Pets Just Want to Have Fun

In Animal Wise: The Thoughts and Emotions of Our Fellow Creatures, noted science writer Virginia Morell explores the fascinating field of animal cognition research, which is proving that many animals have traits we thought were uniquely human: memory, feelings, personality and self-awareness. Here, she tells how playfulness is essential to development for dogs and even rats. Also, scroll down to take a fun quiz about animal intelligence based on Animal Wise.

For me, one of the joys of owning pets like dogs or cats is discovering their minds—what their personalities are like, and what they find interesting and fun. When our collie, Buckaroo, first came into our lives six years ago, he was a shy, worried puppy, who tucked his tail between his legs whenever we took him for a walk. This made us feel terrible, and we weren’t sure how to change his behavior. Buck was three months old, and he’d never left the farm he was born on. Everything was new—the smells, the food, us. If I were in his place, I might be worried, too.

You often read that the most dangerous dogs are the timid, shy ones. Was this the future of our puppy? The farmer we’d bought him from assured us that neither of Buck’s parents was shy; they were brave goat-herders, who protected the farm and looked out for all the farm animals, even the cats.

Somewhere inside Buck, I was sure there was a dog as brave and bold as his parents, and to help him find that side of himself, we met with a professional pet dog trainer, Wendy Pool. Wendy visited our home to meet us and Buck, who greeted her with rapid-fire barks, and that sad, droopy tail. She wasn’t fazed, but spoke to him in a high-pitched happy voice that made him cock his head from side to side. At last, he wagged his tail. “There’s nothing wrong with him,” she said. “He’s going to be a fine dog. He is a little shy, and yes, you want him to get over that.” Following her advice, I began taking him everywhere with me: to noisy crowds at the farmers’ markets, on neighborhood walks where people were coming and going, and into the forest with all the scents of the wild. To be honest, at first he did not seem to enjoy these outings; he dropped his tail, put his nose to the ground and inhaled every smell with each step he took, memorizing our path as if he might have to find his own way home. And yet, he was always willing to go with me. When I clipped on his leash, for what in his mind was surely another “Big and Dangerous” trip, he danced and wagged. He had heart, this pup; all he needed was confidence.

That breakthrough came at Wendy’s “Yappy Hour” class for puppies, which mixed basic obedience instructions with lots of playtime. After a short lesson, Wendy would announce, “Now, let the puppies play.” Buck’s eyes lit up at once; he loved being with the other young dogs. They raced after each other, tumbled and tackled each other like mini-Sumo wrestlers; then fell to the ground to pant for a few moments, before jumping up to start the game again. Buck was transformed. He wasn’t shy at all, but the life of the party. What was it about the act of play that turned our shy dog around?

I found the answer while researching Animal Wise. One trip took me to Washington State University in Pullman to meet Jaak Panksepp, the neuroscientist who discovered that rats laugh. How had Panksepp made his discovery? Simply by watching—and listening to—rats play. From Panksepp, I learned that play is essential to young mammals, whether rodents, dogs, cats or kids. It exercises their minds as well as their bodies, and helps them learn to properly express and control their emotions, Panksepp explained. It is how they learn to have confidence in themselves, to trust others, and to be brave.

It didn’t happen overnight, but in time Buck lost his shyness. We went to “Yappy Hour” every week, added stick chases and races to our walks and games at home, and found more puppies for him to play with near our home. He grew, as Wendy said he would, into a happy, confident dog, one with a surprising set of social skills. On our walks, Buck always engages the other dogs and dog owners we meet. Sometimes an owner cautions, “Oh, our dog doesn’t play”—only to have our pooches suddenly making deep play bows to each other. I’ve studied these encounters, but still can’t say exactly what signal Buck gives the other dog. Sometimes, it seems to take nothing more than a silly, dramatic eye-roll, and even the grumpiest of dogs has become his new, very best friend.

Want to learn more about the inner world of animals? Here’s a fun, interactive quiz based on the latest animal cognition research. For even more, read this Q&A with Virginia Morell or visit her Facebook page.

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Animal Wise: The Thoughts and Emotions of Our Fellow Creatures
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