Regain Control Before Retraining
Even seasoned retrievers that are healthy and fit can acquire bad behaviors, says Mike Stewart, owner of Wildrose Kennels in Oxford, Mississippi. Stewart is the trainer and caretaker of DU's official mascot, Deke, and has extensive experience in developing retrievers to their full potential as gun dogs.
"The good news is that older dogs can be retrained if you make training sessions interesting and fun," Stewart says. "However, retraining an older dog can be more difficult than training a young dog from the ground up. With a beginner, you don't have bad habits to overcome; you start right out putting the good stuff in. But with an older dog, you usually have to weed out the bad habits before you can put the good training back in. This takes a lot of consistent repetition in training, and patience on the trainer's part."
When rehabbing an older retriever, a trainer must reestablish what Stewart calls "essential behaviors." These include basic commands such as sit, stay, heel, and place. Compliance with these commands provides the basic obedience needed to progress to more complex training concepts.
In the case of our hypothetical dog Buster, for example, Stewart says a trainer must reestablish control over a retriever that has become used to hunting for himself. This means correcting the dog immediately—and appropriately—when he fails to comply with commands. "You've got to stop any dysfunctional behavior right up front," he says. "This can be a challenge with an older dog that's used to getting his way. But you must regain control over the dog and teach him you're in charge, not him."
Stewart recommends correcting your retriever at the very moment and place of the infraction, so the dog will associate his disobedience with the correction. Corrections should not be too harsh and should be used only to stop unwanted behaviors, says Stewart, who cautions that a trainer should never lose his temper when disciplining a dog.
In addition to weeding out bad habits, trainers should work on encouraging good behavior. For example, when a dog complies with a known command, the trainer should reward him with praise. This is classic positive reinforcement, which will help you replace bad habits with good ones.
Once you reestablish control over an older retriever, you can retrain him by using the same methods you would use on a young dog. "You teach the dog to be steady. You teach him marking, lining, handling [responding to hand signals], honoring, delivering to hand, and other skills, all through various training exercises," Stewart says.
Repetition and consistency in training are essential to getting the desired response from your dog. "You do a drill over and over," Stewart advises. "You also make it clear what you want and that compliance brings a reward, while noncompliance merits an immediate correction."