Puppies: the importance of free play

One of the assignments in Grisha Stewart’s Empowered Puppy Raising class is to discuss Jon Hamilton’s article Scientists Say Child’s Play Helps Build A Better Brain. As a Bronze student, I couldn’t submit my thoughts, but I thought I’d write them down anyways. A colleague and I are planning to offer a puppy group class this spring, and we’re always on the outlook for input!

The article suggests that free play (“No coaches, no umpires, no rule books.”) leads to new neural connections in the pre-frontal cortex, and argues that play may not primarily serve the purpose of practicing fighting or hunting, but “to build pro-social brains, social brains that know how to interact with others in positive ways” (Jaak Panksepp). Furthermore, in human children, these social skills seem to be related to academic performance later in life.

Assuming that the canine brain reacts similarly to free play, we clearly want to give our puppies plenty of opportunities to practice free play! This also confirms that socialization is a lot more important than obedience training early in life. A dog can learn every trick in the book later in life, but there is only one puppyhood – and in it, we are building the foundations of how he will relate to other dogs later in life. Thinking of the children’s academic performance, we may even build the foundations of the ease with which he takes to dog sports later in life.

For our puppies, the parallel to human free play might be to give them a chance to interact with other puppies and adult dogs of all kinds of sizes, ages, male and female, neutered and intact, and with different play styles. We also want to keep our puppies safe, so we should set them up for success by means of finding appropriate playmates, and always keeping an eye on them. If a puppy gets overwhelmed or does not respect the others’ distance-increasing signals, it’s time to step in. That is to say: we should give them the opportunity to negotiate social situations for themselves, but never abandon them with more than they can handle. We never force them to interact with other dogs – if our puppy is shy, we’ll let her watch the others play from a distance until she herself decides she wants to participate. We don’t lure her closer; we let her progress at her own speed. She is in control of who she engages with. If after some time of play, our puppy seeks sanctuary near our legs, we will respect that wish and make sure to not let the others get too close. I like Roya Hollensteiner metaphor for this safe zone: she describes it as an imaginary box we build with the help of our arms. Our puppy may seek shelter in our “box” anytime, and may leave it anytime if she wants to resume playing. However, the other dogs or puppies may not enter our puppy’s box, i.e. the space in front of her human’s legs.

Ideally, the puppies would get to play in different environments, so they could have chase games outside as well as calmer bitey face games inside. A third part, which I consider equally important, is exploring the environment together with others or hunting for treats together, for example on a walk with a dog friend. We want our puppies to share both exciting experiences and calm experiences with other dogs.

As long as they play well together, we don’t interrupt – this is not the time for human rules and obedience, this is the time for learning to be a dog.

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