I was recently challenged to write a science piece about “Air Bud”. A nearly impossible task, you may think. You’d be right, nearly impossible. But when watching it for the first time today, I discovered a message at this movies heart that’s far more interesting than “Can a Dog play Basketball?”

What is Air Bud ?

In one Gif :

Air Bud is a film based on a single dog trick. That a dog can knock a basketball through a hoop.

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But there is more to it, if you dig under the surface. I’m not going to say Air Bud is deep. I’m not saying they planned even half of the things I’m going to talk about. I am going to say they ended up doing so much more than turn a dog trick into a movie. When you analyse it, you’ll find that Basketball reinforces every key relationship in the story. Which brings us to the concept of “Play”.

What do you mean by “Play” ?

Scientists use “Play” to describe activities done for enjoyment and for no immediate benefit. To put it simply, Players don’t play to get rewards, they play for the fun of playing.

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Which leads us to a mystery. If play is without reward, then why did evolution program us to enjoy it so much ?

We don’t know for certain, but there are three main theories:-

1. Motor Training Hypothesis

In the animal world, play is an physical activity. It’s rough and tumble. This lead to one of the earliest theories of games. Those who play more tend to be more physically healthy, and will survive better.

But it goes deeper than that. Across the natural world, young animals play at situations they would encounter as adults. Like chasing each other, and running away.

Animals like lion cubs, wolf puppies and even rats will play fight as youngsters. As adults, they’ll have to do the same thing for real. Those fights will determine their place in the social order.

As they play fight, their bodies adapt. Muscles get stronger, neural pathways controlling those muscles get quicker. Those who play more are better prepared for the challenges of adulthood.

2. Developing Cognitive Capacity:

This is theory focuses on exercising the brain instead of the muscles. You don’t just need strength and good reflexes to fight off rivals and hunt prey. These scenarios are complex problems, solvable with the right mix of intelligence and creativity.

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Play allows animals to be curious about their world. It drives them to explore. When they play, they can try out different strategies in a safe environment. Strategies that could come in useful when they are all grown up.

Play enhances the problem solving abilities of animals. It makes them more adaptable for when the unexpected strikes. Animals that play have a distinct cognitive advantage over those that do not.

3. Social Learning:

Both of these theories boil down to one thing; “Play” trains the young for adulthood.

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That’s neat, but doesn’t come close to an “Evolutionary theory of Basketball”. Which is”Air Buddy” comes down strongly in favour of the third theory. It’s one that probably plays a key role in the natural world, and is still important in ours. That theory states that “Play” builds relationships.

So let’s see what the film has to say about it.

Josh and his father

Moving to a new town, and a new house is stressful for any kid. But Josh, the human protagonist of this story, is a wreck. When we first meet him, he’s withdrawn, ornery. As he follows his family into their brand new empty house, you can almost feel the angst following him. The cause becomes apparent when you see the first three items he unpacks.

  • A distinctive red white and blue basketball.
  • A picture of his father and him playing with that very same basketball.
  • A framed news clipping informing us that his father is dead.

If you pay attention for the rest of the movie, you’ll notice that he carries that basketball EVERYWHERE. When you first see him open his school bag, the thing he takes out is that damn basketball. Fully inflated, because who needs room for books ?

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You could take that as him just loving basketball. Except he doesn’t want to play basketball. He avoids joining the team. Even when pushed into try-outs, all he does is sit on the bench hugging that ball. Basketball was something he shared with his father. He can’t share it with anyone else.

Parent-child play is not commonly seen outside humans and primates. It plays a key role in how we learn early in life, and strengthens the bond between parent and child. When infant rhesus monkeys were raised without parents, they had trouble interacting with monkeys who had that parental engagement. Other monkeys shunned them. The only thing that reverse that ? Play time. When monkeys without parents were allowed to play with their peers, they showed fewer social problems. Play healed their problems. But will it help Josh ?

Buddy and Josh

Josh first meets Buddy on an abandoned basketball court. This is Josh’s oasis from the pressures of the outside world. Here, he can truly be himself. It’s where we see him actually play with his basketball. It is also where he first encounters Buddy

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Buddy is shy and withdrawn. It takes days before he lets himself be seen by Josh, and only then to grab some food. Josh eventually lures him further by setting out more food for him. Even this isn’t enough. Buddy comes for the food, but the moment Josh gets close, he flees.

What brings them together ?

You guessed it, Basketball !

Josh notices that Buddy really seems to like the basketball. So he throws Buddy the ball. Buddy passes it back. They begin to play, and by the end of a montage, they are best friends.

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There are some species of animals that use play to create bonds. Young Seals play with unfamiliar individuals to help integrate them into their social groups. But we aren’t dealing with seals, we’re dealing with dogs.

Dogs have evolved to be more social with humans. Dogs interact with humans differently than to other dogs. They can read our expressions and gestures. They prefer to bond with their human owners more than other dogs. Even dogs they share a household with. The human-canine bond is unique.

That bond is the heart of this movie, and it allows both characters to grow. Buddy and Josh have a lot in common. They are both, damaged and withdrawn. But through their friendship, they grow. Josh opens up. He gets his confidence, leading him to (eventually) get onto the basketball team. Buddy grows too. Buddy becomes less of a troublemaker. The more they play, the better buddy gets at Basketball. Until one fateful day, Buddy knocks the ball into the basket.

