Posts tagged ‘play’

Play and pornography

The Puppy Lingerie Bowl - Play and porn mixed up in one sick, but very amusing little package

Like pornography – while I can’t really define exactly what play is, I’m pretty sure I’ll recognize it when I see it.

An article over at The Scientist where Jef Akst writes about play in “lower” animals caught my eye a while back. Akst discusses controversy over what play is and why it evolved.

There’s no broad agreement on how to define play. While most of us will agree that sprightly spaniels and rollicking retrievers are enjoying a kind of play that very much resembles the kind of recreations we humans enjoy, it can a bit more difficult to see that reflection ourselves in the actions of ‘lower’ creatures like reptiles.

Akst writes that:

During a visit to the National Zoo in Washington, DC, biopsychologist Gordon Burghardt decided to peek in on a Nile soft-shelled turtle its keepers affectionately called “Pigface.” Pigface had been a zoo resident for more than 50 years, and Burghardt had seen him before, but this time, he noticed something a bit curious—Pigface was playing basketball.

“It was by itself,” recalls Burghardt, currently at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, and “it had started to knock around” a basketball provided by its keepers. The year was 1994, and play had only rarely and anecdotally been reported in animals other than mammals, but he thought that might be what Pigface was doing. The 1-meter-long turtle exuberantly pushed the ball around its aquatic enclosure, swimming through the water with ease as it batted the ball in front of it with its nose. “If you saw a dog or an otter going around batting a ball, bouncing around and chasing it, and going back and forth and doing it over and over again, we’d have no problem calling it play,” he says. “And that’s what the turtle was doing.”

Is a turtle capable of play? Is a lady bug? Is an amoeba?

What kind of mental equipment does an animal need to engage in play and how can we recognize play in animals whose lives and thoughts, whose umwelts, are universes away from ours?

Perhaps it’s appropriate that one of the biggest problems in the study of play is that there isn’t a widely accepted set of formal rules on how to define it. Not deterred by the controversial nature of the topic, Burghardt decided to create a set of criteria to recognize play behavior in non-human species.

Burghardt’s rules for play are:

  1. Play is not fully functional in the form or context in which it is expressed.
  2. Play is spontaneous, voluntary, and/or pleasurable, and is likely done for its own sake.
  3. Play is incomplete, exaggerated, or precocious.
  4. Play is repeated but not in exactly the same way every time, as are more serious behaviors.
  5. Play is initiated when animals are well fed, healthy, and free from acute or chronic stressors.

I think it’s interesting note that play, as Burghardt defines it, seems to be exactly the kind of behavior that an emotionally-driven, goal-directed organism would engage in when it had a bit of free time to enjoy. And as I wrote in an earlier post, recent work on the emotional regulation of behavior may provide insight on how the immediate emotional reward of ‘positive’ emotions like joy, success and connection could create an innate ‘play drive’ even in very primitive animals.

In her 2009 article, What Do People Want to Feel and Why? Pleasure and Utility in Emotion Regulation Maya Tamir wrote:

The approach that views emotion regulation as instrumental proposes that what people want to feel depends on both pleasure and utility. When immediate benefits (i.e., immediate pleasure) outweigh long-term benefits (i.e., delayed pleasure derived from successful goal pursuit), people should prefer pleasant emotions. When long-term benefits outweigh immediate ones, people should prefer useful emotions.

If this is true, when we’re in pursuit of a short-term goal we should have an innate drive to do the thing that makes us feel good in the moment. And if you’re a well-fed social animal who feels safe and secure – play would be a fun, and potentially highly adaptive way, to spend that time. Play isn’t just fun, it encourages exploratory behavior. It can provide social advantages. It increases confidence and physical prowess.

And if play evolved largely or, for that matter even partly, as an adaptive way to spend free time, that might explain why we don’t see it as often in tortoises (or lady bugs) as often as we do in terriers. According to Burghardt:

These criteria may explain why play appears to be so much more common in mammalian species, than in reptiles, fish, or invertebrates, Mather says. There are few situations where cold-blooded animals are safe, comfortable, and well fed, as they must constantly deal with regulating their body temperature, avoiding predators, and finding food. Conversely, mammals are warm-blooded and often have extensive periods of parental care, which provide a safe and comfortable childhood. Cold-blooded animals in captivity, on the other hand, may find themselves in much more relaxing settings.

