20 Rules of Retriever Training

The owner of Wildrose Kennels has developed the following set of core principles for producing a finished duck dog

Photo © DAYSAFIELDPHOTOGRAPHY.COM

By Mike Stewart

No. 1

Dogs are looking for a leader. From the second you pick your prospect, whatever his age, the dog will want to know who's in charge and where he fits in the pack.

No. 2

If dogs can't find a leader, they will attempt to become one. Often the pup will do so in very dysfunctional ways, such as chewing, messing in the house, and becoming possessive with objects. Older dogs may ignore commands and destroy things, even becoming aggressive or territorial.

No. 3

What is conditioned in the pup between six weeks and six months of age won't go away. That's the way nature set it up. Canines are genetically predisposed to pick up their mother's behavior right out of the den. As the pack leader, you need to imprint the behaviors you want from day one. Put in the good stuff and avoid the bad. You and other family members entrench behaviors during every interaction with your pup. Sometimes what you do is less important than what you don't do.

No. 4

Don't condition in a problem that must be trained out later. Things such as chase, tug-of-war, chew toys, free swimming, romping with other dogs, and free running are all undesirable behaviors that must be trained out. Even playing games like fetch can promote unsteadiness. 

No. 5

Make haste slowly. Make sure that each level of your training is thoroughly understood before moving to the next level. Establish good foundational skills. Be progressive; link lessons together in causal relationships in which one skill automatically involves the next. Don't exceed your pup's capacity to understand and retain lessons. If you want to train a dog fast, go slow. 

No. 6

Solve one problem at a time. If the dog has several problems, address the most basic problem or core skill and solve that first. For instance, if you have a retriever that breaks, is spooked by gunfire, and won't bring the bumper back when sent for a retrieve, the first thing to resolve is bringing back the bumper. If you try to resolve all the difficulties at once, you may overwhelm the dog. Stop worrying about the other two and correct the most basic problem, which is retrieving to hand.

No. 7

If it's not right at heel, it won't be right in the field. This is a simple concept. Core skills such as sit, recall, sit to flush, and steadiness to denials need to be solid when the dog is very close to you, during yard work, before you move on to field training. If you're walking with your dog at heel, for example, and you blow the sit whistle and he won't stop or sit as you keep walking, then he's not going to stop at a hundred yards, particularly if there is some stimulus like a bird, gunfire, or another dog present.

No. 8

Get it right on land before going to the water, unless you're really fond of swimming. How do you teach a skill, provide assistance, or correct the dog in the water? Master any skill on the ground before going to the water.

No. 9

Dogs are place-oriented. This works in both a positive and negative way. Dogs live in the present, the "now." But they have great recall about being in a particular location, even though they don't transfer skills well from one place to another. You have to train a skill in multiple locations to ensure that a predictable habit has been established. You can use this concept to your advantage to entrench a behavior. You can also return to a place of success, if necessary, to reestablish confidence or simplify a lesson. That said, if you encounter a problem or have an experience in one place that proves to be negative or even traumatic, the dog will remember that location as well. Move to another place to resolve the issue. A negative experience in one location will not be forgotten for a long time. Change the place, the environment, and the situation.

No. 10

Memories before hand signals; hand signals before marks. This is almost the opposite of typical retriever training methods. The concept may apply to pointers and setters as well. Accomplish the harder things first. It is easier to develop memory in a younger dog than in an older one. Throwing a bumper and immediately sending the dog gives him independence and promotes unsteadiness. I want the dog to be interdependent, working with me first. Memory retrieves, including doubles and triples, create situations requiring the dog to be more dependent on our relationship and to rely on his own memory. Hand signals, casting, and whistle work are interdependent exercises that should be introduced at a young age. The last skill you should concentrate on is the independence of marking or free hunting. The order to follow is dependent first (memory and obedience), interdependent second (whistle and handling), and independent last (hunting and marks).

