Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Importance of Play

Here's a little article on the importance of play!

The Benefits of Free Play
About twenty years ago, before I studied to become a dog trainer, I got my first dog as an adult. He was a black-and-white English field setter named Charley. I was surprised and delighted at some of the things dogs learned from one another while they were playing. And they often seemed to learn in a way that didn’t exactly fit with what I knew from my basic 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, hanging out with our dogs in Central Park one summer morning, when a new dog showed up. I don't remember his name, so let’s call him Spike. After the preliminaries were over (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 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, 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 went left. Yet Charley 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. 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, 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. 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, in a 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).

Nearly 2500 years ago 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—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.

One of the most intriguing benefits of free play is that it facilitates maturation of frontal lobe inhibitory skills that regulate and inhibit impulsive urges (Panksepp, et al., 2003). In other words, the more our dogs play as pups, the more impulse control they’ll exhibit as adults. It’s also known that dogs who’ve had fewer opportunities for free play as pups are more likely to exhibit aggressive behaviors as adult dogs. And this isn’t just due to lack of socialization, it’s that play is vitally important for healthy, lasting growth of the neural connections between the aggression centers in the brain, like the amygdalla, and the impulse control center in the frontal lobes (Potegal &; Einon, 1989). Play has many benefits in developing animals (van den Berg, et al. 1999). And “since the urge to play is a neurological drive — an insistent emotional motivation — ludic tendencies become excessive in play-starved animals.” (Panksepp, et al., 1984)

So that’s some of the growing scientific perspective on the need for play. And from my perspective, as a dog trainer of fifteen years (using a play-based model of training), play is also one of the best tools for teaching a dog to learn and obey. I also use a form of play therapy to cure severe behavioral problems in dogs.

Some scientists are now looking into a theory of how free play among pre-school children might prevent some cases of ADHD, and perhaps reverse others. The fact is, there’s been a huge swing away from allowing our children to engage in free, unstructured play, particularly outdoors. Many children are being put into pre-school (or pre-pre-school) before they can walk! Kids are signed up for structured kiddie play groups at very young ages, where they’re not allowed to engage in free play so much as they’re expected to learn things, even pushed into learning.

What’s wrong with that? 

Jaak Panksepp (formerly an evolutionary psychiatrist and neurochemist, and now a veterinarian!), is the author of one study on play. In it he says that when we allow pre-schoolers to engage in free play, where they make up their own games and their own rules (under adult supervision), natural processes of learning impulse control, fairness, and controlling aggressive feelings take place naturally. The brain develops faster. New abilities to learn and move through space develop quicker. He also writes: 

“Our recent broad-scale brain gene expression analysis has indicated that activity of about a third of the 1,200 brain genes in frontal and posterior cortical regions are significantly modified by play within an hour of a 30 min. play session (Kroes, Burgdorf Panksepp and Moskal, 2006, Unpublished observations from Falk Center for Molecular Therapeutics, Northwestern University).” He adds, “If such dynamic brain changes evoked by play facilitate brain growth and maturation, perhaps solidifying pro-social circuits of the brain, we must worry about anything that diminishes the progression of such developmental processes.” 

To me this brings up an issue some dog trainers, like myself, are starting to have with puppy classes, and how we think in many cases such classes might be interfering with our puppies’ natural mechanisms for learning impulse control, and which may even stunt some forms of neurological development. Personally, I think getting a puppy to settle down, stop fooling around, and pay attention at a puppy class qualifies as something Panskepp talks about, that “diminishes the pro-social circuits of the brain,” not to mention brain development which is one of the natural, biological results of free play. It’s also why I think play itself is, generally speaking, a more valuable form of training for dogs than plodding through the process by reinforcing single behaviors, one at a time, or by forcing or scaring a dog into obeying.

Most obedience classes aren’t really designed for what’s most natural in terms of how young puppies are genetically designed to learn. New owners often expect their puppy to meet certain obedience criteria, and too many trainers are all too happy to teach puppies without considering whether the client’s wish-list is truly appropriate. In nearly every puppy class young pups are taught things like paying attention and sitting still, when biologically speaking, and I mean from purely neurological and physiological points of view (regarding proper development of both brain and body structure), a young puppy’s attention needs to wander continuously: he needs to watch how things move, he needs to sniff things, grab them with his teeth, investigate in his own puppylike way.

