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How to Handle a Restless Labrador Retriever

Adrienne is a certified dog trainer and former veterinarian assistant who partners with some of the best veterinarians worldwide.

A restless Lab mix I trained last year.

A restless Lab mix I trained last year.

Why Are Some Labradors So Restless?

You know you own a restless Lab when you walk him and he still has loads of energy to spare. There are no bones about it, Buddy's energy levels can literally drive you up the walls. You may scratch your head wondering how Labs can be so notorious for making amazingly controlled service dogs when your Labrador can barely walk on a leash without dragging you for the ride of your life. Fortunately, there are several remedies for turning these power-packed pooches into calmer, better-behaved entities.

Everybody knows that Labradors make wonderful family dogs, but only a few know that they can sometimes be a handful. You can't blame them though, back in history these dogs made excellent working partners. Beginning in the 1700s, they were a fisherman's best friend, hauling nets, fetching ropes, and retrieving fish from the cold waters of the North Atlantic. Then, several years later, Labs became English sportsmen's best buddies as they turned out useful in retrieving downed birds both in water and on land. Now you know why your Lab loves water, is obsessed with chasing birds, and likes to retrieve balls and Frisbee all day long!

After centuries of being selectively bred to have stamina and a strong eagerness to work, you shouldn't be surprised about the aftermath of leaving Buddy cooped up all day home with nothing to do. Don't expect some innocent thumb-twiddling; the saying "an idle mind is a devil's workshop" works best in portraying a restless Lab's mindset. Lack of exercise and boredom will trigger him to find his own little forms of entertainment. Chewing through the drywall, scratching the door, and "de-gutting" your couch can all be part of the fun.

At some point, you may wonder why Molly, your neighbor's Lab, is such a mellow girl compared to your rambunctious Rover. Just as people, dogs come with different energy levels. In a litter of puppies, there are different pups that may range from mellows fellows to high-energy fur balls. A good breeder should have matched you up with the pup of the right energy, even though no guarantees can be made on how a pup will turn out as the environment in which he grows will also play a role in morphing his overall character.

Of course, Labradors coming from working lines with parents who have won several field trials will have more energy than the average Labs raised in a home setting simply to be pets. Dogs from working lines are selectively bred for stamina and an eagerness to get the job done. They are meant to resemble the original Labs that worked countless hours along with hunters and should be strictly matched with highly active owners who are interested in showing or enrolling their dogs in sports.

How Can I Get My Lab to Calm Down?

You may wonder when your restless Lab will finally calm down. The answer is that it varies, but as a general rule of thumb, consider that when it comes to restlessness, generally the younger the Lab, the more you'll see the bull-in-the-china-shop phenomenon. Young Labrador Retrievers tend to romp and jump with vigor, so be prepared to see things go flying, including people who aren't stable on their feet.

Just like bottles of the finest wine, Labrador Retrievers tend to get better and better as they age if you take the time in training them. Generally, expect them to be much calmer once they're past doggie adolescence and are about 3 years old.

At 5, they can be pure gold. Adult Labs tend to have a wonderfully settled temperament, explains author and dog trainer Michele Welton.

If you are planning on getting a Lab but have cold feet over the restlessness factor, your best bet may be to find an adult Lab from a rescue. Adult Labs have settled for the most part and their temperament is much more established compared to a young pup that you're not sure how he will turn out.

Restless Labs and Lab mixes can become calmer!

Restless Labs and Lab mixes can become calmer!

How to Calm a Restless Lab

Most likely, a walk around the block won't cut it with this breed, and forget about the common cliche of a Lab fetching a stick a couple of times; these fellows need more mentally stimulating activities to tire them out.

  • Provide Structure. A good place to start is by providing some structure. Train Buddy to sit before feeding his meal, before being petted, and before snapping the leash on. A good training program to incorporate into a Lab's life is the Learn to Earn, Say Please program, a less militaristic approach to the Nothing in Life Is Free dog training program. Based on the Premack Principle, this program allows a structure in your everyday interactions with your Lab.
  • Get Active. Of course, a tired Lab is a good Lab. One of the great things about restless dogs is that mental stimulation seems to tire them out, at times even better than exercise. Entertain Rover's mind with stimulating games such as food puzzles. Train him to get the newspaper for you. Put his nose to work by hiding his treats around the house. Sniffing is a great way to tire a dog out as it requires a good amount of concentration Take him out and let him swim in a pond or let him romp at the dog park. Last but not least, don't forget to enroll him in a basic training class! This is crucial to establish some basic control around distractions such as other dogs and people.
  • Get to Work. You may not be aware that wonderful things happen when you put a restless Lab to work. These pooches thrive when given something to do, and the best way is through advanced training and doggie sports. Try enrolling Buddy in sports such as agility, flyball, musical canine freestyle, nose work or dock diving. If you want to watch your buddy in action and do what he was bred for, try enrolling him in field trials and hunt tests. These dogs are amazing at retrieving dummies or actual downed birds.

