Labrador retrievers are known for their amazing good looks, lovability, sweetness, happiness and exuberance for life. They are #1 on the AKC's most popular dog list for a reason. Labs have not only been our loyal companion and family dogs for a very long time, but they have also been bred to be bird retrievers that are made to hunt, run and swim all day by their owner's side. The old English lab has been bred to be a little more on the mellow side, but the American field lab has been bred to be very athletic and full of energy with longer legs. Labs make such wonderful pets, but it's very important to understand that they need a lot of exercise, off-leash fun and play time with other doggy pals.
This month's Zen Dog Award goes to Luca! Luca is a very lovable, sweet, exuberant, happy lab with a lot of energy that needed to be redirected into zenergy! Luca's dedicated owners, Sal and Chris, called us to help him out with Luca's hyperactivity, pulling on the leash, chewing and destructive behaviors. One of the first sessions that we had together, Sal asked me, "Is Luca one of the most out of control dogs that you've ever worked with?". "Not at all, he's not a bad dog in the least bit," I responded.
Luca is a very big, ten month old puppy who has been very loved, but has been cooped up in the house a little too much. Like any lab, he just needed outlets for his built up energy. Chewing up his beds, towels, glasses and anything else that he could get a hold of was a fun way to keep himself entertained and to get a lot of attention. A well-exercised puppy learns that outside time is a chance to get out all of his or her crazy energy, and that inside time is for laying around and chilling. Off-leash play, playing fetch, wrestling with other puppies and lots of walks and jogs are perfect for unleashing your pup's pent up energy. If your puppy grows up without these activities, they are being 'trained' to be hyperactive, antsy, impulsive and destructive because they are not getting conditioned to being lazy and mellow in the house. It's like a pot of boiling water with a lid on it, the steam will eventually put pressure on the lid and everything will boil over. The energy has to go somewhere, and if you let a puppy decide how they want to expend it, they will most likely do it in a way that you don't approve of- eating furniture, shredding paper, ruining window blinds, etc.
Luca needed to let off steam, but in order to do this, we had to teach him all of the basic commands and capture his attention and focus so that we would be able to take him off-leash to really run. His owners had already done a good job of teaching him 'sit', 'watch' and 'leave it', so we expanded upon these commands by adding in distractions and working on these commands outside. We also taught him what the clicker means and used it to teach him 'down', 'stay', 'go to your bed', 'heel' and 'back'. Doing lots and lots of 'down-stays', 'leave it', and long 'watches' have turned the bouncy, impulsive Luca into a dog who is learning to look to us for permission to be given access to things that he wants instead of just lunging for it and pulling with all of his might to get to it. With lots of patience and counter-conditioning, Luca has learned that pulling gets him nowhere and that if he pulls we will stop and 'be a tree', until he calms down, heels by our side and looks up at us. With his owners' dedication, his walking has improved tremendously, however, we are still working on keeping calm when he sees other dogs. The first time that we ever walked him towards the park he was a wild fish on the end of a line. Now he's understanding that keeping calm will get him to the park gate faster. Now that he's going to the park and running around with other dogs, his desire to interact with them and play is being granted, if he stays calm when walking to the dog park gate etc. After he runs around the park for a bit, we do heel work in the field right outside of the park. We started out about 100 ft. away from the dog park because that's as far as he could tolerate and still give us attention. After four sessions, he's able to walk in a heel along the side walk with all of the other dogs on the other side of the fence. For Mr. Luca, this is a very big accomplishment. It's so fun to watch his progress and to see his owner really put in the effort. Luca absolutely loves going to the park and running huge circles with his nose to the ground looking for tennis balls. Even though he hasn't had a ton of socialization with other pups, he avoids confrontation and enjoys their company. He doesn't really know how to play with other dogs, but we have been encouraging the behavior anytime he shows interest in another dog. He loves doing what labs do best- playing a good game of fetch! However, instead of just chasing the ball and bringing it back over and over, he has to work for the ball by doing a sit-stay, down-stay, heel, watch etc., before we throw the ball for him. Our next goal is to take Luca to dog beach so that he can really be a lab and jump around in the water!
The most rewarding part of the whole positive reinforcement training experience is watching dogs and their owners create a fun, trusting, positive relationship with one another. Sal and Luca are best buddies and now instead of Sal getting frustrated with him, he's able to communicate with him and resolve unwanted behaviors with understanding and patience. It's so wonderful working with dog owners who really want to learn and be trained so that they can give their dogs their best effort. Sal and his wife, Chris, love Luca so very much and they have been so great to work with. It makes me love my job even more than I already do!
Keep up the great work Sal, Chris and Luca! Just remember, a tired dog (mentally and physically) is a good dog and a good is a Zen dog. Happy training! : )