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That talent is one that will bring fame to both him and Josh. Fame which attracts the attention of the Buddy’s previous owner.

Buddy and Mr Snively

When we first see Buddy, he is in a box, dressed in a clown costume in the charge of his then owner, Mr Snively. To sum up their relationship, Mr Snively threatens the dog with a rolled up newspaper should anything go wrong. This is a point that will come up throughout the movie, as buddy hates newspapers, getting rid of every one of them he sees.

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Mr Snively is an average childrens entertainer. He shows up drunk, can’t do most of his tricks, and loses his temper the moment he’s upstaged by his dog. But at least he wasn’t caught snorting cocaine in the bathroom, or slipping jewelry into his oversize clown pants, so y’know, he’s still pretty professional.

But fortunately, through a combination of atrocious driving and sheer coincidence, buddy manages to escape, and eventually find Josh.

Mr Snively re-enters the narrative to shake things up just as everything is turning out good for our characters. After seeing his dog on TV, he takes back “his property”, so that he can make his fortune. But he still treats the dog like crap.

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Snively is an effective counterpoint to Josh’s relationship. Whilst Josh always refers to Buddy by name, Snively refers to him merely as “the dog”, and we find out that he hasn’t even given the dog a name. Snively treats Buddy as his property, to be beaten, dominated and bent to his will.

Snively uses “Dominance” to establish control over buddy, whereas Josh uses his relationship to incentivise buddies actions. Dominance based training was once used to train dogs, but has been heavily criticised in recent years.

It stemmed from observations of captive wolves. Whilst in captivity, wolves would be observed to constantly fight, and express aggression to attain dominance over a group. There would be an “Alpha” who would rise to the top through strength. Thus, it was thought that in order for a human to rise to the top, and impose their will on their pets, they must dominate them.

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But there was a problem. These captive wolves were not a natural family unit. They were caught from the wild, and forced to interact with strangers. Later research showed that they interacted very differently in a family group.

What’s more, Dominance based training built up an antagonistic relationship between a dog and its owner. In the best case scenario, the dog is left as a stressed out beaten wreck. The worst case scenario, the moment you show weakness, that Golden Retriever will be ripping out your jugular.

Dogs trained without severe punishment are less likely to exhibit behavioural problems. What’s more, there are studies that show that dogs can be more obedient when trained without using physical punishment. Perhaps that’s why Buddy flourished after he met Josh, to the point where he could play basketball.

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It’s the talent of both Josh and Buddy at basketball that eventually gets them accepted in their town of Fairhaven, and ultimately what does Snively in.

The Role of Basketball and Fairhaven

Whilst doing laundry for the team, Josh stumbles into the school engineers office. I say stumbles, what I mean is that he walks in, and rifles through this mans belongings. He finds out that this engineer has been keeping a dark secret. The guy once played for the Knicks !

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This is how we are introduced to Arthur Chaney. Like Josh, he once played basketball, and also wants nothing to do with it. He starts the story isolated in his little office. As he becomes more involved with basketball, he comes out of his shell. Eventually, he will take the role of magic wisdom dispenser. We never find out what made him give up on basketball, or what convinces him to go back to it. It doesn’t really matter.

What’s important is how he views basketball very differently from the teams actual coach.

The Team’s Coach is obsessed with winning. He punished failure much in the same way that Mr Snively did. He screams and berates his team when they fail. He loses his job after Buddy the wonder dog sniffs out his abuse, and gets him fired. Good Boy Buddy.

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Which allows Chaney to take the coach position. His style is very different. He seems to care about the team having fun than actually winning. To Chaney, Buddy is perhaps one of the purest basketball players. He makes this clear, when he says:

“You take that dog. He doesn’t care about his point average. He just likes to play the game!”

Ultimately, the he gets that the whole point of play, is that there is no point. It’s there to be fun, and the kind of fun that is shared between people. When Bud plays basketball, people accept him. They’ve seen him play, and accepted him as a part of their community.

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Play helps us define who we accept as family. It reaches across borders, between people who have never met before. It even stretches across species boundaries. Play can help to build communities. That is its power. That is the ultimate lesson of Air Bud.

References and Further Reading

Mammalian Play: Training for the Unexpected

Theory in Context and Out Read on books.google.co.uk

Play in Evolution, Culture, and Individual Adaptation: Implications for Therapy

Refining the Motor Training Hypothesis for the Evolution of Play

Adaptive significance of play: Are we getting closer?

Play in evolution and development

Play fighting differences between male and female mice

The Development of Social Engagement : Neurobiological Perspectives Read on books.google.co.uk

Social play in captive wolves (Canis lupus): not only an immature affair

Juvenile Play of the Common Seal Phoca Vit Ulina Vit Ulina With Comparative Notes On the Grey Seal Halichoerus Grypus

A comparison of dog–dog and dog–human play behaviour

Training methods and owner–dog interactions: Links with dog behaviour and learning ability

An experimental study of the effects of play upon the dog–human relationship

The effects of familiarity on Dog-Human Play

You can tweet me more crazy ideas for science articles @defectivebrayne.

By a complete coincidence “Air Bud” is taking part in the Starlight Children’s Foundation’s “Play in May” event. It’s a charity that makes hospitals less scary for sick kids, and encourages play to help recovery.