No. 11

Dogs live in the present, so match their mindset. Focus on the dog and stay in the moment. Dogs know when you're not paying attention. A handler needs to work in the present. Although dogs have great place recall, they're not worried about the past or the future. They live right in the moment. If you're thinking about something else while interacting with your dog, you may compromise your communication. Dogs need to see your eyes. Forget sunglasses, texting, and multitasking; hide the cell phone and engage your student.

No. 12

Dogs are pleasure seekers. They will repeat behaviors that bring them desired rewards. You control the pleasure or rewards. The dog will associate a performance with a desirable reward and likely repeat that behavior again. What you don't want is a retriever out on an independent frolic receiving pleasure from the experience. A prime example is a dog that breaks, runs around unresponsive to the handler's commands, and then is rewarded with finding a bird. In training, dogs will continue to engage in activities that bring rewards. Capitalize on that concept.

No. 13

Training is habit formation through repetition, consistency, and reinforcement with rewards. That's the direct opposite of avoidance training with force. Over time, your young retriever will stay in place because he is rewarded, not because he fears punishment. Later the behavior becomes entrenched as a predictable habit. Reward behavior you want to retain, or it will fade out. A dog that honors another retrieve, sits quietly and calmly in the blind, and doesn't whine should be rewarded just as much as a dog that made a great retrieve. Always reward the most valuable behavior.

No. 14

A dog will not follow unstable leaders. As a reminder, the four Cs of leadership are Calm, Controlled, Confident, and Consistent. 

No. 15

Instinct can be overcome by training, but instinctive behavior needs to be replaced with something of value to the dog. A retriever may not automatically deliver to hand, but he may have an enormous prey drive—the desire to run out, get something, and carry it or run with it. Through training, you can reinforce retrieving to hand by modifying the dog's natural instinct to pick up and carry and then rewarding the delivery. Pointers may point, but may not back. Flushers without training may run up birds or fail to remain steady to flush. Proper training can modify instinctive behaviors.

No. 16

First trust, then respect. You must establish the leadership relationship first through trust, then respect. A canine-human relationship is not about love or compassion; it is about respect. Dogs follow leaders in whom they have confidence.

No. 17

Under stimulus or excitement, animals revert to the most familiar behavior or habit that has been entrenched. The dog's proper response becomes an absolute, predictable reaction despite the presence of stress, distraction, or confusion. The performance or reaction you're going to get under pressure is the most entrenched behavior, the default response. In these situations, a well-trained dog will perform by mindless reaction. His default behavior under stimulus will take precedence. Be sure that each skill is trained to absolute habit, a reaction.

No. 18

Train, don't test. Repeat each skill until it becomes almost second nature. Dogs don't learn through failure. The goal in training is to set the dog up to win, repeating the lesson in different locations to establish a predictable habit. You do want to challenge the dog's performance occasionally, but if the fundamental skills are not present the dog will fail. Challenging lessons are acceptable as long as skills are in place for the dog to 
be successful.

No. 19

If what you're doing in training is not working, back up. When faced with a failure, a common mistake is to keep trying, which often results in repeated failures. Then frustration sets in, a lack of trust develops, and the training session breaks down. The tendency is to go back out the next day and attempt the same technique again. Wrong! If a couple of attempts to complete an exercise don't work, back up a few steps to the familiar. Revisit the last skills that the dog has thoroughly mastered, and then armed with success, build out from those. Simplify the task, change locations, change the bumper, and switch from whistle to voice. Vary the orientation, help the dog achieve success, and then push ahead.

No. 20

Never give a command that you cannot reinforce. A correction should be given only at the place and time of the infraction. If you are in a position in which you cannot reinforce a command, don't give it. 


Excerpted from Mike Stewart's book Sporting Dog and Retriever Training: The Wildrose Way. For more information, visit the Wildrose Kennels website at uklabs.com. Stewart is president of Wildrose Kennels in Oxford, Mississippi. He has more than 30 years of experience training retrievers, including the official DU dogs, Drake and Deke.