A huge part of the game is often mouth wrestling.
With fearsome grimaces, and bared teeth clashing alarmingly, the dogs perform an amazing ‘mouth dance’ usually accompanied with ferocious sound effects.
Bouts of mouth wrestling may be interspersed with frantic chasing games that often culminate in barging and rolling over.
Play between dogs
Whilst it looks and is quite rough, two good natured playing dogs seldom harm one another. Their thick coats protect against play nips and each dog understands the rules of combat. A play bow invites an extension of the game, a stiff upright posture ends it.
When to stop it
Sometimes games between two young dogs get out of hand with one dog carrying on after the other wants to stop, or becoming too excited. The key to successful games is to keep them fairly short and to step in if one dog is no longer having fun.
Play between Labradors and children
When Labradors are allowed to play in this unstructured ‘doggy’ way with children, things can get very complicated.
The problem is that the dog and the child are using totally different body language.
And as a result, they often get their ‘wires crossed’.
The conversation between them is largely misunderstood.
Children like to roll around on the ground when they play. They also vocalise a lot. Often with high pitched squeals.
A playful dog may see this as an invitation to engage the child in ‘dog play’. The dog may jump roughly all over the child exactly as he would with another dog.
Dogs do not always react to small children cries of distress appropriately. This is probably because they don’t recognise them as distress calls. There are two possible consequences to this misunderstanding.
One is that the dog thinks the child still wants to play and carries on jumping and begins nipping harder and harder whilst the child becomes more and more upset. The other rarer but even more dangerous consequence is that the distress calls are interpreted as a prey response and the dog switches into predator mode and becomes aggressive.
I should emphasise again that this is very rare, but it can and does happen.
It is important to teach children never to roll on the ground with any large dog. No matter how wonderful the temperament of that dog may be.
He is still a dog.
When you or your child plays with a dog, it is important that the game does not switch into ‘dog play mode’ with all the barging and nipping that involves. You need to be in control of the game at all times, and it must be a game played on human terms.
Because children are very poor at recognising important dog body language signals they get bitten far more often than adults do. Sometimes by perfectly nice dogs that have simply become completely over-excited or been pushed too far.
All normal healthy dogs give lots of warning signs that they are uncomfortable with what you are doing and want you to stop. Adult humans are actually quite good at reading these signals. Ten thousand years of living with dogs has paid off in this respect.
We know that the bared teeth and the growl means ‘back off’. We know that the stiff posture and curled lip precedes the growl.
But this ability to ‘read’ dogs seems to come with maturity and children cannot do it very well. Small children cannot do it at all and will cuddle a fiercely growling dog completely oblivious to the danger.
For these reasons, and because an overexcited dog can knock over and seriously harm a small child, children must be supervised around dogs and especially when playing with dogs. This can be disappointing news to a family that have bought a dog as a ‘playmate’ for their child.
But there are ways for dogs and children to interact together successfully, and teaching these to your child now will set him up for a lifetime of pleasure with dogs as companions.
Let’s have a look at how to teach children to play safely with Labradors
The first rule of playing with any big dog is to remain standing up. Labradors are no exception.
If you are down on the ground with your dog it should be for a good reason. Because you are encouraging the puppy recall for example, or because you are having a picnic (in which case the dog should be seated or lying down next to you).
This bears repeating.
Teach your kids never to roll on the ground with a big dog.
Control the game
The next rule is that a human controls the start and the finish of the game. If you are going to play ‘tug’ with your Labrador, for example, you must be able to ‘cue’ the dog to ‘leave’ the tug toy at the end of the game.
You retain control of the toy, it is your toy, and you decide when the game is over.
You should know the ‘rules’ of the game you are playing. Unstructured, especially physical, play with a large dog is asking for trouble. The rule could be as simple as ‘I’ll throw the frisby and you try and catch it’.
But you should know what game is being played. Otherwise it will just descend into a free for all.
Keep the game short
Some young dogs do not know when to stop. They get more and more excited and eventually start being silly. Keep games short. A few minutes is usually quite enough. Ten or fifteen minutes may be far too long.
Stop if the dog gets excited
Once the dog has got himself into a ‘state’ he is likely to start barking, start nipping, charging around bumping into people and so on. If you let things go on too long and the dog is getting over-excited, stop the game.
If necessary put him on a lead and walk him up and down quietly until he is calm.
Let’s have a look at those rules again
- Remain standing up
- Control the game
- Keep the game short
- Stop the game if the dog gets excited
A final word about children
Young children find it very hard to follow these rules.
They need your help.
Please do supervise your kids when they are playing with your Labrador. And do teach your dogs and kids the best game in the world.
The best game in the world
The Labrador Retriever does not get his name by accident. He is a retriever, born and bred. There is simply nothing on this planet he will ever enjoy more than retrieving.
Not all Labradors have a huge desire to retrieve as puppies, but all can be taught to do so, and all will love you to bits for teaching them.
Retrieving is a wonderful way for Labradors to interact with people, including children. It is also the very best way of exercising your dog whilst retaining control over him.
The joys of retrieving should not be restricted to working gundogs, all Labradors should have a chance to learn to retrieve.
Fetching a ball is just the start of retrieving. The retrieving game can be developed to challenge the cleverest dog, with hidden balls, longer and more difficult retrieves, and even teaching the dog to respond to hand signals and whistles at a distance.
Children benefit immensely from learning to handle and control a dog in this way.
You can find out more about retrieving on the Totally Gundogs website, and you can get help with retrieving from the instructors over at the Gundog Club. Although the dogs on these websites may be pictured carrying birds and rabbits, you can teach your pet to retrieve to a high standard using balls and retrieving dummies.
There are lots of activities you and your children can get involved with if your Labrador has had some basic training. Have a look at Running with your Labrador, Can Labradors do Agility, and Competitive Obedience for more ideas.
Whatever games or activities you decide to use, have fun playing with your dog and be safe!
More help and information
If you enjoy Pippa’s articles, you might be interested in her new book: The Happy Puppy Handbook – a definitive guide to early puppy care and training.