Why Do Dogs Play?

For many dogs, playtime is a need almost as basic as food, water, and shelter. Not all dogs require roughhousing or running around in the company of other canines, but many love the social aspect, hence the increase in popularity of recreation opportunities like dog parks, doggie daycare, and pack walks with a professional dog walker. If you have a dog that loves to romp with others like him, you may have just accepted this as part of his personality, but why does he play? What are the needs being met during playtime, and what do some dogs get out of playing?

A pack of small Jack Russell Terrier are running and playing together in the meadow with a ball
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Play in puppies

Dogs play for different reasons at different stages of their lives. During puppyhood, playing and socializing is an important part of learning skills and behaviors that they will carry into their adult years. If you've ever been around a young puppy you're probably all too familiar with their tendencies to mouth anything they can get her pointy, needle-like teeth around, and it's during this time that pups learn bite inhibition, or, how hard is too hard. The ASPCA states that puppies begin learning bite inhibition from their littermates, who will yelp and set a boundary, depriving the other of playing if she bites too hard. Puppies then learn to back off and are often "rewarded" with more playing once they've calmed down and demonstrated a more appropriate level of play biting.

Once a puppy has left her litter and has found herself in a forever home of her own, the need for play doesn't stop for a couple of different reasons. Mouthing and chewing will still be displayed as young puppies are teething and chew to relieve pain and pressure in their gums. This is why making toys available for your puppy to chew on is so important, which can also help to curb her tendency to bite or mouth on human hands. Most puppies are also full of energy which can turn into a destroyed house if not funneled into constructive activities, like fetching and running. To continue learning boundaries and appropriate social behaviors during the early months and years of development, VCA Hospitals encourages ongoing socialization with other dogs if possible, along with structured playtime with people.

Beagle puppy chewing ring dog toy
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Adult dog playing

So, we know that puppies need playtime in order to learn the ropes of being a dog in a human world, essentially, but why do some older dogs still enjoy a good play session, even well into their late years? Do You Believe in Dog has a few theories as to why dogs continue to play with other dogs and people as adults. One reason older dogs may play is the simple need for relationships and bonds. Social creatures that they are, many dogs crave companionship from others, be they another canine or a trustworthy human they have formed a close bond with. On a less emotional note, some dogs may play to let pent up energy out of their bodies or to pass the time if they are bored.

Developing physical strength and sharpening motor skills is another reason dogs may engage in play, according to research conducted by the Do You Believe in Dog team; however, these findings tend to apply more to younger dogs and puppies. Because play is often a positive experience, dogs can also learn to associate playtime with feeling good, and may view it as an opportunity to connect with the person most important to them — you. Whatever the reason behind it, if your dog enjoys playing with other dogs or people, it's important that you help them meet this need when possible, as it can lead to positive effects in both their physical and mental wellbeing.

dog chewing on a stick.
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Solo playing

When most people think of dogs playing, they picture two or more dogs running around and enjoying their shared time, or maybe they picture a dog chasing a stick thrown by their human counterpart. Sometimes, however, dogs can play by themselves in ways that you may or may not recognize. Chewing on sticks or toys is a form of playing that many dogs engage in alone, as is running, and sometimes, tail chasing. If your dog ever seems stressed or anxious while playing alone, like, if he chases his tail excessively or digs in the yard for hours at a time, it may be the sign of a deeper issue, in which case your veterinarian or a behaviorist should be consulted.