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The Science Behind Why Your Dog Loves To Play

Here at Tug-E-Nuff Dog Gear, we talk a lot why playing with your dog is so beneficial. In fact, we’ve written articles devoted to it.

So you might already know about how it improves bond, helps with training and allows dogs to release pent-up energy and have fun. But what about the science behind play? Why do dogs love it so much?

In this Training Spotlight we’re taking a deep dive into the reasons behind why dogs play.  

Why dogs are programmed to need play

For dogs, the urge to play starts early. Puppies will initiate play with their littermates almost as soon as they are able to move around by themselves.

This is an instinctive behaviour - passed down from wild canines, who used play to learn essential skills, including awareness of their own body and the best techniques for stalking, chasing and grabbing prey.

Of course, for our pet dogs in modern times, play isn’t so much about survival - luckily they have us to ensure they are well fed and taken care of – but it’s still an essential part of your dog’s everyday life.

1. Play feels good

Researchers have noted that, even in the wild, dogs play with each other. They risk injury, which in turn could cost them their lives by making them more vulnerable to predators, but they do it anyway.

The simple reason behind this seems to be that they play because it is too enjoyable to resist – and it offers a chance to do some all-important bonding with the other dogs they play with.

2. Play is better together

Scientific research by canine behaviour expert Rebecca Sommerville at the University of Edinburgh has shown that dogs prefer to play with others, rather than alone. That means they’d much prefer a game of tug or fetch with an interactive training toy like one of ours to playing with a ball or chew toy on their own.

And dogs are fussy about who they play with. They’d rather play with a human that they know and love, seeming to prove the theory that play improves relationships. 

‘Regular, real play between a dog and owner does not revolve around commands, and is important to strengthen their bond,’ Rebecca says.

3. Play boosts oxytocin

Oxytocin, often referred to as the "love hormone," is released during interactions between humans and animals.

Researchers delved into the impact of oxytocin on canine social behaviour, and found that oxytocin amplifies the social drive in dogs - prompting them to engage and connect with their canine companions as well as their human counterparts.

The benefits of playing with your dog

Puppies play to learn motor coordination, as well as to build confidence and resilience.

At Tug-E-Nuff, we believe that play is so beneficial that it shouldn’t stop when a dog grows up. We’re on a mission to enrich the lives of humans and dogs using the Power of Play.

dog playing tug with owner with a strong tug toy

Our 2022 Power of Play survey revealed a mighty 9/10 owners say that play with a Tug-E-Nuff toy enriches their dog’s life.

For adult dogs, the benefits of play are slightly different compared to puppies.

Playing with an adult dog…

  • builds confidence
  • boosts bond
  • is brilliant exercise
  • is mentally stimulating
  • highly motivating (so it can be used as a high value reward during training)

There’s a clear link between play and a dog’s instinctual urges and behaviour. All dogs are different and some have a stronger play drive than others. Often it’s linked to breed, but sometimes it’s just dependent on personality.

Take our toy picker quiz and get your personalised recommendations for your dog. 

Behaviours dogs display during play

When dogs play, researchers have noticed that they display a range of behaviours which offer a fascinating insight into what they want and how they feel. Let's look at a couple of play behaviours that are sometimes misinterpreted and what they really mean....

What play bowing means

It’s commonly known that when your dog bows down, they are telling you they are keen to play. But according to experts, that isn’t all it means. It’s also a way of the dog communicating that if they get a little bit rough during the play session, that they aren’t being genuinely aggressive – it’s all part of the fun and games.

Why do dogs roll on their backs during play?

For a long time it was assumed that when a dog rolls over, they are ‘admitting defeat’ or being submissive.

However, experts now say that this behaviour can actually signal the opposite: that your dog wants to keep playing.

Proving the point, it’s been observed in studies that when dogs in groups play together, it isn’t necessarily the weaker or smaller dogs that roll over – the stronger and bigger dogs do it just as much.

So next time your dog rolls over during play, don’t stop playing – get even more involved!

Discover 6 more surprisingly normal behaviours dogs display during play here (including barking, growling and chasing). 

Discover what motivates your dog

Take the time to observe your dog and notice what they are naturally interested in and motivated by, and use this to choose the best training toys that will motivate them during play.

For instance, collies are a herding breed that would love to herd sheep all day long. However, if a collie is kept as a pet, that’s obviously not an option. Instead, it’s possible to tap into the urge to chase by choosing a toy like our Sheepskin Chaser, which can act as a safe, enjoyable outlet for a collie’s natural urges.

Scent-driven dogs like beagles and sighthounds, on the other hand, might find a natural, responsibly-sourced rabbit skin toy particularly rewarding and motivating.

Other dogs like to grab, tug and shake things - and channelling this into a toy like the Fauxtastic PowerBall Bungee can stop a dog channelling the behaviour onto inappropriate objects like shoes and sofas.

If you fancy some new interactive tug toys to help boost your bond and your play, check out our full range of stimulating dog toys here.

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