This may also explain why dogs who’ve been rescued from severe neglect or abuse often don’t seem to understand the idea of play. Because these poor beasts have rarely, if ever, been in situations where they were safe, comfortable and well fed — they’ve never had an opportunity to learn how to play.

Another parallel between play and pornography is that both activities can sometimes incorporate a dark or disturbing side. In “Taking Play Seriously” an article published in the New York Times back in February of 2008 Robin Marantz Henig writes:

Sutton-Smith’s 1997 classic, ”The Ambiguity of Play,” reflects in its title his belief that play’s ultimate purpose can be found in its paradoxes. During his years at Columbia’s Teachers College and the University of Pennsylvania, Sutton-Smith, a psychologist and folklorist, took careful note of how play could be destabilizing, destructive or disturbing. He collected renditions of the stories children told in their imaginative or dramatic play, stories of ”being lost, being stolen, being bitten, dying, being stepped on, being angry, calling the police, running away or falling down.” Are these really the thoughts percolating inside our children? And is expressing these thoughts through play somehow good for them? Sutton-Smith called this underbelly of imaginative play part of the ”phantasmagoria,” where children’s thoughts run wild and all the chaotic bits of the real world get tumbled together and pulled haphazardly apart in new, sometimes even scarier confabulations.

Why would such an enriching activity as play also be a source of so much anarchy and fear? Sutton- Smith found one possible answer by reading Stephen Jay Gould, the author and evolutionary biologist. The most highly adaptive organisms, Gould wrote, are those that embody both the positive and the negative, organisms that ”possess an opposite set of attributes usually devalued in our culture: sloppiness, broad potential, quirkiness, unpredictability and, above all, massive redundancy.” Finely tuned specific adaptations can lead to blind alleys and extinction, he wrote; ”the key is flexibility.”

So part of the function of play appears to be to introduce variety and balance to our lives. Given that idea, the fact that play embodies a dark side doesn’t surprise me. There’s no light without dark. Contrast is interesting and it’s informative. You can’t really know what something is until you know what it is not.

Play offers animals a safe way to explore a wide range of the good/bad, gentle/violent, boring/beautiful things in their world. It’s a form of mental feedback that encourages flexible behavior.

And now coming back to the idea of the subjective, value-laden definitions we assign to play and porn – I have to say that now I think I’ve got a pretty good idea of what play is…

Akst, Jef (2010). Recess The Scientist, 24 (10), 44-44

Tamir, M. (2009). What Do People Want to Feel and Why?: Pleasure and Utility in Emotion Regulation Current Directions in Psychological Science, 18 (2), 101-105 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8721.2009.01617.x

February 9, 2011 at 10:22 pm 7 comments

Dog training as gaming

Several different recent online alerts pointed me to this video from game theorist Tom Chatfield. Take a few minutes to watch his presentation and then let’s talk about how dog training is like gaming.

Modern computer games offer a stunningly wide range of carefully designed rewards. They also provide us with some really fascinating, and incredibly strong, tools to measure exactly what kinds of things people find rewarding.

Games keep us engaged largely through masterfully designed schedules of variable reinforcement. And game designers don’t just vary the timing of rewards, the value of the rewards varies greatly and smart game designers also offer different kinds of rewards including abstract things like karma and experience.

To keep our attention, a game can’t just offer rewards, it also has to offer some aspect of risk. We only stay fully engaged in a game when there is a real risk that losses (or aversives) will occur along with rewards.

Based on his work, Chatfield has come up with seven different ways that well-designed games reward our brains. His list bears a striking resemblance to the ways that I think a well-designed training program rewards our dogs’ brains.

