As incredible as it seems, all dogs — from the tiny Maltese to the Great Pyrenees — belong to a single species that descended from wolves. And while it has been tens of thousands of years since the first dogs were domesticated, today’s breeds “are largely the result of selection for certain traits by humans over the past several hundred years,” according to Scientific American,1 and as it turns out, one of those traits is playfulness.
A study published recently in the journal Biology Letters2 suggests dogs’ willingness to play with humans may have been a central feature in their domestication and may also have prompted subsequent efforts to breed dogs for specific purposes.
“We have an enormous amount of diversity within the same species, and we can rarely observe such diversity in nature,” study co-author and evolutionary biologist László Garamszegi of the Institute of Ecology and Botany in Hungary told Scientific American. “So it’s a wonderful system to understand how evolution works within a short period of time.”3
As we know (especially those of us with canine family members), dogs are playful to varying degrees. Almost all young pups, given the opportunity, engage in play with others of their species.
Play is a vital part of their social, physical and cognitive development; it also helps hone the skills they will need as adults, such as hunting. However, in the wild, mature animals rarely play because they must spend all their waking hours finding territories, food, and mates. When they do play, it’s almost never with animals outside their own kind.4
The examples Garamszegi gives to demonstrate the opposite ends of the spectrum in today’s domestic dogs are the very playful Vizsla and the Chihuahua, who “doesn’t like to play at all.” (Needless to say, there are exceptions to every generalization and in addition, environment plays a significant role regardless of a breed’s natural tendencies, so you may have personal experience with a playful Chihuahua or a not-so-playful Vizsla.)
For the study, the researchers analyzed the trait of playfulness in over 89,000 purebred dogs across 132 modern American Kennel Club (AKC) breeds, from Pomeranians to Great Danes, over a 16-year period (1997 – 2013). The breeds were grouped by function, such as herding, hunting, guarding, companionship, working and sporting. Genetic breed data was entered into an evolutionary computer model that predicted which breeds had playful traits.
“We were interested in whether breeds could be distinguished by their average level of playfulness and what are the evolutionary forces that make different breeds behave differently,” explains Garamszegi.
Next, the researchers entered data collected by the Swedish Kennel Club that analyzed the personalities and play behavior of the dogs, which was assessed based on a dog’s willingness to play tug-of-war with an unknown person. Dogs considered “highly playful” were those who readily and actively participated in the game.
The research team found that the dogs belonging to the herding and sporting breeds were on average more playful than dogs belonging to nonsporting and toy breeds (e.g., Pugs and Papillons), which were selected for other purposes. One of the reasons is that dogs bred for certain functions such as hunting or herding must be highly trainable, with a “very strong owner-dog relationship.”
“So if you have a playful dog, it’s easy to train,” says Garamszegi. “One way to train a dog is to play with the dog.”
Surprises included the discovery that terrier breeds, originally bred to fight, including the Staffordshire, were “very playful,” as well as the Basenji, the African hunting dog, which the researchers categorized as “playful, though not at a high level.” From National Geographic:
“The basenji is likely the oldest domesticated breed, dating to at least the 18th century. But researchers believe basenji-like dogs have been around since at least 6,000 B.C., based on Libyan cave paintings depicting such canines on a hunt.
It's impossible to know if today's basenjis behave similarly to those early dogs. But the combination of the breed’s ancient history and its playfulness strengthens the study’s finding that people have been breeding dogs in part for their sense of fun for a very long time, the study authors say.”
When the researchers traced playfulness back genetically through the evolution of canines, they concluded that the ancestors of today’s dogs possessed the trait, and that it was important to the process of domestication. Over time, as dogs were selectively bred by humans, the trait was often amplified. Or, in the case of small dogs, muted.
“But some breeds, like the toy dogs, they actually lost some of this playfulness,” says Garamszegi. “Toy breeds were originally meant to be fashion accessories for the aristocracy, so playfulness could be a liability.
They need to match with your clothes; they need to match with your traveling habits. But they do not need too much attention. And in this particular situation, if you have a playful dog, it just creates a problem for you.”
