Positive Reinforcement Training for Retrievers

Positive reinforcement training techniques are making waves in the retriever world.

Positive Reinforcement Training for Retrievers

A change is happening in the way retrievers are trained.

It may be subtle, it may be occurring in small increments, and it may be struggling to gain acceptance—particularly among professional trainers—but it is happening, nonetheless. If and when it occurs on a wide scale, it will be a “sea change” in retriever training.

Webster defines sea change as, “a marked change or transformation.” So, it is appropriate to call the change in retriever training, which is also spilling over into training gun dogs of all types, a sea change. For, instead of adhering to long-accepted, dominance-based and compulsion-training techniques, a small but growing number of trainers are beginning to incorporate positive training and reinforcement in their training repertoire.

Balancing Act

These trainers will be the first to tell you that positive training doesn’t work with every dog. There are some hard-headed dogs with attitude that require you to be dominant every minute you work with them. But for some dogs, positive training is the only thing that will work. For others, it requires a balancing act between positive and negative reinforcement, but always leaning toward the positive.


Certainly, the old coercive-training techniques work, and have produced dogs that represented the absolute highest levels of achievement including national and national amateur field championships. But, a lot of potentially good dogs have also been ruined by these methods, in particular the misuse of the e-collar, or blindly sticking to a “training program” when it’s clear that particular program is not working with that dog. So, the trick is figuring out in which category each individual dog belongs, and what’s appropriate reinforcement at each phase of their training.


One problem with positive training for hunting dogs is that there isn’t a plethora of resource and instructional information available. You will probably have to adapt methods that are used by obedience, rally, and agility trainers in their sports. Much of that instruction, however, uses clicker training, and there are dogs—in fact way more than you’d guess— that don’t consider the “clack-clack” of the clicker to be anywhere near an adequate reward. However, most all sporting dogs will respond to praise, pats, treats, or toys as rewards, even if they scorn the clicker.

Another aspect of using positive-training techniques is that you can’t be in a hurry, because positive training requires more patience than old training methods. It takes about more than half as long to teach a dog something using positive techniques as it does using coercive training.

In this story, we’re going to outline some of the things that were done with Bo, the Chesapeake Bay retriever that’s progress as a hunting/hunt-test dog has been highlighted in several previous issues of GUN DOG, and why they were successful with him.

Positive-Reinforcement Principles

Bo is a soft dog. He doesn’t tolerate failure well, and he requires a lot of positive reaction—enthusiastic praise and pats—from whoever is handling him. Here are some of the things we learned with Bo and his trainer, Craig Klein, a professional trainer who owns Fischer’s Kennels and Hunt Club near Albany, Minnesota. Craig has subsequently applied many of these principles to other dogs like him that have come to him for training. He has also effectively used many of these same principles to rehabilitate dogs that were discouraged, including a Chesapeake running in field trials that had a traumatic experience in the water as a pup which, combined with having been pushed too hard in an inflexible training program, had soured to the point that he no longer was willing to go in the water.


hunter petting black lab in field
Photo Credit: Rockhouse Motion

With soft dogs, it is really important to keep things simple and set them up to succeed. Success is very important with these dogs, meaning if the dog fails, either simplify what you are doing, or move on to something the dog knows well in order to end on success. If this means something as rudimentary as some basic obedience, or even a fun game of “fetch/no fetch” where you toss out a half-dozen dummies in a line and walk the dog past them telling him to fetch one as you go past and leave another, that’s what you need to do. Once they’ve been force-fetched, and again we emphasize that “force” does not have to mean pain, fetch/no fetch is a game most dogs love, especially if you make a big fuss when they pick up the dummy and hand it to you. When the dog does something correctly, you should always be their biggest, most vocal fan cheering them on.

It’s important to not lock on to one particular training technique with dogs like Bo. You have to be very flexible and do whatever is necessary to get the desired result. For example, don’t be afraid to incorporate the dog’s favorite toys or bumpers in training. We used one of Bo’s favorite toys, an extra-large Kong Wubba with some pheasant wings attached, when breaking him to the gun, and a favorite dummy, one of Tom Dokken’s Dead Fowl trainers, when introducing him to water.

Don’t nitpick when a dog is first learning a skill. Once the skill is solid, you can work on perfecting it. If a correction is warranted, it’s important to try verbally correcting the dog before pressing any buttons with soft dogs, although this can vary from dog to dog as there are some soft/sensitive dogs that take verbal corrections more personally than a light collar correction. If a correction is necessary, never, ever use more than is absolutely necessary to get the dog’s attention. With soft/sensitive dogs, it’s very easy to discourage them if you get even slightly heavy handed.


With dogs like Bo, confidence is king. Everything you do in training with them should be oriented toward building their confidence in their ability to do their work. Just as importantly, everything you also do with them in training should be geared toward earning and building their trust in you. This becomes exceedingly important when you have to tell them, “dead bird, back” on a blind retrieve. Soft dogs in particular have to have absolute faith that you are telling them the truth—there really is a bird out there somewhere—and if they follow directions, you’ll get them to it.

It cannot be overemphasized just how important lots of birds and lots of fun bumpers are for these dogs. We see it every time we shoot birds for Bo, and others like him, in training. When there is a real bird for them, they go twice as hard on their retrieves, and the same is true on blind retrieves. When they reach the area where the blind has been planted, if it’s a bird, they’ll prance and dance back with their trophy. Dogs know when they succeed, and they really know when they’ve done something special, so you also have let them know how much you appreciate their work.

Just as it is important to train sensitive dogs using positive reinforcement, it’s also equally important for you to maintain a positive attitude. These dogs can especially sense when you are frustrated or upset, and it negatively affects their performance. Most dogs will thrive on the proper ratio of positive to negative reinforcement, and for many soft dogs, that ratio is 95-percent positive, and about five-percent negative. Admittedly, there are some super-driven, hard-headed dogs that need a much higher dose of correction to keep them under control, but sensitive dogs rarely exhibit those characteristics. Most soft dogs want very much to please you and earn your praise.

Does positive training work for a gun dog? Absolutely! And for some dogs, it is the only training method that will succeed. Bo is a fine hunting dog and a joy to hunt with for both waterfowl and upland birds. He is much in demand by both family members and the professional guides at his shooting preserve. Positive reinforcement makes training much more enjoyable for both the dog and the trainer, which, after all, is one of the main objectives. Give it a try. You may see a sea change with your dog.

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