The mystery of play

I’m deep in “speech preparation” tunnel, working sun up to sun down on my presentations about play at APDT next week. It’s a lot of work, but gratifying. Play is such an interesting topic, I wish I could spend a few months doing nothing but learning, thinking and writing about it. One of the most interesting things about play is its reason for being is a bit of a mystery. Why do animals play? The answer seems like it should be obvious, but the more you think about it, the less you know. Is it for ‘practice?’ That makes sense, since play is seen mostly in young animals who are physically developing. However, some of the research suggests that practice is not the primary force driving play… (in some studies animals kept from playing are equally adept at predation and fighting.) Another idea proposed historically was that animals played if they had “excess energy.” It’s certainly true that play is only found in individuals who are healthy and safe enough to have the luxury of playing, but there is no data that suggests that ‘excess energy’ somehow needs to be used up!

One current hypothesis is that play allows animals to train their bodies for the ‘unexpected.’ Play usually includes many actions that involve quick responses and exaggerations of movements seen in other contexts, etc, so this hypothesis has some favor now. Perhaps there are several reasons that animals play… surely there doesn’t have to be only one reason.

But there DOES have to be a reason that play is so common in some species (“it’s fun” isn’t enough! why is it fun?). Play is costly and dangerous, (just look at all the sports medicine clinics out there!) so there has to be a big evolutionary pay off.

Another condundrum that scientists face when studying play is defining it in a way that uniquely defines a behavior as play. This is a tricky one, because most of the actions of play are seen in other contexts, like fighting and predation, for example. Certainly there are times that it is overwhelmingly clear that animals, our dogs for example, are playing. However, sometimes it’s not so clear. I have had several clients who were relatively new to dogs who called me out for a “dog fight” that turned out to be completely appropriate play between two dogs having a great time. On the other hand, how many of us have been at a dog park and listened to someone say her dog is “just playing” when it’s clear the dog in question is a bully who has terrified all the other dogs at the park?

Here’s a question for you about the photo below, sent by someone I met at a seminar (thank you!) Are these dogs playing or fighting? If you feel sure you know.. how? What is it that caused you to decide?


  1. Shannon says

    I have to say that these dogs are, indeed, playing. Mainly due to them both lying down (who fights lying down?). Also the hair on both dogs is lying flat (no hackles). The eyes of the golden are soft as are his ears. The poodle appears a bit more aroused than the golden (slight whale eye) but he’s clearly in a relaxed posture lying down, so I wouldn’t be worried. I have plenty of picture of my dogs just like this that look vicious, but are just “toothy” play.

    p.s. I’ve ordered your “play” booklet and I can’t wait to read it!

  2. Jeff says

    I am not certain I can ever feel sure from a single still photo. I prefer to know more of the context. However, I am going to go with play. I think the apparent “whale eye” on the black dog is a consequence of the exaggerated gaping jaw and not whale eye at all. The floppy ears and inability to distinguish any muscle ridges in the black dogs face make it hard to read it. I am reading the side on orientation as more play than agressive.

    The brown dogs posture seems pretty relaxed. I also perceive his eyes as fairly soft. To the extent I can see the brown dogs ears, they also seem fairly relaxed. I initially thought the brown dog had a muscle ridge on his face, but I have convinced myself I am seeing fur or whisker.

    I also think both dog’s side-to-side orientation is more indicative of play.

    I would bet these dogs have a significant interaction history. It is that history which allows them to be comfortable baring that much tooth to each other.

  3. Lurcherlot says

    I would say they’re playing – firstly because both dogs are lying down, which is not a fighting posture, and also because of the angle their heads are at – they’re turning away from each other, so there’ll be no tooth-on-skin contact. At the very least, the teeth will clash, but that’s a game of “bitey-mouths” (very popular in our household), not a fight.

  4. Susan says

    Play~the over all picture is not tense. Eyes and lips are soft and posture and muscle tone is relaxed.

  5. says

    O.K, I’ll bite. I think this is play for the following reasons.

    First, I have a hard time believing that the two dogs would be on the ground side-by-side if they were really fighting. Either both would be on their feet or one would be directly on top of the other.

