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.