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Why do adult dogs 'play'?

By J. W. S. Bradshaw, A. J. Pullen, N. J. Rooney

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Among the Carnivora, play behaviour is usually made up of motor patterns characteristic of predatory, agonistic and courtship behaviour. Domestic dogs are unusual in that play is routinely performed by adults, both socially, with conspecifics and with humans, and also asocially, with objects. This enhanced playfulness is commonly thought to be a side effect of paedomorphosis, the perpetuation of juvenile traits into adulthood, but here we suggest that the functions of the different types of play are sufficiently distinct that they are unlikely to have arisen through a single evolutionary mechanism. Solitary play with objects appears to be derived from predatory behaviour: preferred toys are those that can be dismembered, and a complex habituation-like feedback system inhibits play with objects that are resistant to alteration. Intraspecific social play is structurally different from interspecific play and may therefore be motivationally distinct and serve different goals; for example, dogs often compete over objects when playing with other dogs, but are usually more cooperative when the play partner is human. The majority of dogs do not seem to regard competitive games played with a human partner as "dominance" contests: rather, winning possession of objects during games appears to be simply rewarding. Play may be an important factor in sociality, since dogs are capable of extracting social information not only from games in which they participate, but also from games that they observe between third parties. We suggest that the domestic dog's characteristic playfulness in social contexts is an adaptive trait, selected during domestication to facilitate both training for specific purposes, and the formation of emotionally-based bonds between dog and owner. Play frequency and form may therefore be an indicator of the quality of dog-owner relationships.

Publication Title Behavioural Processes
Volume 110
Pages 82-87
ISBN/ISSN 0376-6357
Publisher Elsevier
DOI 10.1016/j.beproc.2014.09.023
Language English
Author Address Anthrozoology Institute, School of Veterinary Sciences, University of Bristol, Langford House, BS40 5DU,
Cite this work

Researchers should cite this work as follows:

  1. Adaptation
  2. Animal behavior
  3. Animal physiology
  4. Animals
  5. Canidae
  6. Canine
  7. Carnivores
  8. Dogs
  9. Domestic animals
  10. Emotions
  11. Habits
  12. Mammals
  13. motivation
  14. peer-reviewed
  15. Pets and companion animals
  16. Physiology and biochemistry
  17. play
  18. predation
  19. Relationships
  20. Social behavior
  21. training
  22. vertebrates
  1. peer-reviewed