Childhood summers in Erie meant when my brother, mom, and I finished chores we’d pack up a lunch basket, stuff blankets and towels in my mother’s cherished Chrysler convertible, and head for the beach. We spent many summer afternoons in Lake Erie’s chilly waters, or on its pebbly sands—playing. If we didn’t go to the beach, I’d head out on my bicycle with my friends and go exploring. Often we’d travel far beyond the boundaries my mother so carefully drew for me; into the woods, creeks, and trails of neighboring wilds.
When I needed cleaning off, I’d bike to my great Aunt’s house where she’d brew a pot of tea. Late into the afternoon I’d sit at her kitchen table sipping the warm, sweet tea and we’d tell each other stories, mine usually of what out of bounds territory I’d explored that day. She kept my secrets.
I didn’t know then that the hours I spent out of doors in unstructured free time, or telling Aunt Marie my adventures were developing critical cognitive skills the psychologists now call “executive function.” Using my imagination in play, (in my early youth I was also a great lover of Lincoln logs) developed my ability to self-regulate, taught me how to control my emotions and behaviors, and how to exert self-control. By being able to manage my feelings and pay attention I became a better learner—all through play, imagine that.
Animals have the same capacity for play and reap the same kinds of benefits. When our dogs play, they relax and gain the same abilities to learn and pay attention. If we play with them, we both get the added bonus of building strong bonds. This is an overly simplistic explanation, but when we play with our animals we both release endorphins, and endorphins inhibit the fear and anxiety response. With less fear or anxiety, Patrick can learn more easily.
As Patrick relaxes, he is inclined to play; as he plays, he relaxes. What a great feedback loop. He plays with the other dogs, which is wonderful, but more importantly to my goals, he also plays with me. We play fetch and every time I throw the toy, he brings it back. I praise him and am very happy, and he is happy, and we both smile. I’m also reinforcing his newfound sense of play, and it’s as important as everything else we do.