There is a lot of stuff that my dogs love doing that I don't let them do. I don't let them harass the cattle. That's not fair to the cattle. I don't let them eat fifty million pounds of cat food every day. That's not fair to their future health, or the air quality in our home. I don't let them wander unsupervised outside our fenced yard, because they might meet a skunk (which they also like, to be frank) or get hit by a car. I love giving my dogs stuff they love, so these restrictions sometimes rankle. But luckily, my dogs get lots of goodies. They're trained, they're well-fed, they get daily walks, they have a ridiculous multitude of beds, and the best part ever: when it comes to dog play, as long as all parties are consenting, I let my dogs decide how much, where, when, and how long. (Consent is easy to determine, by the way. Call off both dogs, and see if they both return to play with each other. They'll let you know.)
Researchers who study animals' quality of life are pretty quick to suggest that play can be used as a welfare indicator. Most of the time, a playful animal is signalling that she is both healthy and free from worry. To top it off, play is one of those behaviours (like eating and sex) that are just straight-up pleasurable. In research-speak, the behaviour is self-reinforcing: "the reward to the animal is in the expression of the behaviour itself".ⁱ
So if play is plainly reinforcing, to say nothing of enriching and tiring (oh, to have a tired dog! What joy!), why is there so much chatter about it among us humans? We endlessly diagnose, constrict, restrict, define, prevent, and worry. That dog has semi-inherited domineering playitis. This dog shows clear serenity signals at the sight of a Samoyed. And the human tendency is, unfortunately, to restrict play. We want to pick who our dogs play with, and how they do it; if we even let them play at all. Run-of-the-mill dog play seems to terrify us. In a bit of breathtaking narcissism, we feel like we have a better handle on what makes dog play good than do actual, real... you know. Dogs.
Imagine if your own parents had so much control over your adult activities. "Well Steven, I have decided that racquetball is simply too stressful for you. I've set up a table here with some alphabet blocks and a nice Ovaltine." It's a bit dreary, isn't it?
If you have a playful dog who is not becoming fearful or causing fear but you restrict their play anyways, please consider a firm press of the reset button in your mind. Allow your dog to choose both how they want to play, and who they play with. Quell the "but, but, but" crew by bypassing popular literature and heading right to the research: there is not a body of research to suggest that species-typical play is bad. Dogs run, slam, bow, bite, bark, hump, chase and loll. They express their joy exactly as they should, as energetic, magical, social carnivores.
We deny our dogs oodles of fun experiences for everyone's health and safety. So go ahead—open your heart to the terrifying euphoria of dog play. Even if it makes you uncomfortable to start. Even if there are a couple of squabbles. Even if you need to pull out the doggie shampoo afterwards. Even if. Even if.
We bring dogs into our lives for the joy they give us, right? Play, and better yet, play on our dog's own terms, is one extraordinary way we can return the favour.
i. Held, Suzanne DE, and Marek Špinka. "Animal play and animal welfare." Animal Behaviour 81.5 (2011): 891-899.