“Rough and Tumble Rats” (and Dogs)


As the mother of an 11-month-old, I’ve been reading more and more about child psychology and development; and, as I do so, I cannot help but draw conclusions about the ways in which many of the theories around this evolving field of research are applicable to me in my job as the owner of a doggy daycare. For example, child developmental psychologists call the rolling, wrestling, nipping, pinning and general roughhousing that we see among human boys (and some girls, too), “rough-and-tumble” play. While some parents react in horror as their children assure them that this “rough and tumble play” is the most definitive sign of friendship, science is suggesting that the children are right! “In human children, early rough-and-tumble play is associated with better social competence later on” (The Work of Play,”The Gardner and the Carpenter”, Alison Gopnik, p 152).

While correlation is not causation, this is giving behaviorists pause.
As many of us know, human children aren’t the only animals that rough-house. Young rats and dogs do too. Because rats are so widely used in scientific research, scientists know much more about how rat brains develop than they do about either dog or human brains. And while a baby rat is a far cry from a baby human, similarities can be implied for all three mammals (rat, dog, human).

Researchers have been exploring how play influences the development of baby rats and the findings point to the importance of not only play when animals are young, but specifically, the value of “rough and tumble” play. To study this:

“Scientists start by carefully watching just what rat play-fighting looks like, and recording how it differs from real fighting. Some differences, like those between nuzzling and biting, are obvious. But there are also more subtle differences. In play-fighting, the young rats try a greater variety of attacks and defenses, and they give each other the chance to swap and take turns. (Gopnik, p. 152)

This last point is important. I’m frequently stressing the importance of play breaks both to my staff and owners. Dog that do not naturally take breaks are more likely to exhibit what we call in the industry “predatory drift” (see here for more info on predatory drift: http://dingosdogsitting.com/single-post/2018/01/12/predatory-drift-what-it-is-and-how-you-can-combat-it/). Some dogs need to learn the back and forth nature of play – it’s not always innate; their ability to master this social function will affect social interactions and impulse control later in life, especially among their conspecifics.

Gopnik goes on:
“Scientist have also compared rats that grow up playing with the fellow juveniles to rats that don’t. Rates that are isolated when they are young have trouble interacting with others when they grow up. But researches are not clear on if that is because they don’t get enough social contact or if they haven’t had a chance to play. Further, young rats who live only with adults don’t get much chance to roughhouse (thought they do get a lot of other social contact). Scientists have compared these rats to rats who were raised in an identical way but also played with other baby rats. As adults, the play-deprived rats have difficulty dealing with other rats, and their difficulties are instructive. They can do the same kinds of things as the rats who played. They know how to attack and defend, how to make overtures to others, and how to retreat. But they don’t know when to do what. Whether they are fighting our courting, they can’t react to the other rats in the swift, flexible and fluid fashion of the rats that were able to roughhouse when they were young. They may sting like a bee, but they sure don’t dance like a butterfly. That ability to dance, to take in a complex social context at a glance and know how to respond to it intuitively, is what makes a rat, or a human being, (or a dog), so smart and sociable.” (“The Gardner and the Carpenter”, p. 153)

The point here is this: while social contact with adults is important in the life of any developing animal, babies/pups that have the opportunity to interact with adults as well as their peers seem to develop better social skills later in life. Those who know me from BNI – an International networking organization — know that I’ve long preached the importance of doggy daycare for puppies in particular; this scientific research only furthers my resolve. While the secondary effects of a well exercised dog are nice, the social implications are just as important.

Gopnik continues:
“We can even figure out some of the brain mechanisms that underpin these abilities. In rats, people (and dogs), particular parts of the frontal cortex play an especially important role in social coordination. If those areas are damaged, the affected rats look a lot like the play-deprived ones. They can master the actions of courting or fighting, but they can’t respond to other rats in a flexible and fluid way. They get the words right but not the melody; they know the steps but they can’t master the dance. Rats that play develop somewhat different brains than rats that don’t. Some areas become more complex and others become more streamlined. Both kinds of change contribute in different ways to social competence in adults. (“The Gardner and the Carpenter, p. 154)

There is additional information about the effects and importance of play in the chapter titled “The Work of Play” in Gopnik’s book. All the research referenced points to the same finding – play is not just fun, it’s also a necessity. Remove it and you end up with maladaptive adults. So, finding ways to incorporate play into the daily lives of both our children and our pets is important.

Clearly, as the owner of a doggie daycare tasked with helping to shape young puppies into happy, and well-mannered dogs, I find this research interesting. Many people start looking for a trainer soon after purchasing or adopting a puppy, and yes, working with an educated trainer whose training methods align with your own is important. But perhaps even more important is seeking out ways to socialize your puppy with other puppies close to its own age. In my opinion, there is no better place or way to do that then at a quality doggy daycare –one that is registered, insured and adequately staffed with a high human to dog ratio (a doggy daycare like Dingo’s Dogsitting!).

Wag more. Bark less. Play more. Work less. Dingo’s Dogsitting.

For additional information about what to look for in a doggy daycare, email me directly at: nancy@dingosdogsitting.com.

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