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The Importance of Play for Dogs

Written by Anna Hollisey


puppies playing in the grass

Does your dog have a favorite playmate… one who’s just the right size and temperament for racing, romping, and rolling? It is heart-lifting to see our dogs enjoying playtime together. But why do they do it? And what’s their fascination with people-feet? Learn more about your dog’s regular (and weird) play habits, and why it’s important to give them downtime at the end of the day. 

Dogs play to learn and bond. It’s an important part of their lives, especially when they’re young: they’re learning to cooperate and they’re learning to be prepared. You can encourage your dog to play safely by (a) ensuring they’re well socialized and (b) playing training games – and just-for-fun games – at home. 

Playing to Learn

Puppies play together, rolling around, tugging ears and chasing their litter-mates. It looks like pure fun but they are learning every minute! Those pups are learning how to read one another’s body language and initiate or continue play. They begin to learn how to inhibit the strength of their bite. This helps the dogs to bond as a group so that they can get along together. Later in life, they’ll need to know when another dog isn’t happy to play – and when to retreat. 

Playing with Your Feet

Tugging on your socks might be annoying. But your dog’s probably trying to initiate play with their favorite person! Contrary to popular belief, they’re not trying to assert dominance. In fact, a friendly game is part of building pack cooperation. (Of course, they might just like the sweat and pheromones wafting off your feet.)

Playing Tug of War

Undoubtedly, your dog will have their own favorite game. Tug of War is an opportunity for them to test their strength; it’s also an irresistible impulse which your dog might relish! Playing games like Tug of War is promoted by researchers – it’s an important way for humans to bond with dogs – and is used in dog shelters to help dogs learn manners. 

Play fighting is one way for young dogs and puppies to learn about relationships and behavior. 

While they’re young, dogs should get plenty of exposure to other dogs of all breeds and sizes. A well-socialized dog will know how to read body language and respond appropriately when it meets another canine. And they should meet other dogs – as a young pup and an adult – and experience different relationships.

When they play fight, it can be carried out by mutual consent, and it can be healthy and fun. Watch out for signals that one dog feels threatened – you can read more about the warning signs below. 

Yes, they can. If your dog is constantly excited and alert, they can be flooded with cortisol (the stress hormone) and too much of this can cause chronic anxiety and stress. 

Play sessions are healthy but if you see signs of overarousal (like trembling, uncontrollable barking, or a tendency to bite) then it’s time to stop. If it has become difficult to unwind your dog, try throwing some treats out onto the ground. This momentary distraction will help them to refocus, and sniffing helps them to calm down. 

Encourage your dog to engage in a mixture of different activities. This might include eating their dinner on a snuffle mat, trying scent work in the garden, and learning new tricks – as well as outdoor walks in familiar places. Exploring, sniffing, and learning are valuable skills which stimulate the brain without causing stress. 

You can tell the difference by looking at their body language. If either dog’s posture is rigid, they’re baring teeth or snarling, or they’re showing the whites of their eyes, then the wrestling has become serious. This can happen when one dog feels threatened or stressed.

If your dog is involved in a fight, then:

  • Don’t attempt to separate the dogs by hand. The greatest risk is that one of them will bite you – causing a serious injury.
  • Try distracting the dogs by making loud noises; if calling doesn’t work, bang something to startle the dogs. 
  • Keep your hands well clear; use an object, like a long stick, if they continue fighting and you need to separate them.
  • Throwing your jacket over one or both dogs can briefly stop the fight so you can pull your dog away. 
  • If two owners are present, each can lift the back legs of their own dog and pull them apart – this should be a last resort, not only can you risk hurting your dog by pulling their legs (or doing even more damage if one dog is caught in the other dogs mouth), you could also risk getting hurt yourself. When in full fight mode, a dog startled from behind could turn around to defend itself by biting your hand. 

Some dogs resort to fight mode during play… or fail to identify the signals that another dog isn’t happy. It could be because they weren’t properly socialized as a pup. Sometimes there are hidden reasons like stress, anxiety, or feeling unwell. It could be a result of one or two unfortunate encounters that’s left them constantly wary around other dogs.  

A good dog trainer can provide you with techniques for teaching play ‘manners’. Remember that the key is reinforcing positive behavior (with continued play or high-value treats). You can practice playing at home, without external stressors; this experience will strengthen the dog-owner bond as well. 

If your dog’s constantly threatening other dogs and you’re unsure about the cause, a dog behavior specialist should be able to assess and advise you. 

Play is great for dogs. But if you want your dog to become a well-adjusted household companion, you should also teach them to settle. It’s not about play, play, play all day!

Having a routine can help with this. Establish regular walking and training times and ensure that your dog gets resting periods in-between. If they decide to pick up their favorite stuffed toy and present it at your feet, ignore them. Wait for them to stretch out at your feet and relax. Young dogs need more sleep than they think!

Further Reading

Ready for a play session? Learn how to teach your dog to play Fetch/learn/dog-training/how-to-teach-your-dog-to-fetch and prevent boredom at home./learn/dog-lifestyle/do-dogs-get-bored When it rains, try out our Indoor Games to Play with Your Dog!/learn/dog-training/indoor-games-to-play-with-your-dog