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February 5, 2014: Dog Training: The Importance of Play

More than one person has said to me “It’s so good that you’re doing (take your pick) agility, herding, obedience, search and rescue) with your dog. Ryder is a border collie and those kinds’ dogs sure like having a job!” In each and every instance, I, the proud owner of a dog that’s reputed to stake its very reputation on being gainfully employed, have said “Yes! Ryder loves to work!”

I got to thinking about the above today. No one has yet to say me “Ryder is a border collie and those kinds of dogs sure like to play!”

Maybe my collective response to the above two statements should be “Yes, Ryder is a border collie and these kinds of dogs do like to be busy, busy inferring enjoying both working and playing. Maybe there are some border collies out there that do little else besides work and play, but this one is the exception to this. She also likes to rest. More than once I have been on my way to do something and looked down at Ryder, who was lying on her matt. Opening one eye, the question has seemed to be, must we? Can’t we just relax for a bit?

I suspect that other dogs have noticed that Ryder has two very energetic owners. The upshot of their conversations with her most likely take

Ryder playing

Ryder snoozing

the form of single sentence which is “Yes, your humans are go getters, and those kinds of humans do like to be busy.”

Back to the matter at hand – the subject of work and play. Yes, dogs doing agility and search and rescue are working, if you in part define work as being an activity that requires you to exert yourself in a focused manner. But the reward for work – the proverbial paycheck – is play. The dog, after doing the required task, be it find a subject or go through a set obstacle pattern, then gets to chase a ball, tug on a Kong toy, or catch a Frisbee. I suspect that if they didn’t have to work, that they’d still enjoy getting to play.

This morning I went for a lengthy walk up and down the bench trail, of course taking Ryder, Rainbow, and Jenna with me. The trail is now slick from having been traversed by innumerable snowmachines. It looks like a ski field up there. At one point Ryder bounded off to the side of the trail, grabbed the small piece of moose hide that she’d left there yesterday, and bounded back onto the trail. I stopped and watched as Ryder bounded back onto the trail, dropped the piece of hide, and then chased it downhill, skittering down the slope. This scene repeated itself several times, as Ryder carried, dropped, and chased the rawhide. After she tired of this, and only after, she took her find to the side of the trail, laid down with it, examined it, then settled in for a good chew. Ryder continued to play, chasing and grabbing at Rainbow, and leaping with great abandon over downed trees.

More play late this afternoon. We went to Matanuska Lake for a search and rescue training session. Stacey R. organized this and directed our activities. Amanda went first and did foundational training with her dog Rowen. Then Lisa did the same with her dog Mack. Then it was Ryder’s turn. Last Saturday, Ryder played with the mitt at the end of the training session. Amanda, who volunteered to be the subject, remarked as to how quiet and calm Ryder was. We then took turns waving the sheepskin mitt in front of her. Ryder immediately sprang into action, grabbing and worrying the mitt, bracing her feet, and shaking her head furiously in what she considered to be a really good game of tug of war. Amanda was surprised. As Pete explained, sometimes it’s like throwing a switch. Ryder, in just a few seconds time goes from being completely uninterested in playing mitt to extremely interested in the same.

We did three training searches. I hooked the long line to Ryder’s SAR vest. Amanda then took off. Ryder sniffed the glove Amanda had left behind. I then said “Ready? Search!” Ryder took off at a very fast trot, with me behind her. Amanda had dropped (in addition to the glove) a flashlight and her long line. Ryder soon found Amanda. The reward was that she got to play tug with the supposed subject. All the above also held true the second time around.

The third time around, Ryder and I had to go down a steep, wooded embankment in search of Amanda. This time, we found her relatively quickly. The one difference between this time and the two times before was that Ryder wasn’t all that interested in playing mitt. Rather, she sat in Amanda’s lap and licked her face. Well, I now know that if she doesn’t make it as a search and rescue dog, that she’ll do just fine a team mascot.

I figured that Ryder was tired and therefore that the work/play session was over. But after a half-hour’s catnap in the truck, she was rearing to go again. This time she spent considerable time tugging at the rope leash.

And so, all this to say that play is important to animals. It could argue (and successfully) that grabbing and tugging on a rope is like grabbing and tugging on a moose hide. In essence, both are survival techniques, required in acquiring food. We perceive of play as being fun – hence our use of toys.

Play for humans involves the use of one’s imagination. I do not know if dogs have imaginations or if they put them to use when playing. I think not. Barking and yipping are invites for dogs to play with one another.

Now that I think about it – play seems as important to me as work – maybe even more so. It’s a fun activity, akin to having a real job.

Next: 37. February 6, 2014: The Ice Age