Since 1967 I’ve had three different dogs, all the same breed—the miniature Schnauzer. In keeping with my own preference for beard and hair, and with respect to the adage that dogs and their human partners bear an uncanny resemblance, I’ve let the hair grow on all of these dogs, so they took on a wilder look, shedding the dandy coiffures given to most Schnauzers.

I’m telling you about these guys because of their remarkably distinctive approaches to play. Three different dogs, same breed, same level of love, friendship, and attention. The first dog, Poncho (1968-1986), on waking in the morning, would race to your bedroom, grab a sock from under the bed, or one that you were about to put on, retrieve it, and then take it to another part of the house, play with it under a table, and encourage you to come and get it in a tireless game of keep away. However, Poncho showed virtually no interest in chasing balls, gathering sticks, or running with you. His favorite activity was tug of war, the one game that all three of these dogs had in common. Despite all of my best efforts, and believe me I tried, I could never get Poncho to play ball with me. He just wasn't interested.

Ponchos’s successor, also named Poncho (1988-1997), was reared in the woods of New Hampshire (the first Poncho spent his first seven years in the Long Island suburbs). His favorite activity was to roam the woods on his own for hours at a time. He didn’t particularly like people, immediate family excepted, was rather intimidating to strangers, and for the most part showed no interest in balls, catches, sticks, or joint jogging. Let me explain his favorite game. The kids would go to the top of our spiral stair case. They tied a dog biscuit to a string and would slowly lower the biscuit into Poncho’s jumping range, while swinging it like a pendulum. Poncho would fall for the bait each time. The kids tried to get him to stand on his heels for as long as possible, eventually rewarding him with the biscuit. As far as fun and games goes, that was it. Poncho’s idea of a good time was a very long walk in the woods (either with or without you). Fittingly, but with great distress to our family, he met his end in a tussle with coyotes.

Paco (1998-2013), name change at the behest of the kids who said its time to move on, was intrigued by all kinds of toys and games. He loved stuffed animals and had a little box (lying next to his extensive bone collection) with about a dozen of them. If my wife and I were sitting on the living room floor playing a board game, he’d walk over to his toy box, grab a stuffed animal, bring it over to us in hopes of engaging in a game of toss, keep away, or tug of war. When he was on his own outdoors he would hardly ever leave the vicinity of the house other than to visit a neighbor’s dog, but rather he’d find plastic bottles, old boxes, or anything he could play with, alternately chasing, dragging, shredding or crushing it. He spent hours chasing chipmunks, squirrels, mice, and shrews just as the Ponchos did, but with a transcending intensity and perseverance. On a balmy spring day, he would dig holes for hours on end, trying to snuff out a chipmunk. Every so often he’d catch one, kill it, and then play with it, carrying it around, shaking it, flipping it, exactly the way he did it with stuffed animals. However, he was much more private with his live prey (thank goodness) and didn’t urge us to play tug of war with it as he did with stuffed animals.

Paco was a big-time ball player. He loved nothing more, indeed, he eagerly awaited those precious moments when you hit balls with a bat (he liked wiffle balls in particular) so he could retrieve them. We had a collection of a dozen balls lying around the driveway (our house is nestled in a woodland setting), and I gathered the balls, hit them down the driveway into the woods as Paco pursued them with great purpose and intent. He made some incredible catches. Our son nicknamed him Ray-Ray, in honor of the Mets superb fielding shortstop Ray Ordonez, after Paco made several consecutive over the shoulder, turn around leaping, mid-air catches. Paco would play ball anytime or anyplace. Like me, he was born a ballplayer.

Paco also loved to fetch sticks. At the furthest point of a long walk, just after we’d turned around to return home, he would find a stick, the bigger the better, and drag it part of the way home. He’d do this for a short while and then look for another stick and continue the game, especially if you stayed interested by encouraging him, and this process would prevail all the way home. I’ve always been amazed at what I can only describe as Paco’s creative ability in finding objects to play with in diverse environments. Perhaps most astonishing is that I’ve observed him, on his own, find a stick and use it to knock a plastic bottle around the driveway. This is a dog who excelled at improvisational play. By the way, Paco would not grab socks and hide them, nor would he care much about dog biscuits dangling from the spiral staircase.

What accounts for the intriguingly different play habits of these three dogs? There are all of the obvious interpretations. Maybe vigorously shaking stuffed baby elephants is a way to practice shaking dead chipmunks. Maybe gathering a stick is a way of bringing something back to the home base hearth. Or perhaps play, in this case, is nothing more than a wonderful inter-species communication medium. Perhaps Paco merely wishes to please us and he does so by engaging in play.  

