Is Play Important?

If behavioural issues are caused by stress and playtime can lower stress, why aren;’ we playing with our dogs all the time?

By Darran Rowe

Academic studies show how important play is to the development of your dog.

So we all know that dogs love to play? But do you know that that play is pivotal to your dogs wellbeing?

So often when I do behavioural work I find that the dog in question doesn’t play with toys and more importantly doesn’t play with toys with their owner. I hear, ‘He doesn’t like toys’ or ‘He’s never played with toys’ all the time. What this normally means is that the owner hasn’t invested the time when the dog was young in teaching their dog to play in the right way.

A study released by Bristol University in the UK (1)  found that the effective play routines are key to a dogs wellbeing. The study of 4,000 dogs owners revealed that dogs who didn’t engage in regular play suffered more from the common behavioural issues of anxiety and aggression.

In my experience dogs that have little or no play opportunities show increased whining, jumping up and rarely show good recalls. The study confirms this and, like young children, has indicated that play has an important role in the development of a young dog.

Increased play can reduce behavioral issues in dogs

Interesting enough this study showed that the lack of play opportunities had strong effects on the development of up to 22 different behavioural issues. I love it when an academic study validates what dog trainers see on a regular basis. I would almost guarantee that the dogs I see that show, anxiety, aggress, pulling on the lead to name a few behavioural issues, seldom, if ever, intentionally play with their owners. And I’m not just talking about throwing a ball for a dog.

The great thing about this study is that it indicates that dogs are just like humans and continue to play throughout their life span. It’s not surprising they fit into our life style and family structures so well.

How much play is too much play?

The Study by Bristol University showed on average ‘20% of owners play with their dog 6 times a day. 50% said they play with their dogs two or three times a day and 10% only engage in play once a day.’ With over 90% of the 4000 owners admitting that their dogs showed behavioural issues.

If you’ve ever studied early learning pedagogy for young children under 6 years old you’ll already know the importance of play in their schooling an development. So is it that much of a stretch to think that this is also important for our dogs during their schooling and development!

Your dogs mental state is effected by play.

We all agree that dogs that have not been socialised as a puppy are more likely to develop behavioural issues associated with new experiences, and other dog interactions. When we look at this process in well run puppy preschool classes, you can see that this socialisation is in fact well structured play. Puppies learn how to behave through natural and effective play. In fact the whole biting inhibition process can be sorted by allowing your puppies to play with other puppies and dogs safely.

We ran a puppy preschool lesson recently, and the most interesting thing for me was that the dog seemed to group together into small groups. There were two dogs that seems to connect and play together, biting each other’s neck. Another two puppies seemed to love grabbing each other and pulling themselves around the room.  A couple of puppies seemed to love running around, two chasing and the other loving being chased.

But the most interesting observation for me was that when the bitty puppies started to play with the chasing dogs, the play seemed to fall apart and sometimes turned in to arguments.

You see not all puppies, dogs play the same way. But why is that?

The motivation behind dog’s play generally fall into one of three categories, predatorial, agonistic, or courtship. How does this information help us to understand how to play with our dog?

Well each breed type of dog will have a different predatorial disposition. Basically put, some dog innately prefers to play in a particular way. So it stands to reason that if we play with our dog in their preferred way then we are more likely to build a positive bond with them and more importantly relieve the stress that has built up in the dog.

Academic studies recently in Europe(2) has clearly shown that stress in a dog has been linked to the development of behavioural issues, and that there may even be similarities between the stress levels in a dog and their human owners?. So, play relieves stress and reducing stress decreases behavioural issues!

Can you now see why playing with your dog in the correct way is so important to living in a happy life with your dog?

What’s game should you be playing with your dog?

I mentioned earlier that throwing a ball for a dog may not be the best way to play with your dog. Although it’s very clear that dogs love to fetch a tennis ball, is this actually building a relationship with you?

If you have a Border Collie or a herding type dog, and you throw a ball, I guarantee that they’ll charge away and chase the ball for miles. But when they get there, not all herding dogs will bring the ball back. Often once the ball has been caught, they’ll lie down in that place and wait for you to come over and throw the ball again. You see for them the chase is the most important thing, not the retrieve. One of the biggest training issues I find for herding dogs is that they don’t bring the ball back. It’s not natural for them.

If you have a Staffy or a bully type dog, and you throw a toy then, yes they’ll probably chase it and certainly grab the toy. But when they get there they are also more likely to sit down and not retrieve. This time, unlike most herding dogs, these guys are more likely to just chomp on the toy. And when you go to get it off them, well lets say, the last thing on their mind is giving the toy up.

If you have a Jack Russel or a terrier type dog, and you throw a toy then, yes once again they are likely to run after it and catch it. This time when they get there even if you run really fast to get the toy back, it’s likely to be ripped to pieces in a flurry of fluff and material. This event is made even more violent when the toy contains a squeaky.

And finally, if you have a Irish Setter or a gun dog type, then they are less likely to go chase the ball at all. In fact, they almost do the opposite. You give them the ball and they run off with it. You normally spend the time running after them trying to get it back. These guys love the chase, but for them it about being chased.

Of course there are always exceptions and many dogs show many of these behaviours, but as with all of lifes experiences, our dogs live on a continuum not in a fixed place.

So, toy play isn’t quite as simple as throwing a ball for your dog. The action that is most rewarding for them can often be the thing they do after the chase (herding dog excluded, although they generally love to tug).

How to simply improve your relationship with your dog.

If you truly want to play with your dog effectively, you need to view the play from the perspective of what your dog wants, not what you want. Remember the whole point of play is to have fun, de-stress and as a result decrease the occurrence of behavioural issues.

You see by just throwing the ball you are only taking part in 50% of the fun. What a missed opportunity to build a positive association with you? Positive association create well behaved dogs. Get involved in the last bit of the play, use a tuggy toy and play tug, with a toy that’s appropriate for your dog.

From now on, make a commitment to play with your dog 4-5 times a day, for 5-10 minutes. When you do, make sure you commit completely to your dog, be 100% involved in the activity. Rather than taking your dog for that 60 minute walk, go out for 45 minutes and then play, appropriately with your dog for the last 15 minutes (not necessarily ball play).

When we remember that appropriate play de-stresses a dog and that stressful dogs have more behavioural issues. The last 15 minutes of your walk could be the one thing that has the biggest effect on your dog’s behaviour and as a result your own happiness.


(1) Bradshaw, J. W. S., Pullen, A. J., & Rooney, N. J. (2015). Why do adult dogs ‘play’? Behavioural Processes110, 82-7.

(2) Salonen, M., Sulkama, S., Mikkola, S., Puurunen, J., Hakanen, E., Tiira, K., Araujo, C., Lohi, H. (2020) Prevalence, comorbidity, and breed differences in canine anxiety in 13,700 Finnish pet dogsScientific Reports. doi: 10.1038/s41598-020-59837-z

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