As I said in my last piece, it’s crazy how we have this idea that the game is a late human invention, as if we created art, science, war and then, as an afterthought, thought to simulate war with games of strategy. And one way we know this is that many non-human species play games. There’s some suggestion they also get asthetics, too, and can move colours and forms around as art, but there’s no doubt whatsoever they play games. Some suggest that they’re not playing games they’re just “playing” – just going through mock-actions of hunting and eating to test their strength and build social links and test social constraints. Certainly this kind of play is not quite a game, and is common in millions of species. But when you get closer to humans – when you get as close as possible, with the dog – you see that games exist.
Dog games have rules, winners, losers and above all, the magic circle. I talked a little about this last year, but as I learn more, there’s more we can learn about dog gaming and human gaming in turn. Here are some things science has recently discovered about dog gaming:
1. Dogs Use Games To Affiliate With Dogs They Like
Dogs don’t need games. Dogs isolated from other dogs and trained not to care about play seem to suffer no social or psychological disadvantage. But given the option, dogs seek out play quickly, and they use it to build affiliation with others. The primary purpose of play is NOT to test physical strength, test social barriers or prepare for hunting, but to share a social bond. When your dog wants to play with you, it’s because that’s it’s favourite way of saying it loves you. Dogs do NOT like to play with every dog they meet, they play most with the dogs they like most. They also play most with dogs who play well with them. Dogs that do not play well or do not play in their style are quickly chosen not to play with. Dogs will remember that there are certain dogs that play certain games with them in the best ways, and seek those dogs out for those games: they will find good chasers for when they want to chase, good pullers for when they want to pull.
2. Dog Games Have Specific Structures and Limits
Dogs play in groups of 1 to 3, with 2 being the best. When numbers get above three, they usually break into smaller groups. Group play is unusual, and involves vastly different games that use crowd psychology. Dogs often find group play confusing or less fun – it offers very little of the same rewards. Solo play is also rarer, as dogs are inherently social and use play to affiliate, as mentioned, but they do enjoy the struggle. Dog play is also limited in time. Dogs get bored after a while of play, and go back to socialising or being alone. Play increases arousal and focus, and if prolonged can lead to anxiety or exhaustion, so dogs take breaks. Dogs will also switch games or change the structure of games for variety. They will also alter the structure of games to suit their opponents: strong dogs will bite the stick with less leverage to help a weaker dog; fast dogs will slow down for slower chasers. The games will stop, the rules will be renegotiated, and then the game will begin again.
3. Dog Games Have Specific Unspoken Social Contracts and A Magic Circle
Dogs, like humans, can get confused about dog games because aggressive dog games are easily confused with fighting. Dogs will leave aggressive games or enter combative stances or do inappropriate responses (fight, flight, freeze, appease) if they feel the game is a fight. The way that dogs tell if something is a game is through several tests. First of all, dogs ask first. They set up the magic circle of the game by pre-establishing social affiliation. They lick faces, they play-bow, they touch and smell each other. Then they regularly check in with the play. If one dog is very focused on the play and the other less so, the play usually stops or wears down. If one dog is confused and gives inappropriate repsonses, the play stops. Dogs also prefer that the game involves give and take, with each individual experiencing both sides of things. Some times a dog will prefer to chase or be chased, but the chaser wants to both get away sometimes and be caught others. Other dogs will change between chasing and chaser. Dogs will get bored if they knock the other one down all the time. It’s not a game if you always win.
4. Dogs Show Preference to Copying, Connection, Fairness and Abundance
This is true of all dog cognition, so naturally it also shows up in how dogs play and how they learn to play. Not unlike humans, they learn primarily by watching others. Not through mimicry of physical action but through watching what others value, what others fear and what others respect. They favour the games and opponents that give them the most focus and attention and connection, they want to be as connected as possible to what they are doing, whether they are winning or losing, it is the social connection that matters. Dogs understand fairness, up to a limit. They can get that everyone gets a treat and will get confused or angry if someone is treated disproportionately even if it benefits them. Dogs also like abundance. They flock to those dogs and people who give away not just food but contact and affiliation and focus – and to games and game structures that allow all these things.
As you can easily see, all these rules apply to humans as well, except we can play with 1 to 6 players, with 2 to 4 being preferred because of our slightly bigger social structures. Everything else is the same. If you want a happy dog, help it learn to game well, and if you want to game well, ask a dog.