Lizzie Morris is an ISCP tutor and runs our centre in Devon, where we recently had play as the theme for a practical study day. In today’s blog she writes about why play is so important.

Why Play?

With this question in mind, I know what a mind boggling and wishy washy approach this is to understanding the importance of play, for both dogs and humans alike.  I understand that scientists prefer not to use the term ‘Why’ when explaining their findings and sharing their knowledge, possibly because there is no one answer to satisfy the question.  So, with this said, I hope that the answer in our minds as true dog lovers is ‘Because there is no good reason not to!’

As dog trainers, behaviourists and professionals among dog owners, I’m sure it is noticed, as I do when working with clients, just how few dogs really get a good chance to express themselves through play.  How often there is little or no emphasis on playful interactions between dog and carer on a daily basis.  From my perspective, might this be similar to denying our dog a meal? A primary need, a built in desire that drives a dog instinctively.  The mutual benefits during playful interactions for both dogs and humans, in my mind, surely amount to a Win Win in every area of our being, emotionally, physically and mentally.  In other words there is no good reason not to play!

When animals and humans alike can afford to play, it is because they feel safe enough to do so.  A rescue dog, or a dog from an impoverished background, may take months to feel safe enough to play. He will need to heal emotionally.  It’s important therefore that we notice and take the time it takes for a dog to find that inner desire to let go of their inhibitions and feel secure and safe enough in their environment to interact with us through play and at his own pace. A dog will feel empowered when he learns to explore his new life this way as his confidence slowly builds over time.

With play as a tool for connecting with a dog to bring confidence, trust and good positive feelings, it is an extremely powerful one, one that is understood by any dog or human and yet often overlooked. This leads me to mention how big a light is shone on any one human and dog relationship when asked about play and what games are played, as I so often hear ‘He isn’t interested in toys’ or  ‘He has a toy box and helps himself’, or ‘He seems happy enough to play on his own’ (floor littered with toys), ‘He doesn’t like to play much’…. .  My goodness, so many answers right there, in that very moment, about the way a dog might be feeling and the relationships they share within the human family they find themselves.  Nothing gives me more joy than to muscle in on the mind of a non-playful handler and see the joy a dog is feeling when we lift the mood, lose our inhibitions and play! We humans can be sooooooo boring!…. .  Ha Ha, only joking! Play right? – just pulling your leg!  Yes, it is because I feel safe to do so, behind the safety of my computer screen and cyberspace! Our dogs too need to feel safe enough to express themselves through play.

For me, I need play and humour to keep me feeling emotionally buoyant through every day, but at least we have a complex verbal language through which we express this, and are surrounded by other verbal humans who can laugh and joke with us and express our true characters and personalities. Well shame on us for not playing with our pet dog, he only has us, most of the time he is in ‘Humansville’ without a soul to converse with. Is the opposite of play work? Or is it depression?  With a light on science for a moment, yes, it sadly is the latter.

The predatory sequence lurks in all our domestic dogs, we have just selected various parts of this to create our breeds for different purposes. We can entertain this natural ability to hunt prey and simulate the joy of this through play, work as a team and get provocative with how we interact, choosing carefully the toys we use during play. We can satisfy the needs of the individual breed type, the personality, the natural talent of any one dog, young, old, rescue dog or puppy.  It excites me just thinking about playing with dogs; if I could bottle this and give it away to clients I would!

“Sometimes it is difficult to convert an over trained dog from devices to freshly killed game. This suggests that for dogs, the predatory sequence is not functionally motivated – that is, it is actually play behaviour.” [Raymond and Lorna Coppinger, Biologists] Dogs pg 211

Below is a chart that might give an ‘at a glance’ look at a few things that play brings us. This list is not exhaustive, so is really just a taster to remind us why there seems to be no good reason not to play.

Why Play                              What is gained

Create a bond and trust Engage the SEEKING and PLAY System

(a primary need nestled in the ancient part of the brain)

Grow in confidence Lose inhibitions, express themselves.  Offer behaviours without hesitation or concern.
Stimulating, mentally and physically Naturally, for fun, it’s not for real
Learn communication skills What works, what doesn’t
Learn about themselves – capabilities Strength, speed, mental/physical dexterity
Learn about the environment Physical awareness & mindfulness
Learn coping strategies in a ‘Pretend’ situation – Fight and flight for survival Emotions and how to respond to them in a safe situation
Emotional ‘Bounce Back’ The body recovers from everyday ‘surprises’ with ease.

To keep things simple, play brings about chemistry in the brain that gives us the ability to empathise with others and remember and focus on the positive experiences in life. It also brings about chemistry to the system that excites us and makes us feel good and uplifted. Play is a social need, increasing oxytocin in the system, thus giving us the ability to bond more deeply – therefore build trust in each other, we boost our confidence, to play we have to feel safe. Play is built into the nervous system, it is therefore not a learnt behaviour, it comes naturally causing the brain to release dopamine and brain opioids into the system, it feels good! Play helps us to remember things if used after learning a new skill. Sports trainers use play to classically condition a feel good feeling to a perhaps physically demanding exercise, to keep the enthusiasm and a fun factor to the task in hand.  Science is ever delving deeper into the need for social interactions through play and the positive effects on animals and humans alike :-

Stuart Brown -psychiatrist and founder of the National institute for Play (USA): “ The opposite of play is not work – the opposite of play is depression” (2009, p.126)

Christopher Bergland author and athlete describes how self-initiated laughter can have health benefits {psychology today]. Science confirms – We don’t laugh because we are happy, we are happy because we laugh.

Hasya yoga self-initiated laughter.

Jaak Panksepp neuroscientist, during his research using rats, found that tickling rats to simulate play causing vocal sounds which are explained to be a laughter equivalent, shows that the rats, by choice triggered this feeling by pushing a lever. He also found that a female rat will actively choose a playful rat for a mate as opposed to a rat that has been denied regular play.

We know that emotional contagion is a scientifically proven fact and as yet there seems to be no good reason not to play. Bringing play into my work place with dogs is a must, it most certainly brings me and the dogs I spend time with joy and happiness and lifts the mood by sharing the positive effects of play between dog and carer, it really is contagious!

Let’s play! Because it really is important and there’s no reason why not!