  1. Complex games give us a way to measure our progress.  When we play a game we want to feel like we’re getting somewhere. That we’re accomplishing something. And a good game gives us a way (or better yet, several ways) to measure that. This innate need to feel that one is making progress is one of the reasons why it’s important to break a training exercise down into discrete steps and give your dog meaningful input at each one of those steps rather than just at the end of a task.
  2. A game provides players with an array of different long- and short-term goals. Making progress on smaller goals helps maintain our motivation as we work to achieving the big ones. Small successes help prevent burn-out and frustration. This is something that people commonly lose track of when they work with dogs. Humans appear to be unique in our obsession with forward thinking and planning ahead. In advanced training as well as in day-to-day life, there are times when we’re focused on a complex and/or distant end goal that our dogs simply aren’t capable of seeing. This can be a source of much interspecies miscommunication – and frustration. And it’s another reason why it’s important to break training work up into a series of discrete steps that make sense to your dog.
  3. A well-designed game rewards effort along with skill. This is another place where we commonly create confusion in our dogs. There’s a big difference between making a sincere effort that puts you into the wrong place and deliberate defiance or misbehavior. As I commonly remind my clients, being wrong is not the same as being bad – and the two absolutely should not be dealt with in the same kinds of ways.
  4. A game needs to provide players with timely, frequent and clear feedback. Do I need to clarify how this ties into dog training? I hope not. (Although this idea does tie in nicely with my recent post on goals, learning and the emotional regulation of behavior).
  5. It is vitally important that a game includes some element of surprise to bring excitement into play. Many trainers focus on the importance of surprise in using jackpot rewards to maintain a dog’s interest. While jackpots can be valuable, we also need to incorporate suprise in a less obvious way- through the use of contrast.  Contrast allows us to give the dog a way to compare one thing to another in a way that is simple for him to figure out. Contrast is an enormously valuable tool because it lets us tell the dog whether he should focus on sameness or difference in a given situation.  It can also help show a dog which features he needs to focus on and which he can safely ignore.  This is vitally important in most complex problem solving exercises.
  6. A game provides players with windows of enhanced attention. This state of enhanced attention or being completely involved in an activity simply for its own sake is sometimes referred to as flow. When you’re in the flow state you engage all of your physical and emotional resources to act and learn. Flow is important in play because it’s a very strongly intrinsically rewarding state of mind. I believe that humans and other animals have a natural play drive because the flow in play is intrinsically rewarding. A good training exercise should provide you and your dog with these ‘windows of enhanced attention’ – and leave you both wanting more.
  7. Games are interactive. Team-mates and opponents play a vital part in games. Dogs and humans are social creatures and competition and collaboration are often more rewarding to us than cash or treats. I see this in Audie who works mostly just for the reward of interacting with me. I rarely use treats or toys when I work with him because praise, petting and the opportunity to collaborate meaningfully with me are what the boy lives for. Though he also seems to love the competitive rush he gets from chasing (and sometimes catching) squirrels and other prey.

I thought it was interesting that while Chatfield brought up the importance of risk and loss in creating a good game he left that idea off the list. We seem to be developing such a strong (and in many cases, irrational) distaste for fear, stress and other kinds of aversives in today’s world that many people seem not to be capable of seeing the important and necessary part they play in our lives. Without yin there is no yang. If we could erase all aversives from life – joy would disappear too.

A really great game is addictive (though not always in a good way). Really great dog training should be addictive too, so if you and your dog haven’t become addicted to the work you’re doing, take a few tips from game theorists and get lost in the flow.

November 4, 2010 at 5:31 pm 10 comments

Are We Having Fun?

Over at ScienceBlogs The Thoughtful Animal has a recent post on his excellent new blog on how to tell the difference between real aggression and play fighting in dogs. Thoughtful’s post follows Marc Bekoff’s lead and focuses primarily on play signals. He writes:

Actions called play signals have been observed in many species which appear to engage in play. It is generally accepted that these behaviors serve as signals to communicate the initiation (“I want to play”) of play. One behavior that is used a LOT by dogs (and their evolutionary cousins, wolves and coyotes) is the bow.

