Myth #6 - Play Is Just Another Form of Positive Reinforcement
Before I studied to become a trainer, I had a black-and-white English setter named Charley. I was often surprised and delighted when I took Charley to Central Park every day and watched the joy all the dogs had at being able to wrestle and chase each other around. I was also amazed at some of the things dogs learned from one another while playing. They often seemed to learn in a way that didn’t fit with what I knew from my college psych courses of B.F. Skinner’s views on learning.
One experience in particular stuck with me: I was with a group of dog owners one summer morning when a new dog showed up. Let's call him Spike. After the preliminaries (sniffing, play bowing, and the like), Spike got my dog, Charley, to start chasing him. And in the course of their game, Spike did a maneuver where he faked left and went right, which totally fooled Charley, causing him to go left and almost run into a tree.
He yelped in pain, and I was worried that he might’ve really hurt himself. But before I could run over to check on his condition, he stood back up, shook himself off, and ran after Spike again, barking and chasing him even harder than he had been before.
Huh, I thought. That was a very negative experience for Charley, and yet, I supposed, because perhaps his adrenalin and endorphins were set at a pretty high level during the chase, it only made him want to play even harder, not give up and go home. Then, during the next “lap,” another strange thing happened:
Spike tried the same fake-out maneuver but this time Charley wasn't fooled. He stayed right on Spike's tail. I had always thought that learning required trial and error and repetition, but here Charley had learned Spike's “strategy” through just one experience. Still, as I watched them continue to circle around I thought, Well, it certainly was a singular experience for Charley. Maybe that’s all he needed. But then another strange thing happened, this time Spike faked right and went left and Charley still stayed on his tail. So Spike tried another maneuver, he faked left and wentstill stayed on his tail.
Looking back on it now I realize that there must’ve been something Charley saw during that first fake which registered in some part of his brain; there was some ineffable change in Spike's kinetic energy or motion that “signified” or signaled fake as opposed to real, though Charley didn’t recognize its significance until he almost hit that tree and then landed on his butt.
They played like this for a while, and then Spike and his owner left, and a little while later Charley began playing with another dog. (And here's where it gets really good.) During a chase with this new dog, Charley incorporated the fake-left-go-right maneuver he'd just learned from Spike. Only here the roles were reversed: Charley was now doing the fake maneuver, faking out the new dog. He’d never done it before that day, yet he effortlessly incorporated it into his play repertoire, including, on subsequent laps, all of Spike’s variations. In other words he’d seemingly generalized everything there was to know about that play-fake maneuver in just one, head-over-tail experience. It was instant learning.
That's when I realized that there was something about the physical and emotional dynamics of play that increases a dog's ability to process information, something that decreases the amount of time it takes him to learn something new (decreases it to almost zero, in fact), and which increases his ability to remember a new skill to the point that he’s able to immediately make it a part of his own behavioral vocabulary, seemingly forever. How does this happen?
I’m still not sure. But it seems to work on many different levels at once, which makes it distinctly different from other training methods. My sense of how and why it works better than free shaping or force training, is that for dogs rough-and-tumble play involves instincts and emotions which simply require a great deal of attention to detail, not to mention a great deal of attention to a lot of details all at once (a gestalt, if you will). Because of this, free play probably creates more dendritic connections inside the brain in one single burst of learning than free-shaping or force-based training does over a period of weeks or even months. In other words, free-shaping creates connections one branch at a time, force-based training creates similar connections, but since they’re based on fear a lot of unwanted, survival-based connections get made at the same time. But play-based learning seems to create whole dendritic trees, and maybe even whole forests, often in one single burst of joy and excitement.
Do I know, scientifically, that that’s the case? No. But there's starting to be some scientific evidence about this. Social play in rats, for example, activates certain brain growth factors such as BDNF (or brain-derived neurotrophic factor). These growth factors stimulate neurons and synapses for a) more growth, b) more differentiation, and c) better long-term survival, particularly in the hippocampus, cortex, and basal forebrain—areas that are all directly related to learning and memory. (Gordon, et al., 2003).
Even Plato extolled the benefits of free play: “those natural modes of amusement which children find out for themselves when they meet.” And in The Republic he wrote “Our children from their earliest years must take part in all the more lawful forms of play, for if they are not surrounded by such an atmosphere they can never grow up to be well conducted and virtuous citizens.”
The same is true today, for both children and dogs. Free play -- where the puppy decides on its own how it wants to interact playfully with another puppy or adult dog, or just with anything in the environment that attracts his instincts and emotions -- is also a vitally important part of that puppy’s emotional, social, physical, and even his neurological development. Evidence also shows that outdoor play is much better for dogs, on many different levels, than indoor play.