Determine the True Cause of the Restlessness

When most people hear the word restless, they assume the dog is hyper, under-exercised, and eager to run. Yet, in some cases, the term ''restlessness" is used to depict a state of mind that is unusual for the dog. If your Lab is normally calm, and now he's abnormally restless and looks anxious, read on as you may be dealing with a much bigger problem than lack of exercise. In other words, don't be too fast to assume that Buddy's restlessness is due to a lack of training.

If your Lab is suddenly restless and this is quite out of character or you cannot find a good explanation for the behavior, see your vet to rule out any medical conditions. Pain, discomfort, or distress may cause restlessness in dogs. Bloat, for instance, is a life-threatening emergency affecting deep-chested dogs like Labs and can turn even the calmest dog into a restless, anxious animal. On the other paw, if your senior Lab started recently becoming restless, wandering aimlessly during the night, he may have the first signs of canine Alzheimer's disease also known as Canine Cognitive Disorder.

In some cases, restlessness may be a behavior problem. Once your vet gives Buddy a clean bill of health, your next step may be to see a dog behavior professional. In some cases, restlessness may be caused by an underlying behavioral problem. For instance, restless pacing when you leave the house may be triggered by separation anxiety while repeated tail chasing may stem from a compulsive disorder. In some cases, dogs who display frenetic activity, abnormally short attention spans, and highly impulsive behaviors may be suffering from “hyperkinesis," a canine form of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.

*Note: true hyperactivity is known as hyperkinesis, but real cases of this are uncommon. Most dogs that appear hyperactive are simply high-energy dogs who are still capable of focusing on the task but only need their exercise and mental stimulation needs properly channeled.

A Structured Fetch With a Restless Lab Mix

In the video, you will see how I incorporated a sit whilst playing fetch with one of the most restless Labs I met and trained for the shelter. Her name was Tuxie, she had little self-control, easily developed dog barrier frustration, and whilst frustrated, she redirected her frustration on anybody near her, biting and scratching.

She was about to be put down, but her biting was pretty inhibited so they gave her to me to give her a chance. After my arms got countless black and blues from nips and scratches, she fortunately adjusted and was sent to rescue so she could be matched up with the right family. The structured sit prior to the fetch helped her develop self-control and taught her to better deal with her frustration.

© 2013 Adrienne Farricelli


Adrienne Farricelli (author) on February 22, 2013:

Thanks Eiddwen, I have kept them coming for 5 years now, never get tired! Clucy, it's sad when those don't listen. Last year or so, I was called to work on a reactive Lab that lunged and barked at other dogs, people and kids on bikes. Turns out the dog wasn't walked for almost a year or so. Poor Lab was in the yard all day. Turned out, after walking him every day for about 3 weeks, given structured exercise, applying some behavior modification and getting him back to normalcy, his episodes reduced and stopped from occurring. When I called back to check how things were going, the dog was back to zero, the owner confessed he slacked off and couldn't walk him again:( poor lab!

Kristin Tamke from Frederick, MD on February 22, 2013:

Great hub. I assist with a Lab Rescue group and we have many turned in due to their energy level. They are under the impression that a great family dog just happens. When we tell them, you need to exercise, he needs to run, etc, some hear us, some don't. The dog then pays for it when it is returned.

Eiddwen from Wales on February 22, 2013:

For the first time ever I do not have the company of a dog but this doesn't stop me from enjoying your wonderful hubs. Please keep them coming and have a great day.


Adrienne Farricelli (author) on February 21, 2013:

Thanks for stopping by Wetnose. I feel at times that many Lab owners aren't ready for what to expect when they get a pup. I have seen many, many times the "Marley and Me" cliche' but fortunately, they weren't up to the point of considering rehoming the dog. This hub is to help them realize that their Lab is totally normal and that many things can be done to make them less restless. Labs have a soft spot in my heart especially after fostering the Lab mix you see in the video. I still miss her dearly and am happy I was able to help her out.

wetnosedogs from Alabama on February 21, 2013:

This is a great hub to read.

Jenny, part lab, always busy and I had to laugh, cause one of her favorite things is trying to knock me down going to the back door! I swear I don't move fast enough for her. If she ever does get me off my feet, I won't be surprised.