Pets Love — and Need — to Play

A number of scientific studies on human and animal social interactions stress the importance of play. Humans and our pets are unique in that we play our entire lives.The fact that humans and pets stay playful as adults is a significant part of what makes our relationship special. Just like people, dogs and cats need to relax and have fun in order to grow and thrive. Although play can be exciting and fun, we need to remember that our pets also need supervision. They need to learn the rules of play. We have a responsibility to make it clear to our pets, especially dogs, when it’s time to play and when it’s not. An excited dog can lose control, and lack of control can lead to aggression.

Dogs Need to Play

For dogs, play is an important part of that process. Interactive play can strengthen the bond between you and your pet.

Dogs have been around for millions of years, and for the vast majority of that time they lived in the wild. Like all wild animals, they had to fend for themselves. “The Pack” was their key to survival. Wild dogs hunted together in packs to overpower prey and protect each other from larger predators. Eventually, humans realized dogs could be trained to work at such tasks as herding and protecting livestock. Only recently have humans fully appreciated the many ways dogs add value to their lives — from protection to recreation to companionship. Today many dogs have moved inside the home. Their owners think of them as family members. And to the dog, the human family has become their pack.

In spite of recent domestication, the dog’s basic instincts have not changedDogs are predators, scavengers, and opportunists. They are genetically programmed to hunt for their food. Counter surfing, trashcan scouring, dinner begging, garden digging, and furniture chewing are all outgrowths of an opportunistic scavenger taking advantage of its environment. Often these are considered behavioral problems when, in fact, they are just evidence that a dog is being a dog.

Nearly all common behaviors can be traced back to instinct. Barking, digging, marking, and chewing all served distinct purposes in the wild. When dogs attack and try to tear something apart, or violently shake a lifeless item, they are acting on their instincts to subdue prey in order to eat and survive. When a ball is thrown to a dog, what appears to be play is actually the natural instinct to chase.

Dogs become frustrated if their natural instincts are constantly suppressed. Rather than fighting these instincts or punishing the dog for doing what comes naturally, it’s far more productive to find acceptable ways to satisfy these instincts. Healthy play can influence our dogs in so many ways. Physical and mental development, emotions, and behavior can all be influenced by how your dog plays. Games like fetch, tug, and chase satisfy a dog’s instinctual needs, as well as strengthen the bond between dog and owner. Play helps the dog expend excess energy, which is extremely important for appropriate behavior. In order to be well adjusted and happy, dogs need to play.

Play is imperative, because a bored dog will find something to do — and too often this means destructive chewing. This problem can be addressed easily by providing the dog with satisfying chew toys. For more than 35 years, dog owners have used KONGs to minimize inappropriate behaviors and keep their dogs occupied. KONGs are durable chew toys with an erratic bounce that appeals to a dog’s natural chase instincts. Once the dog captures the KONG, the natural rubber can be chewed on for hours, satisfying the needs to chase as well as chew.

But not all dogs will automatically chew on a KONG. Many experts suggest stuffing it with food. Dogs are quickly drawn to what’s inside and challenged as they figure out how to get the treats out. Treat-stuffed toys are a great way to get a dog’s initial attention, and as they chew the toy, good habits are reinforced.