The Power of Play, Part II.
How playing with your pup develops his brain faster.
Originally published in slightly different form on May 20, 2009 at PsychologyToday.com.
I was a theater and film major in college, with an emphasis on acting and directing. During my first seven years in New York—long before I became interested in dogs and dog training—I made my living solely as an actor, except for one summer when I also taught a professional acting workshop. So I was tickled a few years ago when Jeff Goldblum was profiled by the New York Times and made the following comparison between actors and puppies:
Within every actor, Mr. Goldblum said, is a guiding voice that, like a child or puppy, cannot be told what to do and must be allowed to play. “If you go, ‘play now, play hard, play quick,’’“ he said, snapping his fingers frantically, “your inner actor will say, ‘No, I’m no longer interested.’“ (NY Times, Arts & Leisure Section, 4/19/09.)
Oddly enough, Goldblum is right: that’s exactly what happens when puppies are told how to behave, or even told what games to play or how to play them. They become disinterested, stop cooperating, and can even develop learning blocks. And rightly so.
But when you allow a pup to engage in free play—where he chooses the games that feel most satisfying to his developmental urges at a given moment—and you hop on board whatever silly, seemingly inconsequential bandwagon he’s chosen for himself, you open him up to far more cooperation and deeper levels of learning than you might have thought possible. There is one caveat (which is also true of actors): most puppies don’t know when enough is enough, so you have to pay attention to signals that their energy is spinning out of control; when that happens a temporary time-out is advisable.
One of the most intriguing benefits of free play is that it actually teaches social skills. According to evolutionary psychiatrist JaakPanksepp (Panksepp et al, 2003), 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. (Some trainers feel you need to dominate your dog to get him or her to obey; but if you want to be the pack leader, you should play with your dog instead.)
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 to engage in free play, their brains develop faster. New abilities to learn and move through space develop quicker. He also writes: “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, “If such 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.” 
This is why I have an issue with puppy obedience classes; they interfere with a puppy’s natural mechanisms for learning impulse control, and may even stunt neurological development. But even without what Panksepp and others say, in my experience, getting a puppy to settle down, stop fooling around, and pay attention at a puppy obedience class qualifies as something that “diminishes the pro-social circuits of the brain.” I’ve seen it happen. And in my experience - which has been validated by Pankepp’s work - a puppy will learn more about how to cooperate and tune-in to his owner’s wishes in a thirty-minute play session than he will in a six-week puppy class. And he’ll not only learn more through play, he’ll retain his lessons longer.
One problem is that most obedience classes aren’t designed for what’s most natural in terms of how young puppies are genetically designed to learn. New owners often expect their puppy to meet certain obedience criteria, and too many trainers are all too happy to teach puppies without considering whether the client’s wish-list is truly appropriate at increasingly younger and younger ages. In nearly every puppy class young pups are taught things like paying attention and sitting still, when from purely neurological and physiological points of view, a young puppy’s attention needs to wander continuously: he needs to watch how things move, he needs to sniff things, grab them with his teeth, investigate them in his own puppylike ways.
Should young pups not be trained at all then? Of course they should. They need to be gently directed away from chewing things they shouldn’t and encouraged to chew things they should. And there’s nothing wrong with teaching the puppy in your home, occasionally asking him to “sit” or encouraging a recall when he’s bored and looking for something interesting to do. But that’s a whole lot different than taking him to the most distracting environment possible—lots of other puppies and strange people—and tugging at his attention and pulling him away from what his developmental impulses are telling him to do, which is to develop his curiosity, grow new neural pathways, and improve his motor skills. This is a time in a young animal’s life where nature has decided that splitting is most needed, and puppy classes seem almost devoted to doing the exact opposite.
So rather than impose a curriculum on the dog from the outside in, I think it’s much better to let puppies develop at their own pace without overt external pressure. Yes, we should provide every opportunity for our puppies to learn and explore and become bold and confident, all of which happens best through playing with other pups and adult dogs, and comes not at all from being told to sit still, lie down on command, or walk nicely on a leash. Those things should definitely be taught at some point, but I’ve found that it’s best to wait until the puppy’s brain and emotions are more developed, which, again, happens naturally and best through free play.
When you finally do teach a pup these things (preferably not until he’s at least 6 - 9 months old), it’s best to teach them as part of an active, high-energy game, where the puppy gets to win a toy by obeying. There are two reasons for this. One, most, if not all obedience behaviors are analogues to the predatory motor patterns found in wild wolves, so learning these commands takes place most naturally when the dog’s prey drive is active, and play is the quickest most natural way to access those instincts. (By the way, if we follow Nature’s model for learning it’s important to know that wolf pups don’t learn to hunt as young puppies; they wait until they’re well into adolescence.)
The second reason play is probably the single-most important aspect of dog is training is that the more actively the older pup’s whole organism is involved in the learning process—his emotions, his kinetic energy, his instincts, and his brain—the better and faster he’ll learn.
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1) “Can Play Diminish ADHD and Facilitate the Construction of the Social Brain?” Jaak Panksepp, 2007 Canadian Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.