How and why dogs play

Play, by definition, is fun. When play stops being fun it stops being play. Play is a pleasurable activity during which animals engage in behaviors that are not part of the immediate business of life, but rather are performed in mimicry, rehearsal or display. During play, dogs behave without real seriousness – running, jumping, chasing, mouthing, chewing, wrestling, biting, hiding and even humping. In play, all behaviors are a game to the players and are performed for fun. There is no hidden agenda.

Dogs have a unique gesture, the play bow, that signals “play mode.” The signal involves dogs going down on their elbows with their rear end elevated, tail raised and wagging. During such posturing, they have on their “play face,” with mouth open and ears pricked. They may bark to signal their wish to solicit another’s involvement, and may approach or withdraw from a potential play partner while pouncing and leaping about.

Play is usually, but not always, between two or more individuals. Sometimes dogs without partners will play by themselves. Solitary play is a rather sad event and may even have unwanted long-term repercussions.

Why Do Dogs Play?

It has been suggested that play is a necessary part of growing up for all young social animals and that without it they may not develop to their full potential. This does not appear to be the case, as animals deprived of play for reasons of sickness or ill health grow up to be behaviorally indistinguishable from their play-satiated peers. This is not to say that “players” may not develop more rapidly than their play-deprived peers, just that the end result often turns out to be more or less the same.

If play is not absolutely imperative for normal development to develop, what good is it? Well, play is a role-playing rehearsal for adult behaviors and as such will prepare a youngster for what lies ahead. During play, pups exercise their bodies and minds, making them healthier and smarter for it. In nature, this may give players the edge over their unrehearsed counterparts who may be still struggling to learn the Ps and Qs of canine etiquette or the rudiments of the chase. Note that different types of play unfold in parallel with sensitive periods of learning, so that play learning is most efficient. Mouthiness is first seen at 3 weeks of age, right after the transitional period. Then come play solicitation, play fighting, scruff holding, deference, and finally sexual play.

All these forms of play start in the socialization period between 3 and 6 weeks of age and they intensify as the pup approaches adolescence. Object play, chewing and chasing objects, occurs a little later, becoming most intense after about 16 to 20 weeks of age.

Types of Ways Dogs Play

Social Dog Play
Social skills are honed by playful interactions between individuals. One pup may jump on another pup, pin him, and then mouth him around the head and neck. If the pressure of the pup’s bite exceeds tolerable limits, the temporary underdog will roll over, yelp or run away. Both parties learn an important lesson. The biter learns to inhibit his bite if he wishes the fun to continue, and the pup that is bitten learns that deference or escape will cause the unpleasant experience to come to an end. Of course, sudden role reversal is also a feature of play, with provisional subordinates suddenly becoming pursuers and “attackers.” A happy medium is reached when truly dominant dogs learn their gift for mastery, and subordinates learn how to avoid or deter unpleasant exchanges. This dynamic may explain why dominant dogs are less successful than their subordinates in soliciting play. Aloof pups that don’t play much, and orphaned pups, often grow up to be socially inappropriate. In repelling borders, they may send a message that is too profound, failing to inhibit their bite – and they may not be able to deliver convincing messages of deference.

Sexual Dog Play

This mostly takes the form of mounting, clasping and pelvic thrusting (“humping”). The lack of seriousness is indicated by the somewhat haphazard orientation of this behavior, initially. Male and female pups are equally likely to be targeted, or in their absence, peoples’ legs and cushions may have to suffice. Dogs that have had no humping experience will not be as immediately successful in mating as previously rehearsed counterparts. Also, dogs without playmates may imprint on inanimate objects or human appendages as substrates for humping behavior, and become an embarrassment to own if not neutered. In addition, the relationship between humping and dominance must be born in mind if the correct human-companion animal relationship is to be preserved.

Oral Dog Play
Young puppies have a biological need to mouth and chew malleable objects. It seems to give them almost undue pleasure. Unlike social and sexual play, this type of play does not require a partner, though socially-testing tug-of-war games sometimes evolve as a spin off. Of course, by teething time, at around 6 to 8 months of age, object chewing becomes an extremely useful adjuvant to assist with tooth loosening and dental eruption, and may even provide some relief from gingival discomfort.

Predatory Dog Play
Chasing moving objects is a sure way of fine-tuning predatory skills. Ball chasing, stick chasing, and leaf chasing, are all ways in which this play form is expressed. With appropriate opportunity and guidance, pups will learn the ins and outs of the chase – how to accelerate, turn on a dime, brake suddenly, and how to pounce with accuracy and alacrity. If deprived of play predatory opportunities, dogs may resort to vacuum chasing of imaginary creatures, may pace, circle, or chase their own tails. This is a sad state of affairs.

