Retrievers: The First Six Months

This formative period is often the most crucial time in a retriever's life

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Photo © Adam Rodgers

By Gary Koehler

Dog training can be a challenging endeavor, particularly for a novice working with his or her first retriever. If you acquire a puppy, your patience may be tested far more during the first six months of ownership than at any other time.

It's important to recognize right from the start that your puppy knows almost nothing at seven or eight weeks of age. Once home, the pup becomes a student. And you are his primary teacher.

Your first order of business should be teaching your pup to do his business in the yard. Some pups catch on quickly. Others take longer to convince that outside is the place to go. Timing is everything when it comes to housebreaking a puppy. The best approach is to have a couple of free days to spend with him after bringing him home. Long weekends are ideal. This way, you are on hand to take the pup outside when nature calls. Weather can play a role, too. Cold, snowy months in northern states are not the ideal time to introduce a puppy to potty training. Who can blame a pup for balking when it's below zero outside and 68 degrees inside?

A pup should be taken outside as soon as you see that he is moving into a position to relieve himself. Firmly say "no." Then give the command "out" and immediately take the pup out into the yard. The pup should be taken outside to do its business on a consistent schedule, about every two hours. Everyone in the family can help with this. Take the pup outside after every feeding, and be sure to do the same before you go to bed at night and first thing in the morning. Do not feed him or give him water less than two hours before bedtime.

Those fortunate enough to have a fenced backyard may assume that the answer to their problem is to simply leave the pup outside. This is not a good idea. There are far too many hazards that an unsupervised pup may encounter. If your pup must be left alone, put him in his crate. This will keep him safe, comfortable, and clean, since few puppies will mess where they sleep.

Puppies have needlelike teeth and love to chew on things. A friend lost the right shoe of a high-end pair of sneakers to his yellow Lab. Another buddy had a wooden duck call on his lanyard scarred with puppy teeth marks. Furniture, clothing, and power cords are other likely targets. That's the way it is. To avoid these problems, do not leave dangerous or valuable items lying around.

Watch a puppy with his littermates and you will see plenty of nipping among the siblings. Some of this behavior is playful, but it can turn aggressive. Kayla, my late Chesapeake Bay retriever, was a nipper and chewer to a fault as a puppy. She did not bother household goods, but rather favored my fingers, wrists, and forearms. It took me a while to figure out that this was her way of showing dominance-a mindset that had to be changed. The handler must be the dominant figure. If not, the dog will eventually become the boss of your household.

To help ensure a well-adjusted dog, expose your pup to other people and dogs, as well as to a wide variety of sights, sounds, and smells outside the home. Make time for play, shower your pup with attention, and provide plenty of affection.

The key to surviving a puppy's first six months is teaching acceptable behavior patterns. Use common sense. Anticipate problems. Establish a sound foundation. Provide correct basic training from the start and you are less likely to find yourself breaking your dog's bad habits later-which is a much more difficult task.

Related: 6 Essential Commands for Retrievers | Puppy Selection Tips