I was probably 12 years old (fine, 13) the last time I played with Barbies. School was closed for a snow day, and one of my best friends trudged over to my house for mac and cheese and Barbies. But after choosing our dolls and clothing, we stopped. We couldn’t remember what came next. All of sudden, we were too old to play with Barbies and were instead left with a pile of tiny clothing and dolls with enormous breasts.

Of course, this wasn’t the end to all play, just the end to Barbies. Throughout our lives, humans play. And what we call “play” can change over time and differ from person to person. While I might get a kick out of Freeze Tag, Operation and Mafia, you might be partial to Masquerade Balls, Ping Pong and Sneaking Up On People.

Dogs and play

Dogs, from the beginning to the end of their lives, are players. Dogs can be found playing with one another, with inanimate objects, and even with other species, ourselves included. Patricia McConnell, PhD and Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist, offers, “Surely our mutual love of play is one of the reasons that dogs and people get along so well.”

Play does not come in a one-size-fits-all package. In a recent article in the journal Animal Behaviour, Held and Spinka note, “Defining ‘play’ is difficult because it covers many behavioural categories, varies considerably between and within species, and its single or multiple functional significance is still being debated.”

The famed American biologist E.O. Wilson adds that “no behavioral concept has proved more ill-defined, elusive, controversial and even unfashionable than play.” More recently, the documentary, Seriously! A Movie About Play!, now in development, discusses the intricacy, complexity and value of play with psychologists, neuroscientists, biologists, and of course clowns.

What we do know is that when we see a group of kids jumping rope or a dog bouncing on a trampoline, something can stir inside us that is, well, playful. Neurobiological research suggests that play can be rewarding in itself, meaning that it can be displayed for its own sake as opposed to achieving some outside goal. Studies of rats and chimpanzees found that chimpanzees favored social play over petting or a nonfavored food item, and rats preferred playful companions over those who were not. Animals (ourselves included) will even work for play. As my mother always told me, “You can’t play with your Barbies until you’ve eaten your vegetables.”

Play with your dog, for science (by March 31)

In my earlier guest post on Scientific American, How Do You Play with Your Dog?, I discussed how play between dogs and humans can include play bows and wagging tails to chase, tug, balls and even fake-outs, to name a few. But how do you and your dog play? The latest study at the Horowitz Dog Cognition Lab, Project: Play With Your Dog, sets out to catalogue all the ways—traditional, original, or creative—people play with their dogs.

Since December 2012, people around the globe have been playing with their dog for science and uploading a short, 30 to 60 second video to DogHumanPlay.com. The Dog Cognition Lab is still seeking the help of dogs and their human companions, and anybody can participate by submitting a video. What should the video look like? “Show Us How You and Your Dog Play” is the only rule. Apart from that, just make sure that the video captures both dog and human in the shot (and if you’d like, add a photo to the Wall of Contributors).

March 31, 2013, marks the last day to submit a video to Project: Play With Your Dog. Be sure to make a play date with your dog this weekend.

To participate in Project: Play With Your Dog visit www.DogHumanPlay.com

Thank you for playing!

Photo: Dog and Ball c/o Hans Dekker Flicker.com; Horowitz Dog Cognition Lab (Barnard College, NYC).


Held S.D.E. & Špinka M. (2011). Animal play and animal welfare, Animal Behaviour, 81 (5) 891-899. DOI:

McConnell P. (2013). How Do You Play With Your Dog? The Other End Of The Leash (Blog).

Wilscon E.O. (1975). Sociobiology: The New Synthesis. Harvard University Press.