Playtime as Dogs Age

In many species, like wolves, play is pretty much restricted to juveniles and adolescents. Adults do not normally have the time or energy to waste in such trivial pursuits. Domestic dogs, however, seem to be enduringly suspended in a juvenile frame of mind. Thus play is not something they outgrow but rather an activity they keenly pursue throughout their lives. Unhealthy and unhappy dogs do not play, so play serves as a barometer of well being, indicating that a dog is well fed, in good health, and content. Dogs, like humans, do not play when they’re sad or distressed. Dogs that do not seem to enjoy playing should be carefully scrutinized to make sure all is well in their lives.

Written by Dr. Nicholas Dodman for petplace.com

3 Ways Playing in Puddles Could be Deadly to Your Dog

There’s a lot to be said for a vigorous walk with your dog after a heavy rainstorm. The landscape appears refreshed, the air smells great, and you and your dog get to unleash some cabin fever!

1. Leptospirosis from puddles
Leptospirosis organisms are bacteria that thrive in wet climates. Wild animals, particularly deer and rodents, and some domesticated animals (cows, sheep and pigs) can be leptospirosis carriers. Although infected, these mammals maintain good health while shedding leptospirosis organisms in their urine.

Dogs can contract leptospirosis by drinking from water sources contaminated with urine from an infected animal. Puddles that have formed from rain runoff certainly qualify as such a source. A 2002 study on the prevalence of canine leptospirosis in the United States and Canada revealed that disease prevalence correlates with the amount of rainfall. The more rain, the more dogs diagnosed with leptospirosis.

Not all dogs become sick when exposed to Leptospirosism, but for those that do, the results can be devastating. Leptospirosis most commonly causes kidney failure. Associated symptoms include lethargy, vomiting, diarrhea, and loss of appetite. The liver and lungs are also targets for this disease. The diagnosis of leptospirosis is made via blood and urine testing. Successful treatment consists of antibiotics and supportive therapy such as supplemental fluids.

The leptospirosis vaccination does a good job of protecting against this disease. Talk with your veterinarian about whether or not this vaccine makes sense given where you live and the nature of your dog’s extracurricular activities.

2. Giardia from puddles
Giardia organisms are microscopic protozoa that live within the intestinal tracts of a variety of domesticated and wild animals. The infectious (contagious) forms are shed within the feces and readily contaminate water sources. This is one of the main reasons it is recommended that drinking hikers and backpackers drink only filtered water. A 2012 study documented that dogs who attend dog parks are more likely to test positive for giardia than those who do not attend dog parks.

The most common symptom caused by giardiasis in dogs is diarrhea. Vomiting and loss of appetite may also occur. The diagnosis is made via stool sample testing. A handful of medications can be used to rid the intestinal tract of giardia. Metronidazole and fenbendazole are the two most commonly used.

3. Antifreeze puddles
Consumption of only a very tiny amount of antifreeze can have devastating consequences for dogs. Ethylene glycol, the active ingredient in antifreeze, causes acute, often irreversible kidney failure. Symptoms include lethargy, vomiting, diarrhea, loss of appetite, weakness and ultimately coma and/or seizures. The diagnosis is made based on history, urine and blood testing. Unfortunately, even with aggressive therapy, many dogs suffering from antifreeze toxicity don’t survive.

Until relatively recently, antifreeze had a sweet taste rendering it all the more enticing to dogs and children. In 2012 antifreeze manufacturers were forced to add a bittering agent to their products. Even with the addition of a bitter taste, vigilance is required to prevent antifreeze toxicity. A small amount of antifreeze within a puddle may not be enough to deter a thirsty dog from drinking.

Antifreeze sources include open product containers and antifreeze leaks from the undercarriage of vehicles. When with your dog, be sure to avoid puddles that have formed in and around parking lots.

Take home message
My goal in telling you about the potential perils of puddles isn’t to convince you to confine your dogs indoors. Heck, my dogs hike with me daily, rain or shine. Rather, my objective is to increase your awareness so that you will be mindful about where your dog drinks when out and about with you (no parking lot puddles!). I encourage you to maintain awareness of the symptoms of leptospirosis, giardiasis and antifreeze toxicity so that, if observed, you will seek veterinary attention right away.

Questions to ask your veterinarian
• What symptoms should I be watching for after I’ve observed my dog drinking from puddles?
• What should I do if I observe any of these symptoms?
• Are there certain places where I should be sure to avoid letting my dog drink from puddles?
• Should I consider the leptospirosis vaccine for my dog?
 
If you have any questions or concerns, you should always visit or call your veterinarian — they are your best resource to ensure the health and well-being of your pets.

Written by Dr. Nancy Kay, DVM, DACVIM for Pet Health Network Newsletter: www.pethealthnetwork.com