D ear Old Trainer: Buddy, my 4-year-old yellow Lab, is a wonderful dog. He used to be wild and hard to control, but I used your methods and now he sits, stays on command and is a pleasure – except for one thing. He is so obsessed with retrieving a ball that he just goes wild, barking and jumping on me, and refusing to do anything until I throw it. What do I do? – Wynne, Colma
Dear Wynne: Buddy is just being a Lab. Retriever genes are pounding in his veins, and he loves bringing that ball to you so much he can’t think of anything else.
On my morning walk along the shore of Lake Tahoe I pass a dozen Labs, each with a pine cone, waiting for someone, anyone, to come by and throw it in the lake so they can bring it back. Like Blanche DuBois in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” they depend on the kindness of strangers. No one can throw a ball enough to satisfy a Lab so they are there all day, waiting for the next walker.
The way you train Buddy is to use the obsession against him. You reward him with the thing he wants most, but only if does what you want first.
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Take his ball out to the yard and order him to sit. He knows the command. If he doesn’t sit, it shows he is intent on his desires instead of your orders. Put the ball in your pocket and give the command again. When he sits, take the ball out. If he stands up, put the ball back in your pocket and order him to sit.
Do this as many times as it takes until he remains sitting after you take the ball out. If he continues to act up, order him to sit, give him a lecture and go back in the house. Come back and try it later in the day.
Same thing with barking. If he barks, put the ball away, grasp his muzzle and say, “no barking.”
He has to learn he does not even get to see the ball, let alone retrieve it, until he is willing to sit, without barking, while you hold the ball.
When he finally does it, pet him and praise him, and throw the ball. Go through the same routine every time he brings it back. As long as he sits without barking after bringing the ball back, keep throwing it for him. When he doesn’t, the ball goes back in your pocket (wear an old jacket, a ball gets slimy in no time when a Lab is involved).
Once he retrieves without the barking and jumping, drop the sit command. It’s fine for Buddy to be excited and energetic. You want him to have fun. If he gets too excited, go back to the basics until he calms down.
Throw the ball for him every day. It helps with discipline if he knows he gets to do the thing he loves most with the person he loves most. After all, the reason he loves retrieving is because he is doing it for you.