The Morality of Play

The act of playing is usually thought of as little more than an entertaining pastime, but research is confirming that it is in play that we first learn the manners to facilitate our interactions in society. As we realise what an important function it serves, we can see how play could well have been the nucleus of civilization. Parents with problem-children might come to realise that a significant causal factor has been a lack of proper old fashioned rough and tumble play (computer games and the like don’t count).  And so it is with dogs.

Jaak Panksepp, the eminent psychobiologist, psychologist and neuroscientist, and Lucy Biven, the distinguished psychotherapist, have explained how seven emotional systems – seeking, fear, rage, lust, care, grief, and play – govern not only how we as humans live and behave, but how remarkably similar these systems are across the mammalian species.  Here the focus is on dogs, and so we will be looking at the importance of play to the development of the higher brain regions that help make happy, creative and socially cohesive canine adults.

Increasing evidence is indicating that play stimulates the production of what we may describe as brain ‘fertiliser’ (IGF – an insulin-like growth factor), which results in brain growth and development.  One third of the frontal cortex brain genes are altered during play, effecting the creation of pro-social circuits. These frontal lobes are responsible for calm, rational, considered behaviour, and may be thought of as the brain’s ‘braking system’.  When dogs unduly jump up and down, tear around, whine and can’t be still, this inhibiting system is not functioning, and their behaviour is socially unacceptable.  They are out of control. Conversely, when the system is intact and functioning we are likely to see better impulse control and a reduction in undue reactivity.

When the brain’s play centre is deprived, by social isolation for instance, the grief centre is activated and the animal becomes lonely, miserable, depressed.  Conversely, an adequate amount of play reduces activity in the play centre and results in improved concentration and learning ability. If we look at the play centre as we would a hunger centre, we can see how Panksepp’s work links ADHD in children to a starved play centre.

I have found the research of Panksepp and Biven to be supportive of my own experience as a dog trainer and behaviourist when working with hyper-active dogs.  Dogs without suitable companionship whose behaviour has indicated the deficit now under discussion, have become better balanced and calmer when a compatible playmate has been introduced and adopted.  Most animal-watchers will have observed many species of domestic and free-ranging animals engaged in play.  As the research confirms, play is not merely a pastime but an important requirement for healthy social development.

It is also known that during play and dreaming, the brain assesses and arranges important information that helps develop a repertoire of innovative behaviours that enable the animal to better cope with potential life events.  On the other hand, play deprivation may lead to traits such as fearfulness and aggression in animals lacking the ability to cope with life’s ups and downs.

A potential problem to watch out for in play is that without sufficient cooling off periods between bouts, the participants may become overly aroused and the play may escalate into a fight (note the same danger among children). This is the ‘dilemma of play’. But dogs with good play skills regularly pause briefly during play sessions to calm themselves down.  The law ‘do unto others’ applies, resulting in prosocial behaviours being learnt and employed.  The rules of fairness and reciprocity are to be adhered to, and a contravention is likely to result in a correction or an abrupt end to play.

This kind of play naturally develops communication skills as well as teaching boundaries of right and wrong.  For example, if a puppy bites an adult dog too hard, the response will be a reprimanding stare or perhaps a paw placed over the puppy’s body, and the play session will cease. In this way the puppy quickly learns that if it wants to play, it needs to inhibit its bite and earn that right.  Among puppies at play, a painful bite would usually result in a yelp.  This would end the fun, and thereby the puppy should learn to inhibit its bite in play. In these ways the animals are taught when boundaries have been overstepped, and other valuable social lessons are taught.  Animals who do not play fairly are liable to lose reproductive fitness because they will be shunned by potential play mates and become social outcasts.

Play also includes role reversals:  now the prey, next time the hunter. This teaches locomotory and balancing skills. Taking turns playing dominant and submissive roles also teaches control. A more naturally dominant animal will signal the intention to play with a play-bow and will then adopt positions and postures that it would seldom assume in real life.  For instance, it may roll over and play a submissive role for interaction with a weaker or less assertive play mate.  By the same token, when well-mannered dogs play with puppies or older, weaker ‘opponents’, they might use self-handicapping techniques to level the playing field, thereby ensuring that both partners may enjoy the game.

It is wise to supervise play involving unfamiliar dogs because, as among children, some may have deficits in play skills. Play may become too intense, usually because one party does not abide by the rule of role reversal. If the victim’s attempts to calm the situation or disengage are ignored the play-bout may become increasingly frenzied leaving the victim little option but to take more defensive action which could result in a fight. If a dog deceives by giving play invitation signals and then uses the opportunity to deliver an un-inhibited bite, the consequences will likewise be severe.  Dogs who do not abide by the rules will be excluded from play, and so from the social group, and consequently lose out on genetic fitness.

It is not an exclusively human practice to require that acceptance in society demands that certain basic rules of conduct be upheld.  Animals clearly have their moral codes as well, and we have seen how these are formed in play.

Susan Henderson©


Catch me if you can with role reversals.


A much needed Pause

play 11

Even with the ugly face Shenanigan is displaying the bite is    inhibited, lips are long and body is curved. Skye is learning  crucial life skills.