While most people we encounter marvel at Bright’s impeccable behavior and good looks (hehe), every once in awhile, someone decides she needs pity: “Oh, that poor dog always has to work. I bet she wishes she could play sometimes.”
Let me start with this: Of course she gets to play! Come on!
Work vs. play.
Before I get into the importance of play, let me clear up a related misunderstanding: Bright can be working or off duty regardless of her vest-wearing status. So, just because she’s got her vest on doesn’t mean she can’t play and vice versa. I’m sure that when I put her vest on for the first time in a day, she has a sense that it’s time to act important, but she’s not really working until I give her an official command, which is often as simple as, “Sit.” If I want to let her to know it’s ok to be silly, there’s actually a command I can give her to tell her she’s not on duty for the time being.
Glad we cleared that up.
Work hard, play harder.
Have you ever met a person that never plays? Chances are, they’re not very happy. They’re probably stressed out and lacking in sense of humor and creativity, and they usually take life way too seriously. Dogs and people have that in common, so play is a really crucial part of a healthy life.
Play accomplishes a lot of things:
Stress relief. A day in the life of a Service Dog can be stressful. Breaks in routine, stimulus overloads, and new experiences can all be sources of stress, and dogs process and release stress by moving their bodies. They chase, fetch, jump, stretch, and dig, and all that nervous electricity in their bodies has a chance to work itself out. It’s also their time to act autonomously and not worry about doing any commands right or resisting distractions.
Bonding. When you were a kid and your parents left you with a babysitter, I bet they had a roster of them to choose from, and I bet you had a favorite. My favorite sitter was my grandma because she did all the things I liked to do. We watched Mr. Rogers, did puzzles, went to the park, and played kitchen. Dogs bond the same way; in my relationship with Bright, it’s important for me to be intentional about doing things that she likes to do.
Fitness. Bodies, both canine and human, are made to move. Dogs, especially young ones, have so much energy! It’s critical that they have an opportunity to flex their muscles, get their heart rates up, and maintain their speed and agility. This aspect can be really beneficial to the human half of a pair, too, as many of us lead pretty sedentary lives – in order to meet our dogs’ needs, we have to get our bums off the couch and move.
Improved social skills. I used to know some kids who were homeschooled and not involved in any community activities with their peers. They were awkward on the rare occasion that they were forced into social situations, and it really wasn’t their fault. I don’t know about you, but when my dog interacts with other dogs, I want her to feel comfortable and confident, and I want her to be able to understand between their showing fear, aggression, or playfulness.
A dog that plays is a dog that stays…happy.
It’s easy to tell the difference between a dog that gets to play and one that doesn’t. A dog that doesn’t play or socialize can be insecure, have issues with separation, and can even be depressed. Yes, dogs get depressed. On the other hand, a dog that gets regular playtime is usually energetic, eager to work, enthusiastic about seeing its person, and in overall better health.
So, to reiterate, yes. Service Dogs do and should play. A lot.
Besides, if I didn’t give Bright her playtime, I think she’d go on strike.
What’s your pup’s favorite way to play?
*Update – 11/9/12 10:28 am*
I’m seeing a lot of comments about how working breeds love work, too! I should clarify that I believe that while work time contributes to a dog’s happiness, play time is a different kind of important. Similar to a person who loves his or her job, working breeds get enjoyment out of working, but playtime provides an opportunity for decompression. No matter how much you love your job, you still have to cut loose!