Can Play Cure Depression in Dogs?
Do You Know a Depressed Doggie? Play May Be the Cure!
Originally published in slightly different form at PsychologyToday.com, August 27, 2009. My Dog Isn’t Depressed, She Just Doesn’t Like to Play
On a certain level, yes. While dogs may not be capable of dwelling on negative thoughts the way we are, but they are capable of getting into depressed moods. And if you ask me it’s our job to help get them out. One of the saddest and most frustrating things I come across in my travels around the streets of New York --- where I'm constantly meeting dogs and their owners --- is the dog who's forgotten how to play. And the saddest thing of all is the owner’s attitude about it. “Eh, she’s just not that interested.” “Oh, he doesn’t really like to play.” They say these things as if that were the end of it. When I patiently try to explain that their dog might actually be depressed, they sometimes get angry or defensive. “Oh, she’s perfectly happy,” they say. “She just doesn’t like to play. It’s how she is.” No, that’s not the way your dog is! The truth is, a lack of interest in play is a serious psychological problem, one that needs to be addressed not shrugged off or ignored.
All dogs --- in fact all mammals --- are born knowing how to play. And when a dog can’t relieve his feelings of stress through rough-and-tumble play outdoors, he’ll either become aggressive toward other dogs or people, or become withdrawn and depressed. And play can actually cure depression more effectively than drugs like Zoloft! 
So why do some dogs “forget“ how to play?
Tricks for Getting Non-Playful Dogs to Play
In almost all cases it’s either because their playful urges (which usually involve their oral impulses as well) were punished or repressed during puppyhood, or because they had a negative experience while playing.
Is there a way to undo this kind of emotional damage?
Yes. One study shows that dogs who get a chance to engage in biting games with their owners, especially tug-of-war, are more obedient than they were before a play session. Other studies  show that rough-and-tumble outdoor play enhances mood and improves learning. This kind of play has a triple benefit; it cures the doggie blues, makes a dog more obedient, plus it makes him able to focus more on his owner in the face of distractions, like squirrels, skateboarders, etc.
One problem dogs have, though, in terms of playing with their owners, is that humans don’t follow the same rule book. Plus we move through space on a vertical axis while dogs move through space on the horizontal. So some dog owners will need to work harder to overcome their dogs’ internal resistance.
One way to do this is to get down on your dog’s level, either on the floor, or out on the back lawn, and imitate the way other dogs initiate play. Do a play bow (or two or three), growl playfully at your doggie, use your “paws” to bat playfully at his head and shoulders. Roll over on your back and let him jump on top of you. (I'm serious!)
At some point the dog may want to nip you in play, which he may have learned is a “no-no.” If so, he may look away or wander off. If so, you may have to make yourself even more non-threatening. Sometimes I'll spend a few days or even a few weeks just lying on my back, letting the dog eat treats off my chest or torso before trying to get him to play.
If your dog doesn’t lose focus or wander off when his urge to bite is activated, he may actually want to bite you in play. That’s good! That’s a positive step. But it also means you’ll need to have a tug toy or a tennis ball handy for him to sink his teeth into.
Another cool trick is to tease your dog with a toy or treat, then jump up and run away, encouraging him to chase you. In a dog’s (or wolf’s) predatory database, the chase always leads to the grab-bite. And when a dog is in a pro-social mood, biting a toy in play is much different than biting in fear or aggression. There’s a gentleness and an easiness to it. So again, make sure to have a tug toy handy so that your dog’s teeth and jaws can find a satisfying outlet for his urge to bite.
Sometimes a dog won’t chase me even if I’ve got a treat. So I start by using treats as if they were tiny tennis balls. I toss them for the dog to chase. Remember, for a dog chasing almost always stimulates the urge to bite, especially in play. So using treats in lieu of toys can sometimes reawaken those natural predatory/playful feelings. But with some dogs it can take several weeks before you’ll see results.
The Spoon Game
Sometimes your dog will have her own interest in playing but will do it in a way that’s somewhat unconventional. As long it's not harmful, this can be a great inroad to teaching her how to play with you, and to curing all kinds of behavioral problems.
I learned this from a shy Jack Russell terrier named Gina, who loved playing what I call “The Spoon Game.”
