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Retriever Training from Day One

Puppy training should start the moment you pick up your new gun dog.

Retriever Training from Day One
Photo Credit: John Hafner

It’s all too common to talk to puppy owners who delay training so that their dog can get a little older and understand things better. This is a big mistake. The best window in which to introduce training is the moment you get your hands on your new puppy.

In fact, I recommend you literally start the moment you pick up your puppy. Since you’ll be holding him and keeping him from the ground and his littermates, he’s most likely going to start squirming to get back to the ground and back to his brothers and sisters.

At this point, you have two choices. If you set the puppy down when it does start to resist, you’re sending the message that he’s in control. You don’t want that. Instead, you want to establish pack order with your pup by putting slight pressure on him (a light squeeze with your arms). He’s not going to like this, and will inevitably struggle more. When he does, increase the pressure by holding him a little bit tighter. Depending on how hard-headed your new retriever is, this might last for a few seconds, or it might be a minute-long rodeo. Either way, the pup will eventually relent and relax, and the moment he does, you let the pressure off. If he struggles again, the pressure comes back. You want to be able to do about an eight-count with the relaxed puppy before you give him what he wants, which is to be back on the ground.

This teaches the dog that he’s in control of the pressure, and if he wants it gone (he does), then he needs to behave a certain way.

When you get the puppy home, you’ll want to do this drill a dozen times a day, not only for yourself, but also any family members who might need to handle the dog (all of them, typically). This is easy to do with a seven-week-old puppy, but not so much with a 40-pound, nine-month-old dog, so take care of it early.

Treat Training for Obedience

As soon as your pup will take a kibble of dog food from your hand, he’s ready to start some simple obedience. For Labs and many breeds of retrievers, this can start the moment you pull into the driveway with them. The goal is to get your new pup to understand he has to work for his food, and that he should be looking you in the eye for direction.

To establish this, I like to get down to the ground level with a puppy and let him smell the treat or kibble in my hand. When the pup is focused on the treat, I lift my hand up slightly so he has to look up, and gently put pressure on his hind end while giving the “sit” command. The dog will usually sit with only slight pressure, and as soon as his butt hits the ground, he gets his reward.

This simple drill does several things besides establishing the “sit” command. It lays the foundation for eye contact, because the puppy will focus on your hand, which you can bring right up to your face when you give a command. It also allows you to work on the “come” command, because the dog will quickly learn that if he goes to you when it’s training time, he gets a reward (eventually). This also allows you to transition the dog into the “down” command, which works just like sit but you put pressure right between his shoulders as you give the directive. All of this is incredibly simple and easy to do in the house, and it’s all necessary.

You can also use this strategy to establish crate or kennel training. I like to feed my dogs in their crates, so they associate them with something positive. But to get them willing to go in and to understand their command, it’s a matter of holding a kibble in my hand and leading the dog in while giving the “kennel up” command.

Each of these simple treat-training lessons establishes the platform for your dog to learn he is in control of the reward. He’s not forced to do anything, but instead is given the chance to make a decision that will result in him getting what he wants—which is also exactly what you want out of him.

Advanced Puppy Training

When you’re dealing with a well-bred pup, these initial lessons usually go smoothly, and they allow you to advance your training. For example, the kibble-in-hand trick works to get pups to “place” by simply leading them up onto something while giving the command. Just make sure to use an elevated platform, so the dog actually has to get up onto something and it’s clear whether he’s on or off.

Throughout all of these early steps, you’re also setting the groundwork for hand signals and steadiness, which are things that all good gun dogs will have to learn. Eventually, you’ll be able to phase out the treats and work in praise and encouragement, but with a seven- to 12-week-old puppy, there is nothing wrong with leaning on a caloric reward for each good decision he makes. In fact, it’s the best way to get your new puppy to comply with whatever you want him to do. And what you want him to do is learn to be a good dog that you can control.

So, don’t be shy about training as soon as you get your hands on your new retriever.

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