"Outdoor Play Cures Depression in Dogs."
Do You Know a Depressed Doggie? Outdoor Play Could Be the Cure!
Originally published on August 27, 2009 at PsychologyToday.com.
Can dogs suffer from depression? On a certain level, yes. I don’t think they’re capable of dwelling on negative thoughts the way we are, but they are capable of getting into depressed moods. And 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 doesn’t play. And the saddest thing of all is often the owner’s attitude about it. “Eh, she’s just not that interested.” “Oh, he doesn’t really like to play.” They tell me these things matter-of-factly, as if that were the end of it. When I try to explain that their dog might actually be depressed, they often get angry or defensive. “Oh, she’s perfectly happy,” they’ll say. “She just doesn’t like to play.” No, that’s not the way your dog is. Lack of interest in play is a serious psychological problem that needs to be addressed not shrugged off or ignored. The Importance of Play
The truth is, all dogs—in fact all mammals—are born knowing how to play. And when a dog can’t relieve his stress through rough-and-tumble play outdoors, he’ll either become aggressive toward other dogs or people, or become withdrawn and depressed. And outdoor play can actually cure depression more effectively than drugs like Zoloft!  So why do some dogs “forget” how 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 with another dog, and the owner, instead of trusting the social nature of dogs, stepped in, prevented the two dogs from working things out on their own, and substituted physical affection for play.  Is there a way to undo this kind of emotional damage? Yes! First of all, play is infectious. If you take your dog to the dog park or a dog run every day, he may not participate at first, but don’t give up. Keep going, and spend at least an hour there each day. I’ve found that dogs who supposedly don’t like to play tend to go through 5 basic stages before finally being reunited with their true, most playful selves. a) they’ll hide behind their owner’s legs or try to climb into their laps
b) if you don’t let your dog hide, she’ll eventually come out in the open
c) then she’ll start to investigate the space, sniff the perimeter, etc.
d) this will lead to tentatively sniffing the other doggies
e) this leads to play initiation behaviors (which may include humping) Allow your dog to go through these 5 stages and her urge to play will probably be rekindled. (If your dog has aggression rather than depression issues, that’s another story.) Your Dog Loves You!
What about playing with you? Studies show 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. 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, other dogs, etc. One problem dogs have, though, in terms of playing with their owners, is that humans don’t follow the same rulebook as dogs. Plus we’re vertical and dogs are horizontal. So some dog owners will need to work harder to overcome their dog’s 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. At some point the dog will want to nip you in play, which he may have learned is a “no-no.” If so, he may look away, or wander off. This means you 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 and letting the dog eat treats off my chest obefore trying to get him to play. If your dog doesn’t lose focus on you or wander off when his urge to bite is activated by your antics, 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, and run away, encouraging him to chase you. In a dog’s predatory database, the chase always leads to the bite. And when a dog is in a pro-social mood, biting equals play. So again, have a tug toy handy so that your dog’s teeth can find a satisfying outlet. 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 always leads to an 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. Sometimes your dog will have her own interest in playing but in a way that’s somewhat out of the ordinary. 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 eventually came to call “The Spoon Game.”3 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 (so to speak)
What If You Can't Get Your Dog to Play, no Matter What? 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 just won’t play? No. Probably the most important technique I’ve ever come across—at least in terms of rekindling a dog’s desire to play—is “The Pushing Exercise,” developed by Kevin Behan, a former K-9 trainer. Essentially it amounts to hand feeding your dog all her meals outdoors, holding the food in one hand and putting the other hand against her chest. The harder she pushes as she eats her meal from your hand, the more confident, uninhibited, and playful she’ll become.
If you’re really interested in trying this with your dog, click on the links, read the articles carefully, print out the description of the exercise, keep it handy, and refer to it often as you try this remarkable technique. Your dogs will thank you for it!
LCK “Life Is an Adventure—Where Will Your Dog Take You?” Join Me on Facebook! Follow Me on Twitter! Link Up With Me on Linkedin! Footnotes: 1) Stephen Ilardi, PhD, wrote in a recent article here, “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. Likewise, physical exercise 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.” [However, rough-and-tumble play, done outdoors, increases these brain-derived neurotrophic factors even more! —LCK] 2) This doesn’t mean that we should stand by and let our dogs injure each other, but we have to resist being “helicopter” owners, always hovering over our dogs, not just protecting them from getting hurt but also preventing them from having fun and learning how to be strong and social. 3) Here’s a description of “The Spoon Game” (excerpted from my novel, A Nose for Murder).
Tina was a shy, frightened Jack Russell terrier (an oxymoron, I know) who had been originally trained by an expert trainer with a college degree in animal behavior. After three sessions, though, Tina had become a mess. Not only would she not obey any of her basic commands, there were actually two commands--down and stay--that caused her to involuntarily evacuate her bowels and run under the bed every time she heard them. One of the first things I asked Tina’s owner was if there was anything the dog really liked to do-something that charged her up, got her riled and feeling spunky. He said there was. For some reason, if you dropped a spoon on the kitchen floor, Tina became a different dog-confident and aggressive (like a real Jack Russell). The sound of the spoon being dropped on the tile caused her to run into the kitchen, grab the spoon in her mouth, and shake her head around as if trying to break its neck. Then she’d take it into the living room, bury it under a sofa cushion, and bark at it until you dug it out and threw it for her to chase. Then she’d go after it, grab it again and “break its neck” again, then bring it back to you. Her owner said he didn’t like playing this game because Gina didn’t know when to quit. But I knew, or felt, it was the secret to undoing the terrible harm done to her by her original trainer. I started out by lying on my back and letting Tina jump on top of me. This was done to build her confidence. Once we’d done that for about five or ten minutes I started retraining the down command which frightened her so terribly. Here’s how it worked: I went to the kitchen and dropped a spoon on the floor. Gina raced into the room, lunged at the spoon and grabbed it. True to form, she then shook her head around, “killing” it, and finally ran into the living room and buried it under a sofa cushion. I took it out, teased her with it, then suddenly made a downward swoop with my hand, placing it in a position that if Tina wanted to grab hold of it she could, but only by lying down first. She instantly went down and grabbed the spoon. As she did I said, “Down!” in a happy voice. Her ears went back, her tail went down, and she dashed to the bedroom and hid. I waited about twenty seconds, then went to the kitchen and dropped the spoon on the floor again. She zoomed out of the bedroom, grabbed the spoon, and we repeated the game. We kept doing this until she stopped running away and would actually lie down, somewhat nervously, when I gave her the command to do so. I always rewarded her by giving her the spoon to grab hold of with her teeth. Then I changed the rules a little: when she obeyed the command I would throw the spoon for her to chase instead of just giving it to her. With this added variation it took almost no time at all to rid her of her fear of the word “down.” In fact, she was not only not afraid of it anymore, she actually loved hearing it. Why? Because it no longer meant she would be forced to lie down or punished mercilessly if she didn’t; it meant she got to chase the spoon and “kill” it if she did. Yay, Tina! Kill that spoon!