Dr. Marc Bekoff (who blogs at Psychology Today) from the University of Colorado, Boulder wondered if the bow was used as a play signal, and how it functioned. He hypothesized that the bow might serve an additional function beyond initiation; it might support the maintenance (“I still want to play”) of ongoing social play.

While I agree that the play bow is an important signal in canine communication, I don’t think it is the only – or even necessarily the most important – signal dogs use to communicate whether they intend their actions to be interpreted as friendly or aggressive.

A signal I see a lot between dogs who want to initiate or continue play is a slow, rolling, side-to-side head shake. The dog smiles as his head makes a smooth figure-eight motion. Sometimes the head roll accompanies a play bow, sometimes it doesn’t. Another play signal I’ve observed is a curving, prancing side-step away from the desired playmate. The step is accompanied by a smile and a toss of the head. A dog that really wants someone to play with him will sometimes make a series of these unmistakably flirtatious steps.

The things that tie the play bow, head roll and flirt step together are the shape and structure of the dog’s movements. A friendly, relaxed, non-aggressive dog (i.e. a dog that wants to play) interacts in smooth, flowing, arcing, rhythmic motions. His body is loose, his movements follow arcs and curves and his expression is soft and relaxed.

The rhythm and intensity of a dog’s movements also tell us a lot about his intent. When a dog is relaxed and ready to play one movement flows into another in smooth transitions. The dog rolls, he lopes, he bounds, he bends. His gestures are a polite blend of approach and retreat. His movements and emotions are in balance.

An over-stimulated, stressed, frightened or aggressive dog (i.e. the dog that isn’t going to play) interacts in more intense erratic and linear motions. His body is stiff, his gaze and expression are intense and he approaches in a direct line, not a polite curve. His legs thrust into the ground like pistons, they don’t sweep along the surface. He stares instead of making quick flirtatious glances.

The over-stimulated dog doesn’t move or react in a smooth, rhythmic way. And as he reaches increasing levels of arousal, the dog’s movements transition quickly from staring to pacing, from relaxing to freezing, or from trotting to bolting. These rapid changes in state are key indicators that a dog has exceeded a threshold in reactivity – and it’s important to be aware of them. A dog in a transitional state has moved from balance to instability.

He’s a hair-trigger just waiting to go off.

That is what I look for when I watch dogs interact. The transition from balance to instability. It’s an enormously important factor and one that a lot of people miss. I believe that this is one why so many people describe dog fights and dog attacks as ‘coming out of nowhere.’

And, while I agree that it is important in canine communication, I don’t believe that the play bow is the only, or even the most important, signal dogs use to indicate their desire to play. And I also disagree with Thoughtful’s notion that:

These findings suggest that the bow is not used to stretch the muscles, or because it is a good position from which to increase the range of movement. Instead, it seems to serve a particular social communicative function.

While in many young dogs the bow may be used most often to indicate a desire to play, sometimes dogs perform the motion simply to stretch their muscles. The lowered position of the stretching bow is generally held a little longer than it is in the play bow, the stretching dog’s neck is often extended upward instead of held loosely or cocked to one side and the dog will also sometimes sigh or groan as his body stretches.

Still – it’s an interesting post and a fine new blog. Go read it.

UPDATED links 4/20/10

April 19, 2010 at 11:58 am 8 comments

Who’s a Smart Boy?

You’ve seen the thought go through your dog’s head “Should I chase the squirrel and risk Mom’s wrath – or ignore the evil rodent invader and get a liver treat?”   Frustrating as it can be, your dog’s indecision may represent more than simple disobedience. It could be evidence that he’s self-aware.

An article recently published in LiveScience presents some thought-provoking ideas about what may be going on inside a dog’s head:

J. David Smith of the University at Buffalo notes that humans are capable of metacognition, or thinking about thinking. “Humans can feel uncertainty. They know when they do not know or remember, and they respond well to uncertainty by deferring response and seeking information,” Smith writes in the September issue of the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences.

And accumulating research, he says, suggests metacognition is not unique to humans.

“The idea is that some minds have a cognitive executive that can look in on the human’s or the animal’s thoughts and problem-solving and look at how its going and see if there are ways to guide it or if behavior needs to pause while more information is obtained,” Smith told LiveScience.

