One of the many lessons we’ve been forced to learn during this pandemic is the importance of play.

Can’t we all use more play in our lives?

Yes. Of course. Play releases endorphins, improves brain function, stimulates creativity, and improves memory.

It also relieves stress.

I experience all of those benefits when I’m out in nature playing, usually by running, hiking, and xc skiing with my dogs. Our play in the forest is always different, new, and stimulating because the seasons change and the scents the dogs follow are fresh. Being present, “in the now,” is what’s refreshing and engaging.

Wilderness is the one kind of playground which mankind cannot build to order.

Aldo Leopold

But I can also experience those same benefits simply watching my dogs play in my yard. A sort of vicarious form of play, I guess. I’m sure others experience something similar when watching children play, hearing their giggles.

Conall and Finn playing, January 11, 2021.
More play, February 5, 2021.

I remember when I lived in the suburbs of Seattle and took my dogs to off-leash parks, how happy I felt watching them and the other dogs romp and play. The day’s stresses melted away. Yes, I was usually walking and getting some exercise as well, but really, the endorphins and sense of well-being came from observing the joy of the dogs.

Man is most nearly himself when he achieves the seriousness of a child at play.


It is a happy talent to know how to play.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Play takes an infinite number of forms, fitting each individual’s needs, desires and options. One need only figure out what sort of play makes them happiest.

For me, the happiest play involves my dogs.

In all my years living with dogs, I’ve learned that just as with we humans, dogs need to figure out a way of playing that is safe and satisfying for them.

When I had two Alaskan malamutes – Maia and Meadow – I learned about their breed’s distinctive play style. To the uninitiated outsider, it appeared as if they were fighting to the death, with lots of growling and body pins, but they – and eventually, I – knew they were following a well-developed script of domination and submission that allowed them to enjoy themselves without concern of actual aggression or harm.

Maia was older than Meadow by two years, but slighter in size. From the day I brought Meadow home, Maia taught her how to play. Rule #1: Maia always wins. This was evidenced by Maia pinning Meadow to the ground by the neck, then letting her get back up again to repeat the sequence all over again. Even though they both knew that Meadow could flip the script at any time. And Meadow was perfectly fine with that. They played this way throughout their lives together.

This is the real secret of life – to be completely engaged with what you are doing in the here and now. And instead of calling it work, realize it is play.

Alan Watts

Finn joined my pack when Maia and Meadow were still alive. They tried their best to teach Finn how to play malamute style, but the innate Aussie herder came through as well as he tried to get them to engage in games of chase. They thought he was nuts.

After the girls were gone and it was just me and Finn, I realized how much I missed watching two or more dogs play. In 2015 Conall joined us and we were a pack of playfulness once again.

But how would Finn and Conall – two very different breeds – play?

I wondered how much of the malamute style of play Conall had learned in his short eight weeks with his pack of origin. How much of that same style did Finn learn from Maia and Meadow? How would that all be exhibited as Finn played with puppy Conall?

It didn’t take long for Finn to realize his opportunity to gain the upper paw by teaching Conall how he preferred to play. To my surprise, Finn played with him very much like a malamute – pinning Conall to the floor by the neck, releasing him, only to pin him again. Clearly his lessons from Meadow and Maia were being put to good use. Although occasionally I saw some head butts, which were definitely an Aussie thing, something malamutes would normally consider rude.

His first week home, Conall gets a lesson from Finn on how to play. February 2, 2015 (Conall eight weeks old).

I also wondered how this would all play out over time, as Conall grew to twice Finn’s size in a matter of months.

To my relief and delight, Conall has always deferred to Finn and when playing, assumes a submissive role so that Finn feels safe, often running circles around Finn in a modified game of chase to discharge the energy. I sense that Conall recognizes Finn’s age and size and adjusts his play style accordingly, keeping the peace. I’ve also seen Conall engage in an even more gentle style of play when he encounters puppies, letting them maul him without ever losing his patience, which is unusual in an adult dog.

Conall runs circles around Finn in the yard, discharging playful energy in a safe way. February 5, 2021.

I have noticed, though, that Conall has adopted an Aussie play-style trick in his efforts to inspire Finn to play with him: he nips Finn on the butt. Definitely not a malamute thing! Something he learned from Finn, a herding-breed thing.

