In a previous post I wrote about a study that found dogs living in multiple dog households play with their owner more than dogs in single dog households (Rooney, et al., 2000). This finding suggests that a dog’s behavior towards humans does NOT coincide with it’s behavior towards other dogs. Instead, there is something about play with humans that appears to be intrinsically valuable to a dog. So much so that the motivation to engage in this type of interspecies interaction is not satiated by play with other dogs within the home. This finding goes AGAINST current popular opinion that dogs treat humans like conspecifics incorporated into a hierarchical pack. So what else is different about dog-human play?
First off, dogs play with humans in a structurally different manner than they do with other dogs (Rooney, et al., 2000). They enjoy instigating play with people and engage in both interactive and cooperative activities. Even a popular game like tug, that has been constructed socially as a competitive game, is functionally cooperative for most dogs. It’s like you and your dog are working together to rip something apart as opposed to working against each other to possess it. These researchers also found dogs are more likely to present a toy to a person than to another dog, and that a large percentage of seemingly competitive interactions end with the dog releasing the item before the person.
You may be thinking, “my dogs play tug with each other, how is it any different?” It’s true, dogs play tug with one another. But have you noticed that things can get a little tense when 2 dogs play tug versus when we play tug with our dogs? Rooney, et al. (2000) did. They found that the same games played with humans appear more competitive when played with another dog. These interactions consist of a greater number of vigorous behaviors like shaking the object. In theory this suggests that during intraspecies play, obtaining possession of the object is the motivation. When tested, as predicted dogs spent more time with the item “won” from another dog than dogs that “won” the same item from a person. In fact, after winning the item from a person, a significant number of the dogs tested left it behind to be with their human playmate. To the authors, these findings suggest play between dogs is motivated by competition whereas play between dog and human is motivated by the actual interaction with the person (Rooney, et al., 2000).
My interpretation of this study is that dogs play with humans because they just plain like it! It’s fun for them and a relationship builder. This is great news! No more worries about playing tug possibly changing a dog for the worse (come back soon for more info on this hot topic!). This study gives me one more excuse to really enjoy my dogs. I know I have fun playing with my dogs and I never really had doubts about their enjoyment of our play — since they always come back for more. Tug, fetch, and other games you play with your dog are examples of opportunities for your dog to have a good experience with you and build positive associations about you and your presence.
What fun games do you play with your dogs?
Rooney, N., Bradshaw, J., and Robinson, I., 2000. A comparison of dog-dog and dog-human play behavior. Applied Animal Behavior Science 66, 235–248.