Fun and games for kids and dogs

Had a great training session last evening with a lovely little rescued cocker spaniel who had forgotten how to play. I often see this in older rescue dogs who were previously backyard dogs, or for whatever other reason did not get to play with their people into adulthood. By the end of the session, this little dog was comfortable enough to offer me a couple of play bows and some playful pounces on a toy, which made my day.

Since part of my specialty is working with high drive and sports dogs, I spend a lot of time teaching people how to play with their dogs. Teaching play is part of my class curricula, and I encourage clients to bring toys to class. But while tug and similar games are perfectly appropriate and beneficial (http://helpingpetsbehave.com/post/18535186476/scientific-study-dispels-tug-myth) for adults to play with their dogs, there are limitations as to how children should play do with dogs.

My daughter, at just over two years old, loves to watch me run agility and flyball with our dogs. She cheers us on enthusiastically, yelling “Mommy, Claire, running!” And then she asks to play with the dogs herself. On a number of occasions, she has asked me for my end of a tug toy to engage with a dog, and I have had to turn her down. For, while I love the idea of my dogs playing with my child, I do my best to remain safety conscious at all times, and tug is just not safe between a dog and a toddler.

So, what are appropriate ways for children and dogs to have fun together? Well, of course it does depend on their ages. But there are several options for the closely supervised child and dog, including:

Fetch: As seen in the above-linked video by my friend, Natasha, there is a minimum age at which this game can begin, but pretty much as soon as a child is able to throw a ball, they can do so for a willing dog. The key is to be sure the game is controlled, and the dog is not one that will grab at the ball as the human is going for it. If you have such a dog, then I highly recommend the use of a chuck it or similar toy to keep fingers away from the ball. Ideally, I like to teach a dog to drop the ball, then back away some distance for the child to pick up the ball. I discourage my daughter from picking up the ball if it is still between the dog’s paws, and to wait until the dog has backed away from it. This ensures that the dog is really ready to give it up for another throw, and won’t grab it, accidentally biting little fingers. And as the dogs learn that she won’t throw it again until they back up, they willingly comply.

Chase games: Most dogs naturally love to run. Mine will “zoom” on cue when I say “run!” Typically, they run away from me, and I give short chases as they tuck their tails and zoom in circles past me. Once a dog has been trained by an adult to zoom on cue, then pre-teen or older children can play this game. While I do teach dogs to chase after adults in my sports classes, I don’t encourage dog-chasing-human games with children younger than teenagers, in order to avoid the risk of their being knocked over or otherwise hurt.

Then there are tummy rubs!

Tug: This is my favorite game to play with dogs, but it is not age-appropriate until quite a bit later due to safety concerns. I generally recommend that children be at least in their early teens, larger than the dog in question, and using a very long tug toy. I also recommend that parents first teach the dog a solid “drop it” as well as teaching the dog the rules of tug (i.e. teeth to flesh = game over) prior to allowing the children to play.

Dog sports: Many sports now have “junior handler” divisions and even awards. The AKC has a complete page dedicated to juniors in companion events including a variety of dog sports. In agility, there are also a variety of Junior Handler programs. And in flyball, I have seen children as young as three years old run well-trained dogs with an adult to closely manage the racing, and Junior Handler Awards being given out at tournaments.

North American Flyball Association’s Junior Handler pin

Clearly, games are good. A recent study looking for the effects of tug on dogs’ behavior actually demonstrated that dogs that were played with (tug in this instance) sought more attention from and were more attentive to their handlers.  Isn’t this what we want in relationships between our dogs and our families? So I say, play on, my friends, play on, and keep it safe.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *