Dogs Love to Play, but They Don’t Do so for Pleasure https://t.co/l7IHqBfP5y
Konrad Lorenz, Nikolaas Tinbergen and Karl von Frisch, founders of the field of ethology (the study of animal behaviour) shared a 1973 Nobel Prize for their demonstration that, just like physical shape and structure, the patterned movements of animals in time and space are evolutionary adaptations. These ‘motor patterns’ are products of natural selection that enable animals to meet the fundamental challenges of life: to acquire energy by feeding, to avoid hazards to life and health, and to successfully reproduce.
However, when we look at puppies enthusiastically chasing and nipping at each other, or chewing on a favourite rubber toy and tossing it in the air, it’s hard to find any biologically adaptive value in the activity. If anything, it often looks just like fun to us, a joyful waste of time and energy.
Could the goal simply be pleasure for its own sake? The problem is that this doesn’t fit into the classical model of Darwinian natural selection, which we assume is the main force that drives adaptive change. Dogs chasing each other in the park probably aren’t going to get more food than their less lively peers; chewing a rubber ball yields no calories at all. Indeed, playing is energetically wasteful. It doesn’t help young animals to avoid dangers such as predation, and it doesn’t produce more offspring. So what’s the (biological) reason for play?
Hypotheses abound. Could it be, for example, that play behaviour is a way for young animals to practise skills they’ll need in adulthood? It does seem to contain parts of adult behaviour – ‘playing’ animals often chase and capture things as if they were engaged in mock hunting, for example. Perhaps play helps young animals learn how to deal with aggression more effectively, or to interact more successfully with potential sexual partners. There isn’t any immediate fitness benefit, no calories to be gained, but maybe the adaptive pay-off is that you’ll eventually be a more effective adult, ultimately with a greater chance of reproductive success.