African painted dog puppies playing

Wild dog pups playing


Wild dogs playing at Chitabe camp in Botswana

The light-hearted playfulness of wild dog pups belies the potential importance of play and its social consequences. At a very young age litter mates engage in social play that coincides not only with developing motor skills but also with the beginning of important social relationships that will endure - in most cases - for the rest of their lives.

Few concepts in the study of animal behaviour present more of a quarry to scientists than play. Play is predominantly a characteristic of young, developing animals and is a category of animal behaviour that is widely recognisable even to those who know little else about animals. At the same time it, it defies unambiguous definition. The most accepted definition of play centres most, in fact, on what it is not; play is defined as ‘activity which appears to have no immediate benefits for the player’.

So what is play for? For wild dogs there is a definite developmental process in which the character and duration of play changes as dogs grow older and more powerful. This process can roughly be characterised by a progression through three stages. The first stage involves play with objects and appears to be a medium for learning about the physical world through solitary exploration and discovery. This soon evolves a social aspect in which the interest in objects derives not much from their novelty but from their potential to stimulate social interactions. While wild dogs are very young, social play in its various forms is the most prevalent category of play and, for very young pups, play-fighting is the most common form of social play. In the last stage - as dogs grow larger and more powerful - play-fighting declines in frequency and forms of play ships to actions that are closely related to the dogs’ ecological role as efficient predators.

These words are from the chapter dealing with play in a book titled “Running Wild - Dispelling the Myths of the African Wild Dog". If you are reading this as someone who is interested in wild dog behaviour, find yourself a copy.

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