Play Stuff Blog

Playing Catch  

Kong dog toy, The Strong, Rochester, New YorkSeveral years ago, friends came to visit and brought along their Australian shepherd/border collie mix and this black Kong dog toy. (Kong toy? The inventor said the toy looked like “an earplug for King Kong,” and the name stuck.) The herder pursued the toy with agility and persistence. Our Charlie the Dog, a mini-goldendoodle (another mutt), inherited the dog toy when our visitors left it behind. Less intent than the shepherd, Charlie still liked the bouncy, chewy thing well enough. But it proved too heavy and too large for his mouth, so he preferred a smaller, softer, red version—now much gnawed and tooth-marked.

Behaviorists will note that chewing plays an important role in distracting dogs—a reasonable if lackluster conclusion. For dogs, chewing is something more active—rudimentary play. Ethologists list “object play” as an important part of dogs’ play repertoire. But when a human partner joins in on a game of fetch, the encounter with this toy adds up to much more than a strategy for relieving boredom. This plaything facilitates a most remarkable social phenomenon—cross-species play. 

Constructed like a bulging Michelin Man, with graduatingly large off-balance spheres piled up and smushed together, this Kong toy bounces unpredictably on hard surfaces when tossed. From the pursuer’s point of view, it rebounds almost furtively. (The toy rewards chasing by including a cavity for hiding treats.) Predictably, the toy sells well in a pet-toy market estimated to reach into billions of dollars annually. Mainly, the toy presents dogs with a tantalizing, elusive, and resilient moving-target that enhances play as pursuit. This instinct to pursue and subdue, turned powerfully to play, remains very important to these domesticated predators all these thousands of years after they settled with us companionably.

Our relationship with canis lupus familiaris (recently re-classified alongside their ancestral wolf-brethren) demonstrates a remarkable bond that was, once upon a time, established through feeding but—and this is key—is now strengthened through play. In fact, the main difference observable between dogs and their wolf-kin today is the persistence of juvenile behavioral traits—a perky, pleasing personality that biologists call “neoteny.” Some dogs stay puppy-like for much of their lives. (Indeed, playfulness measures neoteny.) We humans are notoriously neotenous too, sharing play throughout our life-spans. Though fully capable of play, especially when young, adult wolves are less playful than their tamed cousins. This attitude comprises a striking difference.

Once, while walking on Central California’s canine-friendly Carmel Beach, I encountered a dog that seemed unusually indifferent to beachcombers’ presence. This formidable, self-possessed creature offered no doggy solicitation for a scratch, no goofy tail-wagging, no friendly lick, and no inviting “play bow.” After a brief glance, he had no interest at all. My companion and guide that day, the noted play-advocate Stuart Brown, M.D., explained the reason: this singular “dog” was mostly wolf. While other “canine visitors” (as the town’s website terms them) provided “exultant entertainment as they romp along the surf and frolic with one another on the sand,” this wolf-dog padded alongside his human alertly but aloofly—more partner than pet.

Dogs, on the other hand, love to please. They solicit attention, need our approbation, and, above all, want to play.