Paper Review: Why do adult dogs “play”?

A recent issue of Behavioural Processes was devoted entirely to studies of canine behavior. Here I summarize one publication within that issue. For complete issue access, visit

Bradshaw, J.W.S., Pullen, A.J., & Rooney, N.J. (2015). Why do adult dogs “play”?

Ah, the playfulness of dogs! It is clearly one of their most endearing characteristics. One need only watch a usually quite serious, reserved man jump into a play bow with his dog or a child and dog frolicking across a park together to feel the strong sense of connectedness that draws so many humans across the globe into dog ownership and lifelong relationships with dogs. But what exactly is play? How is it defined in general and what is its purpose, or function, among dogs? Anyone who has loved a dog intuitively know what play is with their own dog, but behavioral scientists are actually quite confounded by this behavior in animals.

In this paper, Bradshaw et al. review some characterizations of play behavior in animals and then discuss categories of play among domestic dogs. They suggest that solitary object play may serve a different function than object play with the owner, with the former more strongly simulating predatory behavior while the latter can function to strengthen or maintain the dog-owner bond by providing for mutual reinforcement opportunities between the two members of a playing dyad.

Intraspecific play behavior (i.e., play between dogs) has several characteristics that prevent it from escalating into aggression. By using self-handicapping, playing dogs intermittently make themselves vulnerable to playful attack. By engaging in role reversal, stronger or larger animals act in ways typical of weaker or smaller animals in order to encourage ongoing play with conspecifics. These tendencies are briefly reviewed along with other characteristics of play between dogs.

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