Will My Lab Ever Calm Down? Managing Your Lab’s Energy

Labradors are fun, family dogs, but their adolescent years can be a craze of chaos-filled Labrador exuberance.

Learning how to manage your Labrador’s energy is critical to successfully transitioning your Labrador from juvenile delinquent to balanced adult while still keeping your sanity intact!

Labradors are physically mature at 2yrs old but only calm down when they achieve mental maturity at 4yrs. Approximately 15% of Labradors have ADHD with life-long hyperactivity. A Labrador’s energy needs to manage through a combination of physical exercise, mental stimulation, and training.

A Labrador’s natural Joie De Vie can leave their owners feeling less than optimistic about their ability to control their crazy Lab; however, hope is not lost!

Most Labradors will reach a life stage when they naturally calm down, and the preceding high-energy years can be made more pleasant by meeting your Labrador’s needs and shaping their behavior.

Lab looking up

Working Labradors Vs. Show Labradors

Many breeders have chosen to specialize their breeding programs based on their Labrador puppies’ future career: working gundog, pet, therapy dog, or guide dog.

The purpose-driven breeding of Labradors allows breeders to select the Labrador parents based on their performance within a specific work-home environment.

The most common trait variances between working and show Labradors are hyperactivity (energy), vigilance (inattention), impulsivity, and confidence (fearfulness).

  Working Labrador Show (Pet) Labrador Therapy/Guide Labrador
Hyperactivity High Low Moderate
Vigilance High Low High
Impulsivity Moderate Low Low
Confidence Moderate to High Low to Moderate Moderate to High

Working Labradors are the most active but the easiest to train as they are selected for their ability to work all day with their owner while remaining focused on the task. Pet Labradors bred from show lines are less active but are also more challenging to train.

(Source: Scientific Reports; Frontiers in Veterinary Science; Applied Animal Behaviour Science)

Labrador Maturation: Neurological And Physical

At birth, Labrador puppies are physically and neurologically immature.

During the post-natal period, the puppies’ brains and bodies develop quickly, with the rate of maturation slowing as the final maturity levels are reached.

A Labrador’s growth and maturity are measured according to two different parameters, which influence when they will begin to calm down and what activities can be done to manage your Labrador’s energy.

Mental Maturity

Labradors mature more slowly than small dog breeds. During their first year of life, a Labrador will transition from being a puppy to an adolescent.

Labradors achieve sexual maturity between 6 to 15 months, with males maturing earlier than females.

However, the ability to produce offspring does not automatically transform the Labrador into a mature adult.

In their second year of life, Labradors are considered adolescents and only deemed mentally mature at 3 to 4 years. 

By 4 years of age, most Labradors will show decreased energy levels and impulsivity with increased trainer-orientated focus and attention.

Physical Maturity

A Labrador’s skeletal growth is dependent on the closure rate of the growth plates.

Once the growth plate has closed, the bone can no longer elongate, and the Labrador will stop growing upwards.

A Labrador achieves their final height between 10 to 12 months when the tibia, femur, and humerus close.

Once the growth plates have closed, the Labrador will begin to gain muscle mass and body fat.

A Labrador is considered fully grown between 18 months to 2 years, depending on the individual dog.

A Labrador’s physical growth is linked to the amount and type of exercise they need. Before growth plate closure, Labradors should not be forced to engage in strenuous or repetitive activities that can cause microfractures and premature closure of their growth plates. 

However, young Labradors will still benefit from free play, controlled exercise, and structured training to improve their attention, energy management, muscle development, and bone density.

(Sources: Hills Pet; Journal of Orthopaedic Research)

Do Some Labradors Have ADHD?

Most Labrador owners are horrified to learn that dogs, like humans, can have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

Numerous studies have documented significant differences between the neuro-developmental performance, imaging, and blood works of Labradors diagnosed with ADHD.

ADHD Labradors account for 15% to 20% of the Labrador population.  

These Labradors display increased hyperactivity, impulsivity, and inattention that persists beyond 4 years of age.

However, these ADHD Labradors can be managed by altering their diets, exercise routine, time spent with their owners, and training intensity.

(Sources: Science Daily; Translational Psychiatry)

A 3-Part Approach To Managing A Labrador’s Energy

Lab in yard laying

A Labrador has been bred to be an intelligent, active working dog; thus, they possess both mental and physical energy, which must be given a productive outlet.

A Labrador’s energy can be managed through:

  1. Physical activity
  2. Mental stimulation
  3. Structured training

Outlets For A Labrador’s Physical Energy

In the first year of life, owners must carefully monitor the quantity and quality of exercise a Labrador receives.

Labrador puppies forced to engage in strenuous exercise will suffer life-long damage to their growing skeletons.