Metacognition is thinking about thinking. Some believe that the ability to reflect on one’s own mental processes is unique to sapient species and some believe it is a hallmark of the capacity for sapience. A sapient being is capable of rational thought and action and Homo sapiens defines himself by being sapient – but there’s a lot of controversy about which non-human animals are sapient.

Studying metacognition in Homo sapiens is relatively simple because we can explain our feelings to each other, but scientists have to get a lot more creative to study these processes in animals.  Smith is approaching the problem by studying uncertainty monitoring.  As humans we can (usually) recognize when we don’t know something.  We have the capacity to be consciously uncertain.  Uncertainty monitoring is well-recognized as a form of metacognition, or thinking about thinking.  Smith believes that evidence that some animals are capable of uncertainty monitoring presents strong evidence for metacognition in animals.

But it’s not the only evidence. Or even, IMO, the most interesting evidence.

While children engage in pretend play, they need to understand their own thoughts and beliefs along with their playmates thoughts and beliefs. Play involves pretense, and pretense implies intention.

Alexandra Horowitz is a professor of psychology at Barnard College and author of Inside of a Dog a book about how dogs perceive the world (a book I highly recommend).   Her 2002 dissertation; The behaviors of theories of mind, and A case study of dogs at play proposes that play “is a good place to look for mindful behavior in animals”. Horowitz writes:

Social play is a tractable, evolved behavior. It is a coordinated, cooperative dance that seems to require negotiation, flexible communication skills, and some ability to distinguish reality from pretend. The study of play has blossomed in the last century, though it was once thought to be unworthy of analysis. While at one time educators considered play to be trivial, “developmentally irrelevant”, now play behavior is strongly implicated in human development: in the emergence of tool use, problem solving, complex thought, and language.

The highly flexible and cooperative nature of play may provide a richer and more interesting field to study metacognition in animals than indecision does – but play is also a lot more difficult to quantify than uncertainty is, and that, of course, makes it more complicated to study.

Social pretend play has been said to require the ability to understand both what reality is and also when it is breached: the ability to distinguish appearance from reality. These proponents suggest that participants must recognize what counts as play, must in some sense know what is real and what is not, and must have the ability to move in and out of these states. Markers within play ensure that the players continue to understand that it is only pretend. These include “attenuation or exaggeration” of play behaviors that also might appear outside of play, and expressions such as smiling and laughter.

When we play we purposefully put behavior out of context. Doing this requires imagination, creativity and complex communication skills. Dogs not only communicate with each other about what is and is not play behavior; they also demonstrate the ability to understand whether or not their playmates are paying attention. Dogs display wonderfully sophisticated play behavior – they take turns and engage in self-handicapping; behaviors that appear to require them to imagine what their playmates are thinking.

It’s wonderful that something as poetic and beautiful as play may help us understand metacognition in animals. Because of their uniquely strong tie to Home sapiens, dogs may be the ideal animal species to study the connections between sapience and play. According to an article in the March 2000 issue of New Scientist:

Marc Bekoff from the University of Colorado has studied how dogs, wolves and coyotes play. “All animals learn certain codes of conduct about their own species’ morality through play,” he says. “I think dogs learn codes of conduct from humans through dog/human play.” They learn the ground rules for acceptable behaviour, such as how hard they can bite without harming. And, like any animal, when dogs play, they hone the behaviours they will need elsewhere.

There is little research into the evolutionary effects of such interactions between dogs and humans, but Bekoff suspects that they have enriched the mental life of dogs. A study in his lab reveals that playful interactions between puppies are much more varied than those between young wolves or coyotes. He thinks dogs have evolved more varied forms of behaviour because of the sophisticated games people play with their pets and the selection for dogs that are good at such games. “It would feed over into other areas,” says Bekoff. “In general ways it would make the dog more cognitive.”