She had been trained by a dominance trainer to the point that if you said the words stay or down ---- even if you were just talking on the phone ---- she would involuntarily evacuate her bowels then run under the bed and hide for up to 4 hours.The only thing that could get her to come out was if you dropped a spoon on the kitchen floor.
As soon as she heard the sound she’d come racing into the kitchen, pick up the spoon, shake her head around to “kill it,” then race into the living room and hide under a sofa cushion, and bark furiously until you dug it out and threw it for her to chase.
The only problem was, she didn’t know when to quit! She could do this for hours. That’s part of the destructive nature of repressing a dog’s instinct to play; the natural energy behind it often comes out in much stronger, and sometimes inappropriate ways.
But I knew --- or felt ---- that it was the key to changing Gina’s fear of the down and stay commands. So while she was in her playful, let’s-kill-the-spoon mood, I slowly and gently re-taught her how to obey those commands using the spoon as a lure and reward.
Initially, she ran like hell every time I verbalized either command. But by going back to the kitchen and dropping the spoon on the floor she would come racing back out like clockwork, until finally, after only about a half-an-hour, she was not only obeying the commands that had frightened her, she loved doing them!
The Pushing Exercise
All dogs have their own idiosyncratic spoon games. Find what your dog’s is, and use it to teach her to play.
Keep your sessions short. Always quit before your dog gets tired or bored. And if you’re not 100% sure about your dog’s temperament, be very careful. You may be asking your dog to bite off a bit more than his temperament or personality is able to chew yet.
What if your dog doesn’t respond to you rolling around the back yard with him, or if he just sits there while you run away, waving your arms and jumping around like an idiot? What if nothing works? Do you have to just accept that your dog won’t play?
Not necessarily. Probably the most important technique ever invented, at least in terms of rekindling a dog’s desire to play, is “The Pushing Exercise,” developed by Kevin Behan, a former police and detection dog trainer. He developed the exercise to help these amazing dogs push past feelings of nervousness and fear in training.
“Changing the World, One Dog at a Time”
Link In With Me on Linkedin!
1) Stephen Ilardi, PhD, writes, “Even moderate physical activity - brisk walking three times a week - has been shown in two landmark studies to fight depression as effectively as Zoloft. Simply put: exercise changes the brain. It enhances the function of dopamine-based circuits that mediate our experience of pleasure, along with our ability to initiate activity.”
2) Evolutionay psychiatrist Jaak Panksepp has done research showing that rough-and-tumble outdoor play stimulates the brain's synthesis of BDNF, a growth hormone that “guides the repair of damaged neurons and triggers the sprouting of new neuronal connections."
This basically means that dogs who engage in rough-and-tumble outdoor play are smarter, more obedient, happier, and more well-adjusted than dogs who don’t.
According to a 2003 study (done by Panksepp and others), free play facilitates maturation of frontal lobe inhibitory skills that regulate and inhibit impulsive urges. So the more our dogs play as pups, the more impulse control they’ll exhibit as adults. Wolf parents know this instinctively. They use play to teach their offspring all sorts of necessary skills, from how to hunt to how to attain pack harmony.
It’s also known that dogs who've had fewer opportunities for free play as pups are more likely to exhibit aggressive behaviors as adult dogs. And this isn’t just due to lack of socialization, it’s that play is vitally important for healthy, lasting growth of the neural connections between the aggression centers in the brain, like the amygdalla, and the impulse control center in the frontal lobes (Potegal & Einon, 1989).
There are clear neurological benefits as well. Panksepp says that when we allow pre-schoolers, for example, to engage in free play, their brains develop faster. New abilities to learn and move through space develop quicker.
"Our recent broad-scale brain gene expression analysis has indicated that activity of about a third of the 1,200 brain genes in frontal and posterior cortical regions are significantly modified by play within an hour of a 30 min play session." He adds, "I fsuch dynamic brain changes evoked by play facilitate brain growth and maturation, perhaps solidifying pro-social circuits of the brain, we must worry about anything that diminishes the progression of such developmental processes." ("Can PLAY Diminish ADHD and Facilitate the Construction of the Social Brain?", Jaak Panksepp, 2007.)