    The yellow dog’s lips are pulled back, exposing the back teeth along with the front. When dogs are exhibiting aggressive intent the lips tend to push forward. The black (poodle?) dog’s lips do look pushed forward a little, I think the rest of the evidence in the photo points to play. It could even be inertia pushing his/her lips forward during a playful lunge.

    Both dogs are looking away and may even be “flashing” the whites of their eyes to each other, as opposed to eying each other face on.

    I’m looking forward to the answer!

  6. Leanne Werneke says

    First let me say, that as a trainer “in-training” I am attending the APDT conference next week for the first time and am so looking forward to soaking up and learning what I can. I am especially anticipating the day long symposium on play! It certainly does seem like a topic everyone needs to learn more about.

    I find play an interesting topic on the human level, as well. I tried to introduce more play and fun in the workplace at my previous employment, but was turned down because I was told “play and work do not mix”. In the course of learning more about this topic, I came across a fascinating web-site for the The National Institute of Play ( that actually scientifically studies this topic. As they say on their homepage play shapes the brain to make us smarter and more able to adapt to novel situations. Maybe that’s why animals play?

    I believe that the two dogs in the picture are playing for several reasons: they are both laying down, there is no direct eye contact with each other, their faces are also averted from each other, and the expressions on their faces (especially the retriever) seem relaxed.

  7. says

    On a note related to play, I have always wondered how adult dogs decide when to tolerate puppy play, versus when to discipline that same type of playing as the puppy ages. I’m not convinced that adult dogs decide that at 6 months, puppy play is no longer tolerated and that something must be done. I watch my 2 year old female with my 6 month old male, and she puts up with so much from him . . . things that she would never tolerate from my 9 year old male. My puppy is now big enough and old enough that puppy license (so to speak) should have expired, and yet she continues to allow him to chew her ears and harass her. She has never chastised him for biting too hard or playing too long, despite the fact that I have found bite marks on her neck and ears during grooming sessions. Do you have any insight?

    As for the photo, my initial gut reaction was that the dogs are playing, given how close to each other they are and how relaxed they appear to be (lying down, no hackles up, ears back). That being said, this is guessing on my part.

  8. says


    Speaking as someone who’s about to see you speak at APDT, it’s really interesting to hear what you’re thinking as you prepare! I love this picture, and I’d say that this is almost certainly play. Part of this has to do with details that I’m not always great at identifying, so please feel free to contradict me if I’ve missed something! I think their ears look relaxed, I don’t see either dog using their paws in a defensive manner, and I don’t generally think of the side-by-side position of their muzzles as a sign of true aggression. But the detail that makes me feel much more confident is the fact that the dogs are both lying down, and neither one appears to be trying to get up.

    The black dog is stretched very far forward, not a well-balanced position, and the tan dog is rolled to one shoulder, lying on his/her side. Both would have to go through some time-consuming movements in order to get back up, and both are currently in a fairly vulnerable position. If either dog felt truly threatened, he or she would almost certainly be trying to get up, either to run away or to find a better defensive position for the fight. I think that attempt would be visible in their bodies, if either was trying to change position.

    I think the more professional term for this sort of play is “jaw sparring,” but I’ve always thought of it as canine thumb wrestling. It’s one of my favorite kinds of play to watch, though my dogs prefer the crashing-around-the-living-room style that usually results in broken lamps and bruised shin bones for any humans in the way.

  9. Fran says

    Well, I think they’re playing because they’re on the ground together, and nobody is giving anyone the evil eye. My 2 corgis beat each other up this way just for fun.

  10. Crystal says

    I ran across this article today:

    It discusses a study that found differences in the way puppies of both sexes play. What I found interesting/relevant was the theory that play is a way for puppies to practice appeasement signals. It would be very interesting to read the actual study! It’s in the current issue of “Animal Behavior.”

  11. Diane says

    I’m not a trainer, but I have 4 big active dogs. I see this a LOT when they are playing. And while they do this they make some truly awful noises. So my impression of the picture is play. The open end of the mouths are not really aimed at anything – just air, and there doesn’t seem to be any defensive moves going on. But it is difficult to tell from just a picture of just part of the dogs too. These seem to be medium to large dogs. I wonder if people react differently to this type behavior in little dogs…

  12. says

    The main reason I think they’re playing (besides the things others have mentioned) is that dogs who are TRYING to bite each other would be aiming for each other — they are showing off their teeth (“oooh, lookit me, I’m a scary dog”) instead of using their teeth. It’s side-by-side play :).

