My 5-1/2 year-old lab has recently exhibited a troubling new fetching behavior the last few months. After ten minutes or so of playing he will refuse to drop the ball. He will not drop it when asked, which seems strange for an otherwise obedient, fetch-crazy dog. Since the fetch light illuminated in his puppy brain years ago, he's always dropped the ball at my feet after a retrieve. He now excitedly stands there next to me, ball locked in his jaw, as if he's waiting for me to throw it again. He'll even lower his snout to the ground as if he's dropping it, but will simply reposition his grip on the ball instead of letting go. During this "lockjaw" phase he will follow any number of commands such as sit, stay and down - seemingly everything but "drop it". I've tried a couple of times to remove the ball myself, but I'm afraid that he'll clamp down on my fingers. I've tried crossing my arms, turning my back, and refusing the play as a way to let him know that his actions have stopped the fun. No luck. During these episodes he has a vacant, "far away" look in his eyes. It's almost as if he's trapped in some kind of manic moment. He will not let go of the ball for water or treats. I leash him up, take him home, and put him in a down-stay in the backyard. He'll eventually let go of the ball after 15 minutes or so and will come inside.
Have any of you experienced anything like this with your labs? Could he be experiencing some kind of mental lapse due to overexertion? I am conscientious about giving him rest after a few retrieves, but maybe his drive has finally surpassed his physical abilities. Could this be a different issue? I'm sad because this behavior effectively stops the joy of fetch for us both.
I had a similar issue with one of my labs a few years ago. Boo lived to retreive anything and everything. He was very smart and had a dominant personality. At about 5 years old, he suddenly decided to clamp onto the ball and not release it. He would sit, roll over, give paw, heel and most anything else but he would not release the ball on the "give" command.
I saw this as a natural challenge to me being the pack leader. I resolved it by keeping my (gloved) hand on the outside of the ball that he had clamped down in his mouth. Periodically, I would gently try to remove the ball from his mouth and he would clamp down harder. I kept some tension on the ball in his mouth so he would continue to clamp down. Eventually his jaw would become very tired and he would release it. I won every one of these battles and the time between the initial clamp down and release became less and less. Then all of a sudden, he stopped the behavior entirely.
In my experience, the worst thing you can do is let him "win" the battle of wills. It only reinforces the behavior and not only makes this behavior worse but also spills over to other undesireable dominent behavior.