Whenever you exercise or play with your dog, try to stay in the moment. Narrow your focus to just him and your interaction with him. And remember that dogs get bored, too, so try to change things up when you can. Neighborhood walks and dog park visits are fine, but for his overall well-being and quality of life, as often as possible, try to engage with him in a range of games and activities that challenge his mental and physical abilities.
The following are a few simple, fun activities to consider. And you can do them indoors, so winter weather doesn’t need to hamper your plans.
1.Expand your dog’s vocabulary — With time, patience, and lots of practice, most dogs can learn to associate certain words with certain objects. Here’s how to start. Give two of your dog’s favorite toys a name – something simple, like “ball,” “bear,” or “baby.”
Remove all other toys from sight to help him focus. Say the name of one toy and throw it so he can retrieve it. Do this a few times, repeating the name of the toy as you toss it. Then do the same with the other toy.
Now put both toys on the ground and say the name of the first toy. Each time he goes to it, reward him with praise and treats. If you want to make it more challenging, have him bring the toy to you for his reward. Repeat this with the other toy. When you’re sure your dog is consistently identifying the right toy by name, you can try expanding his vocabulary even further using additional toys or other objects.
2.Create a simple at-home agility course — Setting up an agility course for your dog and teaching her how to navigate it can be very mentally stimulating for her, and fun for you. Items to consider include a sturdy crate or stool, a chair to jump on or run under, a box with open ends to crawl through, a pole attached to two stools or boxes to jump over, a hula hoop to jump through, and a disc or ball to catch.
Tailor the course to your dog’s physical ability, focus, and attention span. Teach her to handle one obstacle at a time, and make sure to offer lots of praise, treats, and other high value rewards each time she conquers an obstacle. This should be all about fun, not work!
3.Play indoor hide-and-seek — Hide and seek challenges your dog’s obedience skills (so obedience training is a prerequisite for this activity) and provides both mental and scent stimulation. Here’s how to do it. Grab a few treats and give your dog a sit-stay command. Go into another room to hide, and once you’re out of sight, call him. When he finds you, reward him with praise and treats.
If you’ve taught your dog a find-it command that sends him in search of something, you can also play hide and seek with objects or food treats. To play, show your dog what you’re about to hide, and then do a sit-stay or put him behind a closed door so he can’t see you. Hide the object or treat, then go to your dog and tell him to find it.
Unless he’s a canine Einstein or has played the game awhile, you’ll probably need to give him verbal cues as he gets close to, or farther away from the object. You can also give physical hints by pointing or moving toward the hiding place until he catches on to the game. When he finds the hidden object or treat, be sure to make a huge deal out of it with lots of praise and a few additional treats.
4.Lead your dog in a stair aerobics session — If your dog is fully-grown (his joints are fully developed) and you have stairs in your home, this game is a good way to get his heart pumping.
Go to the bottom of the stairs and put him in a sit-stay. Throw a toy up to the landing, then give him the nod to go after it, bounding up the steps as fast as he can. Allow him to come back down the stairs at a slower pace, to reduce the risk of injury.
Ten or so repetitions of this will get his heart rate up and tire him out. Stair exercise in conjunction with a device like Dr. Sophia Yin’s brilliant Treat&Train system can provide the foundation for an excellent winter workout program for dogs.
5.Bring out your dog’s prey drive with a flirt stick — Also called a flirt pole, it’s a simple pole or handle with a length of rope tied to one end, and a toy attached to the far end of the rope. You can buy one or create your own homemade version, just be sure to use regular rope and not flexible or bungee cord.
Flirt sticks appeal to the prey drive in dogs and they’re a fun way to exercise your pet in your backyard (or in the house if you have the space or your dog is small) without overly exerting yourself. The game is simple — just drag the toy on the ground in a circle, and your dog will chase and tug at it.
The flirt stick can be a fun way to help your dog with basic commands like sit, down, look, wait, take it, leave it, and drop it. It’s also useful for helping him practice listening while in a state of high arousal and cooling down immediately on command.