If you simply spend time looking at many of a puppy’s natural behaviors you’ll see that they exhibit some of the strangest, seemingly unrelated and illogical physical movements imaginable. Why? Because their bodies need to in order for their muscles and nervous systems to develop properly. In terms of learning, and for the development of motor skills, and even for the proper growth of his young brain, a pup needs to just plain move his little body around constantly in meaningless ways. And he needs to do that a whole lot more than he needs to be taught how to sit still in puppy class. So it seems to me that all too many trainers firmly (yet wrongly) believe they’re not interfering with the puppy’s natural development when they get that little guy to finally sit still and pay attention!

Should pups not be trained at all then? Of course they should. They need to be gently directed away from chewing things they shouldn’t and encouraged to chew things they should, for example. And there’s nothing wrong with teaching the puppy in your home, occasionally asking him to “sit” or encouraging a recall when he's bored and looking for something interesting to do. But that’s a whole lot different than taking him to the most distracting environment possible (a lot of other puppies and strange people) and then tugging at his attention and pulling him away from what his genes are telling him to do, which is to develop his curiosity, grow new neural pathways, and improve his motor skills! This is a time in a young animal's life where nature has decided that splitting is most needed, and puppy classes seem almost devoted to doing the exact opposite.

So rather than impose a curriculum on the dog from the outside in, I think it’s much better to let puppies develop at their own pace without overt external pressure. Yes, we should provide every opportunity for our puppies to learn and explore and become bold and confident, all of which happens best through playing with other pups and adult dogs, and comes not at all from being told to sit still, lie down on command, or walk nicely on a leash. If those things are to be taught at all (and they should be at some point), it’s best to wait until the puppy’s brain and emotions are more developed, which happens naturally and best through free play. And when you do teach a pup these things (preferably not until after 6 months), it’s best to teach them as part of an active, high-energy game, where the puppy gets to win by obeying. That’s because the more actively the older pup's whole organism is involved in the process—his emotions, his kinetic energy, his instincts, and his brain—the better and faster he'll learn.

Panksepp also makes the case that free play in young mammals is a basic, neurologic drive, as strong as any other natural drive there is. And quite often, at least in my experience, teaching a dog to use this drive to play in a natural, rough-and-tumble way, can cure some of the most severe behavioral problems we see in dogs, from aggression, to fear and panic-based disorders, to separation anxiety.

The reason this is so, is that in my view, behavioral problems arise, generally speaking, when a dog's natural energy isn’t being used properly. Whether the dog’s domestic origins are based on scavenging (and I don’t think they are, though that’s the current model) or hunting, it doesn’t matter. Dogs are predators at heart. (Why else would puppies “kill” their toys, using a modal action pattern that’s an exact homologue of one of a wolf’s predatory behaviors?)

The first wolf appeared millions of years ago. And long before that—before wolves were even wolves—they were members of the micadae family, who were also hunters. And their evolutionary history goes back another 40-60 million years. So it seems to me that a mere 12-120 thousand years of domestication hasn’t erased those 40 million+ years of predatory needs or tendencies in the evolution of the domesticated dog. As a result dogs have a neurological drive to hunt, just as all mammals have a neurological drive to play. But since most dogs don’t need to hunt in order to “make a living,” their main behavioral question (once they've got a stable social structure) is:

“What do I do with my predatory/aggressive energy?”

Almost all behavioral problems stem from this one question. By giving dogs an outlet for that neurologically based predatory energy through play, and by building that drive to the point that it becomes like an irresistible force (which is what nature intended it to be), the dog's instincts and energies are brought back into alignment with his environment, and behavioral problems (which are merely attempts by the dog to express that predatory energy in some seemingly unrelated way), disappear. For that dog, the question, “What do I do with my energy?” has been answered: you focus it on obedience through play.

That’s what I’ve learned in the past 15 years or so. But right now? I’ve got three dogs here (two puppies and one Trevor), tearing up my apartment (not literally) who need to go out to play...

"Changing the World, One Dog at a Time"

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