Most dogs like playing, whether it’s chasing balls, playing tug-of-war, or ripping that squeaky toy to shreds. Playing with a dog typically boosts our moods; in fact, studies suggest that dog owners laugh more frequently than cat owners.
When did dogs become man’s best buddy all across the world?
According to a new research published today in the journal Biology Letters, dogs’ eagerness to play with people may have been a significant component in their domestication, and may have led our later efforts to breed canines for certain purposes.
While scholars continue to dispute when, where, and how dogs were domesticated, most believe that the initial encounter with humans was most likely started by a wolf ancestor.
Indeed, after studying the evolutionary links between current dog breeds, the researchers discovered that their closest common ancestor, an animal like today’s basenji (a sort of African herding dog), would have played with humans—albeit with little coaxing.
They also discovered that herding dogs, such as Hungarian vizslas and Australian shepherds, were “by far the liveliest,” engaged in games rapidly and energetically, according to Kolm.
“It makes practical sense: If a dog is engaged in playing with you, it is much simpler to train,”he says, adding that herding dogs must have deep ties with their owners in order to be effective, and that regular play may build such bonds.
Characteristics of puppies
Almost all young animals participate in play, usually with other members of their own species. They do so for physical, social, and cognitive growth, as well as to practice skills like hunting that will be useful in adulthood.
Animals rarely play after they reach adulthood because they must focus on obtaining territory, food, and mates. They also don’t frequently play with creatures that aren’t of their own species.
Dogs, on the other hand, appear to bring out the joy in many animals, from people to turtles to chickens—interactions that are extensively chronicled on YouTube. Dogs and horses, which have been domesticated alongside one other on farms for generations, also play together and exhibit similar habits, such as bowing to one another.
Kolm and his colleagues studied how human-directed play behavior originated in 132 current American Kennel Club breeds to delve further into the origins of lively pups. These breeds are classified according to their purposes, which include herding, hunting, guarding, companionship, working (such as hauling sleds), and sporting (such as retrieving quarry). The researchers fed the breeds’ genetic data into an evolutionary computer model, which predicted which kinds were playful.
The researchers then put in data from the Swedish Kennel Club, which studied the personalities and play behavior of almost 89,000 dogs from these 132 breeds between 1997 and 2013. Researchers from the Swedish Kennel Club evaluated a dog’s readiness to play tug-of-war with an unknown person: dogs who readily and actively participated in this activity were classified as very lively. (How come dogs are so friendly? Science has finally found a solution.)
While herding and sports types were shown to be the most inclined to play, toy breeds such as pugs and papillons were found to be the least likely. Kolm explains, “They’re meant to be compact and portable.” “It isn’t important to them to play with you.”
Kolm was more astonished to see that terrier breeds, such as the Staffordshire, which were originally intended to be fighting dogs, are quite playful, maybe because they are taught to respond to human instruction, including offers to play.
Elderly tricks on an old dog
What was most fascinating was that the basenji, an African hunting dog, was also playful, but not at a high degree. The basenji is the most ancient domesticated breed, going back to at least the 18th century. However, based on Libyan cave drawings portraying such canines on the hunt, experts believe basenji-like dogs have been there since at least 6,000 B.C.
It’s hard to say whether today’s basenjis act like those early canines. However, the research authors believe that the combination of the breed’s ancient history and its playfulness reinforces the study’s claim that people have been breeding dogs for their sense of fun for a very long time. (Find out why “puppy dog eyes” evolved.)
“It’s a significant step forward in the study of play,”says Gordon Burghardt, a comparative ethologist and animal-play researcher at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.
According to Marc Bekoff, retired professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado in Boulder, the Swedish team is “likely accurate in indicating that play with humans was crucial in the early domestication of dogs.”
One mystery left unsolved by the study is the wolves that gave rise to today’s fun-loving Fidos, leaving the origins of our canine best friends as a future research topic.