The function of games in the development of puppies
Technically, games are defined as any motor activity that does not seem to have any sense and consisting of a series of behaviours that proceed from other contexts, such as mating or hunting, and that in games seem to be altered in form, intensity or sequence. In the case of a dog chasing a ball, the chasing comes from predatory conduct, but the stimulus that causes it is not a true prey, and often movements are exaggerated with respect to what the dog would do in a hunting context.
Dogs are usually very eager to find game companions or to play with objects and this willingness to play is kept, as in the case of people, throughout the entire life of the dog, with peaks in childhood and in youth. This is the effect of the process of domestication that the canine species has undergone and which has determined the withholding of juvenile features in the adult age (technically this phenomenon is defined as neoteny). In fact, in most wild mammals, games are almost exclusively limited to childhood. However, games are an activity that involve an energetic cost and also the risk of being hurt, as may occur if the animal does not calculate its movements well or if it does not interpret correctly the signals emitted by the other individual. So then, ¿why do dogs play?
In spite of its apparent lack of function, there are several hypotheses on the benefits that games can provide during the growth of a puppy. One of the most well known is the hypothesis according to which games are useful for preparing animals for adult life, allowing it to practice motor skills that it will need as an adult for hunting or mating and agonistic and appeasement behaviours that will be useful for handling social conflicts and for establishing hierarchical relations. Games also improve understanding of the communication signals emitted by playmates, whether it is a dog or a person, and social games usually improve understanding and deepen the relationship of the individuals who are playing. By playing with its mother and brothers and sisters, dogs learn to inhibit their bite, and generally, puppies who are separated from their mother at an early age (before 7 weeks of age) usually bite hard and play more roughly. Games can also be useful as physical training, allowing on the one hand to practice motion coordination and on the other hand favouring the development of certain nervous structures, such as the cerebellum (involved in keeping balance), muscle mass and connections between the nervous system and muscles. Through games, the animal explores its limits and skills, acquires physical and mental flexibility and trains for experiencing unpredictable situations. Thus, during games, animals are faced with disadvantageous situations that allow them to explore the possible strategies to handle difficulties, but all this in a context where no real risks are taken.
In addition to the actual functions of games, the owner can use them as a tool for the education of the puppy to teach it emotional control, tolerance of frustration and to make pauses during the game, thus learning to control its level of excitement. The pleasant nature of games allows for their use as a reward for desirable behaviours of the dog that we wish to reinforce. Moreover, a study has shown that after a session of games, dogs usually show higher levels of attention towards their owner, and if training takes place straight after games it is usually more effective. Games are also used as an indicator of the dogs' well-being. In animals who are ill, hungry, who live in unsuitable environments or who are in a state of chronic stress in general, one of the first behaviours to disappear is games; thus, a reduction in the frequency of games can be linked to a reduction in the well-being of the individual.
Given that games are essential for the appropriate development of puppies, all these aspects highlight the significance of providing moments to play suitable games, both to puppies and to adult dogs.