However one might describe their mishmash of play styles, I thoroughly enjoy watching Finn and Conall romp, in the yard or on trails in the forest. They constantly remind me how important it is to just play.

Finn and Conall wrestling in slow motion. Lots of teeth baring but no biting. February 5, 2021.

I honestly can’t imagine how I’d be faring during these fraught, pandemic times without Finn and Conall constantly reminding me to play – to be silly and happy – and encouraging me to do so daily. I’m so lucky to have them as an example.

We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.

George Bernard Shaw

23 thoughts on “Play”

  1. I love this! During Teddy’s cone period he’s had a hard time playing with Bear because the cone hits her in the face. Right now when he initiates play, Bear just lies down. He learned how to play from her and livestock guardian dog play is very low key. Bear has adopted some of his play strategy and lets him chase her until she’s bored with it. They are really fun to watch.

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    1. I’ve always been fascinated watching different dog breeds interacting, adjusting their usual (learned as a puppy? instinctual?) play styles to mesh with the dogs they encounter. Or not. Sometimes it’s a total, “Uh, thanks but no thanks” response. Off-leash dog parks are so fun for that reason, watching all the cues and missed cues; the dogs that instantly & thoroughly enjoy playing with each other, and those whose attempts to initial play fall flat, walking away dejectedly until they find a new dog whose style works for them.

      I’m glad Bear has the patience to deal with Teddy’s cone; those things can hurt their unintended targets! She’s so intuitive, I’m sure she realizes Teddy needs a little extra patience right now.

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      1. Bear has been sleeping next to Teddy for the past week or so. Now she seems to know he’s a LOT better and they’re back to their usual sleeping places.

        Dog play — I was thinking later how Dusty T. Dog (dobie/lab mix) found himself as a 4 month old puppy surrounded by Siberian huskies who loved him but had a completely different play style. He tried, but he just wasn’t a husky.

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    1. Yes! And, Finn gives it his all when I’m out there “supervising” since he knows I’ll referee if necessary (it never has been, so far). Conall is so forgiving, but he’s also got such thick fur that I doubt Finn’s old and worn teeth could do any damage, even if he tried :-). Their outside play is slightly more subdued when I’m inside, and I’m pretty sure they don’t wrestle at all when I’m not with them. Which is fine by me. I prefer a peaceful home where everyone gets along!

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  2. Animals are great at seeming like they’re killing each other. When my cats are hungry, they go at it. Screaming, hissing, growing. They literally sound like they’re ripping each other apart. For a while we quickly fed them to get them to stop fighting, but then we realized they were playing us, so now we let them fight. Have you thought any more about relocating? I was in Vermont last weekend and it was absolutely beautiful. Really freaking cold, but beautiful.

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    1. I had no idea cats would engage in similar play; I’ve never had more than one at a time. In my own experience, it took time to realize it was all play and no aggression. Although I noticef that Maia (in the past), and now Finn look to me for reassurance, that I’m there to referee, just in case. I’m pretty sure Finn and Conall don’t play so wildly when I’m gone.

      I’m still very focused on Vermont. Logistics are a hurdle given the pandemic. I’m actually leaning toward building rather than buying an existing home, which is what I did here in Idaho. What part of Vermont were you visiting?

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      1. Ah, that’s right; I’d forgotten!

        A friend put me in touch with her cousin who lives in South Burlington. He’s been helpful in suggesting specific areas for me to search, and got me thinking that something a bit more urban – especially near a college, like where he’s living – might be a good fit for me. Lots to consider.

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      2. I live in southeastern Vermont, on the Connecticut River near Bellows Falls. Last week it was -7 here at night, but that’s unusual. Burlington generally runs 5-10 degrees colder, plus they get wind off the lake. My ideal climate would be closer to Montpelier, which is a wonderful little town, with lots of mountains nearby for hiking. Plus they’re an hour closer to the rest of the world than Burlington is. (No offense to Quebec.)

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      3. I have friends living in Lyndon (wife is a native of Vermont), and they made the same recommendation for Montpelier area. Brad, if you don’t mind, please send me an email so I can get your thoughts now and again as I research Vermont. (Totally okay if you’d rather not!)

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  3. This is awesome! Sawyer and Finn have a wrestling match almost every night after dinner. To the uninitiated, it quite often looks like they are killing each other and they don’t understand why I am laughing at their antics.

    BTW, I published my novel the other day! Never thought the day would come.

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