How to play safely with a Labrador

Watching two dogs play together is fascinating.

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.

How to play with a labrador, safety rules for children and adults
And sometimes they can get dangerous.

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.

 Supervise children

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

Safety first.

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.

Other activities

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.

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Pippa Mattinson

The Labrador Site is brought to you by Pippa Mattinson. Pippa's latest book The Happy Puppy Handbook is a definitive guide to early puppy care and training

by Pippa on October 23, 2012

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Deb Breault March 20, 2013 at 1:41 am

We have a four month old lab/retriever puppy, when he wakes up from sleeping (on the hardwood floor) will limp on his right front leg. I have tried to get him to sleep on his dog bed or a blanket but he will not. I am worried that he may have something wrong with his shoulder. I have researched this on other sites without any clear answers yet, hoping you can help me.

Thank you,
Diesel’s mom


Pippa March 20, 2013 at 9:02 am

Hi Deb, this is definitely a problem for your vet who will be able to examine your dog and if necessary xray his leg. Hope he is ok.


sandipan chowdhury August 11, 2013 at 10:03 pm

hi, we have a 10 weeks old female labrador. the problem is she gets over excited and always try to get to the water. she spreads water on the floor and lie on the that. even when she’s not excited. why?


Henry August 17, 2013 at 2:23 pm

I am no expert but it sounds like she wants to cool down or something


Kasia August 18, 2013 at 10:00 pm

Hi Pippa,
We are looking for a chocolate lab to join our family. We have an 18 months old daughter. We have been to view a 7 months old female today. She appears to be a lovely dog, taught to basic commands. The only issue is that she has had no interaction with any children. She gets very excited seeing people and jumping on them a lot, licking and cheering. She knocked down my daughter straight away on the floor and started jumping on her.
Question is, would we be able to train the dog to stop jumping and knocking over our daughter? Or maybe we should consider taking an older already trained dog?
This is a genuine question and your help would be greatly appreciated.
Thank you in advance


Pippa August 19, 2013 at 12:03 pm

Hi Kasia,
There are a great many variables here, but without knowing more about the dog, your family, and your own training experience, I probably would not advise taking on a very exuberant 7 month old dog until your child is older. You might pull it off without too much trouble, but many people in this situation will struggle terribly to juggle the needs of the dog and the child.

If you have no previous experience of dog training, you may have real difficulty coping.
Good luck whatever you decide.


Kasia August 19, 2013 at 1:09 pm

Hi Pippa,
Thank you very much for your reply. I really appreciate it. I think I am going to wait with having a puppy. Would you mind giving me some advice about taking a 3 years old dog that has been brought up with toddlers? Is it worth viewing the dog and checking if we are the right match for each other?(it is for sale cause of some family matters) I am also considering getting a professionally trained dog…
Just to give you some background, I used to have dogs before (Great Dane, cocker spaniel and shih tzu) but never a Labrador and I am not a master of training but I know basics well.
We are living on a small farm with lots of land for the dogs enjoyment. We have some ducks and chickens. I am staying at home with our daughter.
Thank you again for some hints.


Steve Tyers November 11, 2013 at 7:56 pm

Pippa I have found your site invaluable in helping us with our new chocolate – Ruby. She is just nine weeks and seems to hoover small stones. The first sign of this is the sound of crunching. Any ideas on how we can resolve this.


Sierra December 28, 2013 at 9:23 pm


My name is Sierra. I have a 6 week old chocolate lab pup named Ruby. We are trying to crate train her but she uses the bathroom in the crate even after taking her out in the middle of the night. She cries for over an hour before falling asleep and as soon as she wakes she cries and cries and cries. She has had multiple accidents inside while on the way out to use the bathroom. She does not listen when I call her and she will not come to me. Please help.


Pippa December 30, 2013 at 3:29 pm

Hi Sierra, your puppy is very immature (six week old puppies should be with their mother for another two weeks or so) and cannot hold her bladder for very long. If a puppy is toileting in her crate, it is because either the crate is too big, or, because she is being left in there for too long. Have a look at the house training articles in the puppies menu for more information. All puppies have to be taught to come when they are called, and you can find information on this in the recall training centre which is located in the training menu. Pippa


Aubrey Rumberger March 31, 2014 at 9:57 pm

I’m so glad I read your blog regarding playing with your lab. I was rolling on the floor with our 4 month old black lab puppy “Bear” and was going to teach my son to do the same as I thought we were bonding with him. I’m sure you are right but am sad because our family loves to play wrestle with each other. It will be hard not to tackle Bear but your advice is much appreciated


Ashley April 7, 2014 at 10:57 pm

hi my dog is a sixth-7th month lab mix. She is always jumping on people and even sometimes my kids. My kids think it’s cute but when she jumps she likes to nip. we do not know to this day what she was mixed with but we might do a DNA test when she gets a little older. I was wondering if there is any way I can train her no to nip and jump before she gets too big where it is even harder to control. thanks for your time,


Lesley January 8, 2015 at 9:11 pm

Hi there, I have a 9 month old Labrador. He is very friendly and until recently totally placid with me and my 6 and 8 year old boys. In the last few months a couple of dogs have attacked him and pinned him down whilst we have been walking and he seems to be a lot more jumpy and nervous as a result.

Tonight he took one of my boots and sat with it on the sofa – I asked my 8 year old to get it back for me and although I didn’t actually witness this – me son said he went for his hand – no blood but got my sons hand in his mouth. I was totally concerned. Then my son went to stroke him while he was tearing up a drinks carton and he snapped again. I have never seen to behaviour in my lab before. I grew up with a black lab as a child and never witnessed this in that dog either.

Firstly, I think I should not allow him on the sofa anymore, make him sleep in his bed on the floor? I have taken all his toys away to avoid the children being tempted to take them from him. I am very worried about his behaviour.

He seemed to know he had done wrong – I now keep putting him back in his bed. Can you help?


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