Our friend Kate Potter Barrow was here the other night so our Caritas trio could practice for an upcoming performance- but much to our surprise (and delight) she brought along her golden retriever Pete, who happens to be the brother of our older dog, Ellie. From the second our two dogs caught sight of Pete in our front doorway, they were bouncing off the walls like balls in the world’s most joyous pinball machine – and an hour later they had scarcely calmed down. It was so fun to see that, and it brought back happy memories of when the Barrows and Bergs brought Ellie and Pete to the same puppy training class at Proper Paws University. Each night’s class began with what amounted to a frantic canine mixer in which all of the participating puppies were turned loose by their respective masters and allowed to play together for a couple of minutes. There might have been fifteen different dogs, but without fail Ellie and Pete would find each other in that wild crowd and would be inseparable for the remainder of the play period. . . two siblings utterly devoted to one another and thrilled to be together.
We got more than a little taste of that the other night, and the presence of Bobbi made it still more lively. And seeing them frolic (and nearly shaking our house off of its foundation in the process) reminded me of a book I just read called “Play: How it shapes the brain, opens the imagination, and invigorates the soul.” The author, Stuart Brown, (who I interviewed for the morning show) has been studying play both in humans and animals for many years, and he makes a very persuasive case for the crucial importance of play for our well-being and for our development. One of his central contentions is that it is in the act of play that we humans as well as our beastly brethren learn about themselves, each other, and the world. And he goes on to say that in some respects the animals which are especially advanced are those that most retain their childhood love affair with play. Neoteny refers to when an organism retains significant juvenile characteristics into adulthood. His most intriguing example of that was in comparing wolves with labrador retrievers. As young puppies (do you call a young wolf a puppy?) they are almost indistinguishable from each other and especially in their playfulness. But at some point, a wolf begins to lose interest in childlike play and becomes much more of an adult – which means much more rigid in its behavior and much less able to meaningfully interact with humans and other species different from its own. But labrador retrievers – and indeed, most dogs – retain much more of that playfulness, and it’s part of what makes them so incredibly adaptable. (And by the way, human beings demonstrate more neoteny than any other species on earth.)
I know it wasn’t Dr. Brown’s intention in writing this book to send me off on one giant guilt trip, but that’s what this book did- because it made me realize that Bobbi and Ellie’s need for play is not just a matter of keeping them from being bored- Play is what keeps them growing and stimulated, and without it they are likely to mentally and emotionally deteriorate. And it is as much our responsibility to play with them as it would be to read to them if they were our children.
Which is not to say that I’m going to win any Father of the Year awards. Throwing a ball around with the dogs still feels like hard work and I don’t do it nearly as much as I should – nor nearly as joyously as Kathy does. But I am making a much better effort than ever before, knowing that it matters far more than I ever realized before. And more than anything, I am doubly pleased and grateful when Pistol Pete comes over to really show them a good time. There is no prettier sight than seeing three golden retrievers grinning ear to ear in the midst of spirited play. And may they be an example to the rest of us, even in these scary times, to not forget about the importance of Play. As Dr. Brown says in his book, “Play is the stick that stirs the drink.” Without it, life is a bit flat. With it, life has the fizz and sparkle it was meant to have.
pictured above: Pete, Ellie and Bobbi being given a treat by Kathy.