Senior dog with toy

Q. Do dogs become less interested in play as they reach adulthood? Are some breeds more prone to remain playful?

A. Although play for many animals becomes a rarity with age, play can remain commonplace for even mature dogs. Through play, puppies learn to use body language to communicate with other puppies. Play is also believed to be a rehearsal for critical skills puppies need throughout life and may even build important brain connections. Play with humans during puppyhood strengthens the human-animal bond and teaches crucial skills, such as how to mouth gently when playing.

Numerous factors influence a dog’s continued desire to play as he ages. Ample play opportunities during puppyhood increase play behavior in adult dogs. A stimulating environment that includes toys and food puzzles, as well as frequent positive interactions with humans and other dogs and regular outings, are more likely to result in a playful dog as well.

Reward and punishment also affect play. The more a dog is rewarded for playing, the more likely play will continue past the puppy stage. Punishment during play, such as scolding or physically reprimanding a dog for making a mistake, decreases both the dog’s confidence and his desire to play. It’s important to have boundaries during play, but guidance should be given in a nonconfrontational manner.

What if Your Dog Doesn’t Play?

While some dogs may seem more disposed to play, external factors can influence how much your dog plays. A loss of interest in play doesn’t necessarily mean anything is wrong with your dog — some dogs are content to be couch potatoes and lap dogs — but in some cases, a decrease in play can be a sign of more serious issues.

A lack of play may indicate that your dog is afraid of something. Play can be used to teach a fearful dog to enjoy a situation that frightens him, such as a visit to the vet; by incorporating play into the visit, you change the experience from scary to fun. Fear and anxiety can begin at any point in a dog’s life. If you suspect that your adult dog’s refusal to play is fear-related, talk with your veterinarian about strategies for addressing the root cause of this fear.

Health changes can also influence play. Your dog’s dental health can negatively affect his desire to play; if his teeth and gums are infected and sore, he is less able to carry or chew toys without being in pain. Overweight pets tend to have less energy, and may also have painful joints or other health issues, all of which can limit play behavior.

Older dogs may have additional health issues that restrict play. Arthritis pain can make play painful, while brain aging can decrease a dog’s ability to respond to his environment. These and many other conditions can be managed with the help of your veterinarian.

Even if your dog’s exuberance for play remains strong as he ages, his body may slow down and be unable to keep up the pace. For this reason, play opportunities for senior dogs need to be tailored to accommodate their aging bodies.

Do Some Breeds Play More Than Others?

Breeding can make a difference when it comes to play. High-energy working dogs may be more likely to retain their playful personality throughout life. A strong play desire is one quality of a successful working dog, whether the task be retrieving or search and rescue. Even within a particular breed, not all dogs will share the same play drive; while one Labrador Retriever may be a fiend for fetch, another may be more at home lounging on the sofa. Within the same breed, dogs are selectively bred for certain purposes. For instance, some Labradors are bred for field trials, with more intense personality and higher play drive, while other Labs are bred as show dogs or family dogs, and may be more content with low-key interactions. In dogs with unknown breed antecedents, an intense desire to play as a puppy will likely continue into adulthood.