Ask A Vet: Why Is Play Important For My Dog?


Everyone thinks play is fun, but did you know that play can actually change your brain for the better? It seems to be true for people and many other animals, especially dogs. We prioritize play for our human children and we should, because research indicates that children are better adjusted and happier if they have free play. Would it not stand to reason that play might also benefit our dogs?

Dogs are not human and we know it. They cannot take many human medications and they cannot safely eat some of the foods that we love, but it seems that dogs’ brains are enough like ours that they can also reap the benefits of play. Oddly, there are species that are even more different from us than dogs are that seem to benefit from play, like octopuses1.

In fact, studies in rats proved that social play triggers the reward center receptors in the brain in a chemical way that makes one feel satisfied and happy2. The same receptors are triggered by certain drugs and other pleasurable experiences.

Opportunities for active and social play provide a mental and physical outlet for dogs. They are able to practice physical skills that they might need in the wild for survival, such as chasing and catching prey. Practicing these skills helps your dog feel secure in his ability to survive. These types of games also get your dog moving helping to lower the risk of obesity, which has been proven to shorten dogs’ lives. Fetch games are great for dogs and even if your dog will not return with the toy, you can toss treats or bully sticks as far as you can and have your dog run to find them.

Any game that lets your dog engage in natural activities is beneficial.  Chewing is entertaining for dogs. If you can find a toy or game that uses several of your dog’s senses, it is even better. Puzzle toys that challenge her to think are wonderful for brain chemistry. If you can participate and toss the puzzle toy, the game is good for you both!

In our fast paced world, we find it difficult to make play a priority. It is good for your brain and body as well as your dog’s brain and body. If you won’t do it for yourself, do it for your dog! Go play!

Note from the Editor: We recognize that play is important for the wellbeing of our pups and therefore we offer a variety of fun and mentally stimulating toys available in the iHeartDogs.com store. Plus, for every toy purchased we provide a toy for shelter dogs!

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  1. Kuba MJ, Byrne RA, Meisel DV, Mather JA.When do octopuses play? Effects of repeated testing, object type, age, and food deprivation on object play in Octopus vulgaris. J Comp Psychol. 2006 Aug;120(3):184-90. PubMed PMID: 16893255.
  2. Vanderschuren LJ, Achterberg EJ, Trezza V.The neurobiology of social play and its rewarding value in rats. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2016 Nov;70:86-105. doi: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2016.07.025. Epub 2016 Aug 29. Review. PubMed PMID: 27587003; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC5074863.

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