  13. says

    Well, most other people beat me to it — they’re side by side, laying down, and while they’re showing teeth it’s a full mouth and not pushing the lips forward, and they’re watching each other’s teeth (keep your eye on the ball!) instead of the other dog’s body. They’re both making appeasing curves with their bodies instead of straight rigid lines, their hackles aren’t up, and I don’t think either of them have their ears forward like either of my dogs does when they’re in hunt-and-kill mode.

    With my own Ridgie, I’ve seen her play like this with other ridgebacks or dogs who she knows can “take it.” I still remember a neighborhood stray that I threw in the backyard with her one morning … I knew the owner and dog, and knew he was alright, and after he and Eowyn got the initial tail sniffing out of the way and figured out pack order they loved having a playmate each other’s own size and strength. I came home to find them passed out asleep in the middle of thoroughly trampled yard with each of their mouths still slightly open on the other’s neck.

  14. Mary Ellen says

    I think playing as well because they are laying down and their heads are sideways , no direct stares. This is how Floyd and his terrier friend play. Fighty face is scary for people who aren’t used to seeing dogs play, fun for the dogs though!

  15. lisa says

    playing. It’s the eyeballs! My two Bostons look exactly like that when they are playing. To the inexperienced dog (or not dog) person, they may look like they are about to rip the universe apart, but I try to teach them to listen to the sounds they make, the eyeball look, and the mouth movement. Often my two will look exactly like the photo (and I wish they would do that so I could clean their teeth!) and offer the teeth, open mouthed faces to each other without ever closing the jaw. We call it the sharing of fish breath….

    Seriously, at first it may seem scary to people whose dogs do not play with other dogs, but it is totally harmless and absolutely fun for them. Of course, like any play (with dogs or little kids) one must be alert for the moment it turns into chaos….

  16. EmilyS says

    I agree with everyone that they’re playing.
    But just to add to the challenge: dogs that play hard and in a physical way sometimes decide it’s not fun anymore and start fighting. With mine, I’m sure I sometimes interrupt what’s play to forestall that “tipping point”. How do you recognize THAT moment?

  17. says

    Good question, EmilyS — I think that you can tell mostly by sound, which isn’t something that communicates well over the internet.

    When Eowyn or Henry is playing, their growls and barks are at most a “droning” level of angry. When they get mad enough to hurt one another, there’s a “tearing” note that enters the bark — I’d compare it to the sound of a passenger jet airplane vs. a fighter jet — you can tell the difference because the latter just sounds LOUD AND ANGRY!

  18. trisha says

    Right on everyone (oh, heavens… where did I get “right on ” from? I think the 60’s just jumped up and bit me). The dogs are definitely playing. Your comments are great… I agree that important to our evaluation (the owner of the dogs assures me that they really were playing!) is the fact that they are both lying side by side, and that neither dog’s commissure is forward in an ‘offensive pucker.’ I’m not sure what I’d say about the ears; I discovered to my surprise while video taping working Border collies that they flattened their ears right before nipping cattle or a threatening sheep. It’s almost as though they are getting them out of the way. (That is TOTAL speculation!)

    And Emily is so right… vigorous play can lead to that ‘tipping point’ where arousal spills over into aggression (“I went to a fight and a hockey game broke out.”) I’m just working on that part of my APDT talk right now.. the importance of helping dogs learn emotional control while playing, and the important of people learning to PAUSE while playing, like dogs who play well do. More on that tomorrow!

  19. says

    Just discovered this blog by accident though I am a fan of your books. Play :-)
    If they were fighting their teeth would be sunk in each other’s neck!

  20. Mike says

    Let’s see the next picture as they are turning to bite each other.

    I have seen dogs like this in play, and I have seen dogs like this just before they turn and fight each other.
    Without seeing them moments before and after this picture, everyone assumes they know what the dogs are even reacting to in the first place.

    It takes more than a single still shot to determine a dogs behavior or state of mind.

    As trisha eluded to, different breeds and dogs within those breeds can exhibit different types of “posturing” before going on the offensive.

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