Yet I’m convinced that dogs play simply because they enjoy doing so. It is a tangible way to explore their world, to gain pleasure from doing so, to “live” in the moment, to use their bodies and stimulate their minds. Of course they are dogs and we are humans and we should do our best not to anthropomorphize their behavior. Dogs and humans have a long and complex Pleistocene relationship, and crucial to our deal and intrinsic to why we like each other is that we can play together. Dogs are fun because they are terrific players. They coax us to play, just as they seek to protect us,  and in so doing reward us for providing them with food and shelter. They play with us not only because they enjoy it, but they know that we do too.

It gives me great pleasure to watch dogs play and to play with them. All of my best friendships with people and animals alike are based on mutually enjoyable play behaviors and styles. When I ask why dogs play, I do so to further enter the mystery of mammalian behavior more generally, and ultimately to better know myself and our species. But mostly when I play with dogs I have no such deep thoughts and I’m quite sure they don’t either. But in playing together we come to know life better and we get closer to nature too, both through the challenge of our game, and the interspecies link to our mammalian ancestry. Perhaps human play is an attempt to get to the core of mammalian behavior and we are searching, ultimately, for our Pleistocene origins.



Mitch Thomashow

Thomashow devotes his life and work to promoting ecological awareness, sustainable living, creative learning, improvisational thinking, social networking, and organizational excellence. Currently he is engaged in teaching, writing, and executive consulting, cultivating opportunities and exchanges that transform how people engage with sustainability and ecological learning. In August, 2011 Thomashow became Director of the Second Nature Presidential Fellows Program. This new program is designed to assist the executive leadership of colleges and universities in promoting a comprehensive sustainability agenda on their campuses. Fellows provide executive consulting on climate action planning, long-range financial planning, organizational leadership, curricular implementation, and community investment. From 2006-2011, Thomashow was the president of Unity College in Maine. With his management team, he integrated concepts of ecology, sustainability, natural history, wellness, participatory governance, and community service into all aspects of college and community life. This included construction of The Unity House, the first LEED Platinum President’s Residence in North America, and the TeraHaus, a passive house student residence, as well as comprehensive campus energy planning, an integrated approach to growing food on campus, and a new academic master plan. Previously from 1976-2006, Thomashow was the Chair of the Environmental Studies program at Antioch University New England. He founded an interdisciplinary environmental studies doctoral program and worked collaboratively to grow and nourish a suite of engaging Masters programs, geared to working adults. Thomashow is the founder of Whole Terrain, an environmental literary publication, originating at Antioch University New England, and “Hawk and Handsaw,” a journal of creative sustainability, published at Unity College. He serves on the boards of Orion Magazine and The Coalition on Environmental and Jewish Life (COEJL). Thomashow is a founding organizer of the Council of Environmental Deans and Directors (CEDD), a national organization that supports interdisciplinary environmental studies in higher education. He provides ongoing consultation to the Sustainable Endowments Institute and their new Billion Dollar Green Challenge program. His two books have significantly influenced environmental studies education. Ecological Identity: Becoming a Reflective Environmentalist (The MIT Press, 1995) offers an approach to teaching environmental education based on reflective practice—a guide to teachers, educators and concerned citizens that incorporates issues of citizenship, ecological identity, and civic responsibility within the framework of environmental studies. Bringing the Biosphere Home, (The MIT Press, 2001) is a guide for learning how to perceive global environmental change. It shows readers that through a blend of local natural history observations, global change science, the use of imagination and memory, and philosophical contemplation, you can learn how to broaden your spatial and temporal view so that it encompasses the entire biosphere. His essay (2010), “The Gaian Generation: A New Approach to Environmental Learning” provides provocative new concepts for teaching about global environmental change. Another essay (2012) “Where You At 2.0” reasserts the relevance of bioregionalism for digital age learners. A recent essay (2013),“Sustainability as Turnaround” is a case study of his work as president at Unity College. with mandolin.png His new book, The Nine Elements of a Sustainable Campus (The MIT Press) provides a framework for advancing sustainable living and teaching in a variety of campus environments. It will be available in January, 2014. Thomashow is currently working on two writing, networking, and teaching projects. Improvisational Excellence suggests that improvisation emulates the patterns and processes of the biosphere. It’s a series of essays linking play, music, and observing nature to the paths of everyday living. It is the philosophical basis for Thomashow’s workshops on global environmental change, music and nature, and ecological perception. Wilson’s Library is a series of prose poems depicting extraordinary moments during the history of life on earth. Thomashow lives in the hill country of southwest New Hampshire in the shadow of Mount Monadnock. He loves to explore the fields, forests, wetlands, hills, and lakes of Northern New England where you can often find him on his bicycle. His recreational interests include basketball, baseball, board games, jazz piano, electronic keyboards, musical composition and recording, guitars, hiking, and lake swimming.