The amount of structured exercise (e.g., on-leash walking) a Labrador can safely tolerate is calculated with the formula:

Labrador’s age (months) x 5 minutes = Daily Structured Exercise Requirements

Thus, a 5-month-old Labrador can happily tolerate a 25-minute walk, while a year-old Labrador can manage a 1-hour long walk.

After 12 months, a Labrador’s structured exercise can be increased from 1 to 3 hours if needed. However, it is essential to split the daily exercise into training intervals to prevent physical injury and overexertion.

During downtime, Labradors should be allowed to voluntarily regulate their activity and free play.

Swimming As A Physical Exercise For Labradors

As a breed, Labradors love to swim! They’re bred to be water-loving dogs, and it shows, in their water-proof coat, proficient technique and delight in all things aquatic.

Swimming offers many advantages for Labradors:

  1. Swimming burns more calories than running, so Labradors will expend more energy in a shorter period.
  2. It is safe to let juvenile (e.g., 8 months and older), adult, and senior Labradors swim or wade through water, as swimming does not over-stress vulnerable joints.
  3. Early desensitization teaches Labradors to be confident and safe around water.
  4. During hot summers, Labradors still get their daily exercise by swimming; swimming limits the risk of overheating.
  5. It gets working Labradors swimming fit in preparation for the hunting season.

(Sources: PetMD; PetMD – Hydrotherapy)

Productive Uses For A Labrador’s Mental Energy

We’ve all heard of that Labrador, who is running his owner ragged despite receiving plenty of exercise every day.

These hyperactive Labradors need a job or activity that allows them to use their brains as much as their bodies.

A bored Labrador is a machine of chaos, and the only cure for it is to give your Labrador a constructive outlet for all their unused mental energy.

Activities that require a Labrador to think their way through a problem allow them to develop their cognitive capabilities, curiosity and focus.

(Sources: ASPCA; AKC)

Jobs And Activities Which Engage A Labrador’s Mind And Body

Hyperactive Labradors and Labradors from working lines benefit from intensive activities like:

  1. Gundog training
  2. Scent training; Sally Gutteridge has written an informative book on using scent training to manage a high-energy dog.
  3. Low-level agility and obstacle courses; Labradors should not be encouraged to jump too much.
  4. Advanced retrieval training
  5. Training to be an “assistance dog,” e.g., guide dog
  6. Advanced trick training

Enrichment Activities For Lower Energy Labradors

Enrichment activities allow your Labrador to engage in instinctual behavior without fear of punishment, i.e., they can participate in owner-encouraged and thus “legal” chewing, digging, tracking, and playing.

Convalescing Labradors or pet Labradors from show lines benefit from low to moderately intense enrichment activities, like:

  1. Obedience training
  2. Enrichment toys like this snuffle matt and this puzzle dispenser
  3. Basic trick training

Shay Kelly and Allie Bender have written comprehensive, easy-to-follow books on the various strategies owners can use to enrich their Labradors’ lives.

The Importance Of Training To Manage Energy

Energy management requires that owners:

  1. Allow their Labradors to exercise their minds and bodies
  2. Teach their Labrador to self-regulate and manage their energy levels.

Owners can teach Labradors to manage their energy in distracting environments or high-energy days by working on focus and impulse control.

Training Exercises To Teach Focus And Impulse Control

Training exercises that will help a Labrador work on these aspects include:

  1. Basic and advanced obedience work
  2. A look-at-me or “focus” command
  3. Crate training or a “settle” command
  4. Leave it, e.g., leave food and focus on their handler
  5. Off-leash or distance work
  6. Fetch a specific target in a decoy-littered field

Ensuring Your Labradors Training Sessions Are Productive

It’s essential to set your Labrador up for success by:

  1. Ensuring they are not overly excited before training
  2. Using logical, systematic training approaches
  3. Incorporating positive reinforcement and your Labrador’s natural preferences (e.g., tug-of-war, fetch, physical affection, etc.) as a reward
  4. Be consistent when working with your Labrador – consistency is the foundation of reliable, long-term training consolidation.

Why Is Play As Important As Training?

Labradors who engage in owner-play post-training show improved memory consolidation after a fewer number of training repetitions.

On average, Labradors who had a post-training play period learned a task after 26 repetitions, whereas Labradors with a post-training rest period required 43 repetitions to learn the same task.

In addition to this, Labradors with a post-training play session showed decreased cortisol levels.

Cortisol in Labradors is a stress hormone linked to a heightened emotional state and anxiety-related behaviors, e.g., excessive barking, separation anxiety, and an inability to calm down and relax.

(Sources: Physiology and Behaviour)

Lab sitting in yard

Final Thoughts

Labradors will begin to calm down at approximately 4 years old unless they have ADHD. All Labradors benefit from a 3-part approach to energy management which includes:

  1. Physical Activity
  2. Mental stimulation: enrichment and activities with a purpose
  3. Training to encourage focus and impulse control

Leave a comment

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