Living and playing with us may have made dogs smarter. Perhaps it made us a little smarter too…

January 24, 2010 at 10:54 pm 1 comment

Playing With a Dog


I stumbled upon a little gem in my computer today.  An insightful article titled “Playing With a Dog” that was published in The Quarterly Review of Biology in 1936.  The article is a vehicle for E.S. Russell to use observations of his fox terrier dog at play to illustrate some principles of animal behavior and cognition.

Russell wrote that before he trained his dog Gina to play with a ball, a ball held no meaning for her.  Balls were not objects she noticed or paid attention to.  But, after he trained her to play fetch, not only did a ball become significant to her but she also began to appear to categorize other objects as being ball-like.  That is, she treated objects that could be used in the same way as a ball as if they were balls (i.e. she picked them up, brought them to him and dropped them.)

Humans and animals divide objects and events into meaningful categories as one of our most basic cognitive functions.  Categories range from very basic ones like edible versus non-edible to abstract human concepts such as poetry versus prose.  Categories are bounded sharply, not transitionally.  A thing either is or is not part of a category.

The ability to categorize is an adaptive trait.  Without it every object and every event would be perceived as unique and it would be impossible for animals to generalize.  Complex behavior is based on elaborate abilities to categorize.    

Categorization is highly context-specific.  Items that on the surface seem to be utterly different (such as Frisbees and squirrels) can be viewed as highly similar if they are placed in a context (“things that are fun to chase”) that highlights an aspect they have in common (chase-ability).  The way we categorize things also depends on our life experiences and the goals we have in mind as we consider them.

The objects that Russell’s dog treated like balls didn’t look alike.  They didn’t have a common size, shape or smell.  The only qualities they shared were that they were of a size and portability such that the dog could easily pick them up and carry them. Their functional value was the basis of the dog’s categorizing them as ‘ball-like’. 

In another game, the dog was taught to bring Russell pennies to earn a bit of cheese as a reward.  Soon after she learned this trick, she began looking for penny-like objects to bring them to him to try to get cheese.  Some of the less preferred ‘ball-like’ toys were small and bright-colored or disc-shaped.  Though the dog showed only a low interest in bringing these toys to Russell when she wanted to play fetch games, she showed a stronger preference for them once she learned they might earn her cheese.  Russell stated that he thought that this indicated that an object may have different values in different contexts. 

Russell discussed the importance of the dog’s Umwelt in perception and categorization.  He noted that humans are so used to perceiving a vast number of discrete, easily discriminated objects in our own environment that we tend to assume that the world appears in a similar highly articulated and abstractly meaningful form to our dogs. In doing this, we forget that the dog’s interests are different and simpler than ours.  The dog attends to and responds only to objects or events that bear a functional importance to it.  Objects and events that only hold an abstract value (such as books, birthdays, paintings, etc.) may hold great meaning to us and be utterly unremarkable or even unknowable to our dogs. 

On the other hand, objects and events that we see as insignificant may hold great meaning to our dogs.  For example an unremarkable (to you) bit of crumpled paper on the ground might mean ‘possible bit of food’ to a dog and the soft, low rumble in the street that you tune out as meaningless may mean ‘delivery truck coming’ to your dog. 

Sadly, many dog owners aren’t aware that not only do our dogs perceive the world in a much different way than we do, but also that their system of values is poles apart from ours.  This leads to a lot of unnecessary misunderstanding and confusion for both species. 

A dog owner can’t understand why her dog would ‘thoughtlessly’ urinate on an expensive Persian rug — and her dog can’t understand why his owner is upset that he peed right in the same place where the cat did.  The rug exists in completely different realms of value and functionality in the woman’s world and in the dog’s. 

We can never inhabit the same perceptual and contextual worlds that our dogs do – but as big-brained humans we can maintain an awareness that that difference exists.  And we can use that awareness to be more patient, creative and mindful in finding ways to bridge the gap when misunderstandings occur. 

Go play with your dog.  Do it with an open mind and an open heart and you just might learn something new.

Pat Smith plays with Fly.  This is a great game and they’re both obviously enjoying it, but I’m quite sure it has very different meanings and values to both of them.

March 31, 2008 at 5:14 am Leave a comment

Because A Dog’s Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste


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