Play By the Rules

Dogs just seem to know how to play by the rules. Ethologist Marc Bekoff makes this argument based on years of observing dogs and their wild relatives — at play. In a 2010 article in Scientific American, “The Ethical Dog,” Bekoff describes four rules that dogs use to govern their social relations: Communicate clearly; mind your manners; admit when you are wrong; be honest.

Social play helps dogs (and humans and other social beings) manage and maintain social connections. Individuals who do not play well with others often suffer in other areas of their lives. Coyotes who don’t play fairly and are ostracized when young tend to leave their family packs more than better-socialized coyotes — and they have a significantly shorter life span.

While the stakes for domestic dogs are lower — they can survive nicely in one-dog homes — there are still consequences, as anyone who has lived with a poorly socialized dog knows well. Some people cannot board their dogs or must avoid any outing where another dog is likely to appear. Some walk their dogs very early in the morning to avoid other dog-walkers.

Some people, unaware or uncaring that their dogs lack social skills, go to the park anyhow. Fortunately for Cali and Alberta, they have a big sister who’s willing to enforce the rules.

Not long ago, Alberta was happily playing with another Lab at our neighborhood park. The Lab was excited and got overly rough. Alberta, in her sweet, polite way, told him that he was being too rough. That didn’t work. She tried to avoid him, but he still didn’t get the hint. Jana had had enough. She got up and, with all of her senior-dog-dignity, approached the other dog — and gave him an earful.

After being told off by his elder, the Lab finally got the message. He apologized, and play continued at a more appropriate energy level. All was immediately forgiven.

A dog I lived with many years ago even applied the principles of fair play to human-human interactions. We were on a walk once when we came upon a group of young boys, around 8 or 9 years old. Two or three of the boys were hassling a smaller boy. Timo, all 12 pounds of him, was incensed. Though leashed, he lunged, barked, and snarled at them. Startled, the bullies ran away. Timo shook himself off and strutted home.

Most dogs learn the “rules” from their littermates, which is one key reason that puppies should stay with their siblings until they are eight weeks old. Good puppy classes are another place for puppies to acquire these all-important social skills.

Wherever your pup learns, make sure to play, and play often with him. As I’ve written, it is the best way to maintain a close bond.

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