The question of why dogs play is a seemingly simple one that many animal people likely don’t think about, not because we don’t think play is important, but because we just think the answers are obvious: our intuition tells us that dogs probably play because it’s fun! However, the reasons can be a lot more complicated than we think, especially since dogs have lived in close proximity to humans for more than 10,000 years. What’s more, there may be different play drives between different breeds of dogs, depending on their distinct genetic lines.
The aim of this study was to explore the function of play in dogs, considering both “natural” and human influences. In particular, the researchers were interested in exploring a group of theories / reasons for play: 1) developing motor skills; 2) training for the unexpected; 3) social cohesion and 4) as a by-product of biological processes. Through a meta-review of studies on dog play there is most scientific support for the motor skills development and social cohesion aspects, while there is inconclusive evidence for that play helps in “training for the unexpected.” The authors note that these different theories help to explain why there are a variety of different types of play, including locomotor play, “self-handicapping behavior” and “exploring novelty.”
The researchers conclude their study by noting that different kinds of play can provide different kinds of welfare benefits: for individuals, in can help to provide stimulation when it is lacking from the environment; intraspecific play can help to improve the welfare of multiple individuals, but it’s dependent on the play conditions and that dogs have an “even match” of play amongst themselves. For people living with companion animals, and for companion animal advocates, the study highlights the importance of play for dogs, and shows the various ways it can positively impact dogs’ lives.