021). Doll play. In H. G. Kaduson & C. E. Schaefer (Eds.), Play therapy with children: Modalities for change (pp. 25–37). American Psychological Association. https://doi.org/10.1037/0000217-003

Mehrkam, L.R., Wynne, C.D.L. Owner attention facilitates social play in dog–dog dyads (Canis lupus familiaris): evidence for an interspecific audience effect. Anim Cogn 24, 341–352 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10071-021-01481-9

Bradshaw, J. W. S., Pullen, A. J., & Rooney, N. J. (2015). Why do adult dogs ‘play’? Behavioural Processes, 110, 82–87. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.beproc.2014.09.023

Mehrkam, L. R., Hall, N. J., Haitz, C., & Wynne, C. D. L. (2017). The influence of breed and environmental factors on social and solitary play in dogs (Canis lupus familiaris). Learning & Behavior, 45(4), 367–377. https://doi.org/10.3758/s13420-017-0283-0

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