Very few people are surprised to hear that play is an important part of the well-being of a puppy. Play stimulates the senses, provides mental challenges, strengthens social bonds, and is a great way of spending energy. Furthermore, some games such as tug of war are great for training self-control.

But when it comes to adult dogs, some people are surprised to learn that play is just as important for them. They tend to think that daily walks and running lose in a dog park (playing with other dogs or by themselves) is enough. No matter how sociable your dog is with others dogs, playing with them is not enough.

Regardless of age, all dogs endure situations of stress, and the recovery from stressful experiences is essential for good quality of life! There are daily stressors (traffic noise, for example) from which some dogs recover quick and easily while other dogs may need as much as 72 hours to recover. Usually, dogs that take this long to recover have a biological predisposition to deal poorly with stress. Furthermore, there are behavior problems that arise from stress. The take home message is that stress-related behavior problems may afflict dogs of any age.

Play has a therapeutic effect and plays a key role in the recovery from stressful situations as well as in the resolution of behavior problems.

Repetitive play helps the dog recognize patterns. Repetitive play is a pattern or ritual that is always the same and becomes predictable. For example, tossing the same ball always, in the same direction, in the same place, and the same number of times. Why is it important to help a dog recognize patterns? Because predictable situations help anxious and fearful dogs feel safe. The ability to recognize patterns, when developed through repetitive play, generalizes more easily to other situations. This way, the dog learns to recognize more patterns that are synonymous with predictability.

Vigorous and intense play, such as tug of war or playing with a flirt-pole help the organism release large quantities of a protein (BDNF – brain-derived neurotrophic factor) which plays a role in the growth of new neurons and development of new neural pathways. Growing new neurons and establishing new neural pathways contribute towards negative memories being replaced by positive ones.

So, get creative playing with your dog. It’s therapeutic for them and for us 😊 But… play can become excessive and have the opposite effect, which is the release of stress hormones. It’s better to find a balance. As a rule of thumb, aim for 3 to 5-minute play sessions 4 to 5 times a day.