Balancing Positive And Negative Training: Retrievers

Balancing Positive And Negative Training: Retrievers

Amy Dahl

"I'm delighted to discuss this subject," Amy said, "because so many owners are confused about it. Training programs that stress corrections don't always make the place of rewards clear. Programs that advocate 'totally positive reinforcement' ignore the respectful manner in which a typical retriever responds to clear-cut physical reinforcement of rules."

Amy feels that dogs trained with too many corrections become inhibited and reluctant to try new things, for fear of making mistakes. In extreme cases the dog may quit retrieving altogether.

Conversely, dogs trained with too many rewards never develop proper focus. They obey only when they feel like it, and they refuse challenges.

"At the owners' requests," she said, "I've trained dogs with 'positives only.'

Discouraging such a dog from doing the wrong thing becomes very roundabout. Some-times the required time and contortions so muddy the message that the dog fails to get the point."

Amy said you can spot a dog that has had too much negative training, even if he performs well, by his cautious attitude and reluctance to vary his behavior in any way. If the trainer has made serious mistakes, the dog may have a great fear of some aspects of his work, like water retrieves. You can spot a dog that has had too much positive training by his lack of discipline; the owner usually lacks the leverage necessary to get his dog to try anything difficult.

"Of course," Amy said, "individual temperament makes a world of difference. Almost nothing will dim the enthusiasm of an old-fashioned Labrador; he'll learn rapidly with plenty of no-nonsense corrections. With more sensitive dogs, you must limit the number and severity of corrections.

Training Pointers

Don't miss tips for your pointer, here, or your retriever, here.


"Actually, since retriever training consists mostly in getting the dog to do things, often new things, your day-to-day training can and should be mostly reward-driven."

Amy gave these examples of positive training. In obedience training, she praises the dog calmly as he completes a command, thereby letting him know she's pleased, which speeds learning. She pointed out that marking is mostly positive, in that the retrieve itself is the dog's greatest reward, but she also yells a hearty "Good dog!" as he finds the bird.

In blind retrieve training, she sometimes makes finding the dummy quite easy, thereby ensuring a reward. She sometimes let the dog carry a less than perfect line or cast a long distance, which builds his confidence.

She gave these examples of negative training. In obedience training, after teaching and practicing a command, she then adds corrections for mistakes, like a jerk on the lead or a swat on the rear. In marking, she corrects the dog when he takes roundabout routes going out or coming back, especially if he is avoiding a hazard. In blind retrieves, she said that just stopping the dog is a mild form of punishment. That's why she lets a retriever experience successes in his early blinds before trying to refine his line with lots of whistles and casts.

"I could go on and on," Amy said "for this is one of my favorite subjects! I know that space is limited, but I'd like to make two more quick points. First, dogs learn by doing, which means by constant practice and repetition; rewards and punishments are mostly for the details; therefore the best training sessions always emphasize practice.

"Second, here are two pitfalls you should avoid: Except while forcing on 'Back,' you shouldn't correct a moving dog with the e-collar; and you shouldn't reward your retriever with too many fun-dummies, for this can lead to a lack of effort."

This tip is from Amy Dahl of Oak Hill Kennel, 625 Black Hawk Road, Vass, NC 28394; (910) 245-2603; website; e-mail Amy has been training professionally for 10 years, specializing in retriever training for all breeds that retrieve. She handles retrievers in field trials and hunting tests. She breeds Labradors and Chesapeakes.

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