I don’t know why people spend so much time naming their new pup.  For the first 4 months of the dog’s life he will think his name is “No”.  Every time he really starts to enjoy himself, his owner will shout out his new name “NO!” No simply means stop what you are doing.  Rather than just say no, let’s give him some direction.

There have been countless articles, videos, and books demonstrating how to train retrievers.

Let’s try a slightly different approach.  We will take a fictional dog named “Jessie”, an eight week old retriever, through all the socialization, obedience, drills, marking and blind work until she is a finished retriever.   We will explore each step over the coming months not just what to do but why we are doing it.  By the time we have completed her training, your dog will be ready to run in Master Hunt Tests or Field Trials.

Every dog is different in various strengths and weaknesses.  This means we cannot have an inflexible approach to training.  We must however, have a program, a master plan with clear objectives.

Dr. Michael Fox, an animal behaviorist, coined the term “The Critical Period of Socialization”.  This is the time from when a pup is 7 weeks old until he is 7 months old.  This is the period when the personality of the dog is set in stone.  Behavior patterns after this period can be modified but only with great effort and patience.  As a veterinarian with a house call practice, behavioral issues consumed most of my time. Clients called me because their pets were persona non grata at their local veterinary hospital.  Almost all these problems were created during the critical period of socialization.

How does this relate to training?  A pup that has been properly socialized is far easier to train than one who has never been exposed to the world.  Ensure that each exposure with your pup is a positive one regarding people, other dogs, car rides, experiencing water for the first time. Be sure you do this before the pup is 7 months old.  Training and exposure to the world must be positive and enjoyable.

Never get angry at your dog.  To you and in his world, you are God.  When God is angry only bad things can result.  I have heard many trainers say “He is defying me”.  In most cases the dog simply does not understand what you want.  Rex Carr would say “Always give your dog an out”.  What does that mean?    It means if you find yourself in a situation where things are going south, stop and SIMPLIFY.  End the session on a successful note not when the both of you are mentally and physically exhausted from the encounter.

Rex was the first trainer who developed a program.  It was a pyramid of concepts and commands.  The cardinal rule was that the dog must learn every step of the lowest level perfectly before going to the next level.  If you jump to the next level too soon you have more holes in your program than Swiss cheese.  Bill Totten has created a diagram showing the Pyramid Training Program.  It shows the beginning steps for a full program to train a retriever.  If you ever have the opportunity to train with Bill, take it.  Please refer back to this diagram as we go through the Pyramid.

Click image to enlarge

The first command a pup should learn is “Sit”.  Choose any method that works for you to accomplish this command but it must be complete and absolute. One hint, don’t say “sit”, “sit” “sit”.  Say it once and then assist you pup to sit.  Once he has learned it, you are in a position to demand it. If you say “Sit “Sit “Sit” you are teaching the dog to sit after 3 commands.  Give him the command and then enforce it.  If you find that he is regressing, simplify and go back to a level where you had success.

I have been asked by trainers “Why teach him to him to sit first, I want him to come to me.  So I teach him “Here” or “Come”.  The answer is when a dog is under direct or indirect pressure later on in life, he will bolt to you because that is what you have taught him to do.  You have taught him that behavior is the safe thing to do.  If “Sit” is the first command, you can stop any undesirable or unwarranted behavior and correct it without him trying to climb into your pants pocket.

Once you and your ward have mastered “Sit” advance to the next level.  Have him “Sit” when he is a few feet away from you.  Have him walk with you at heel and say “Sit” while simultaneously blowing a whistle.  After a few times stop saying “Sit” and just blow the whistle.  You will find in a short time you can just blow the whistle and he will sit even if he is several yards away from you.  If he starts to regress, simplify. If you fully taught the “Sit” command you have set the stage for many other commands and drills that absolutely depend on a perfect “Sit”.  I personally like my dogs to click their hocks together on a “Sit”.  This quirk probably came from watching too many war movies.

In our next chapter, we will cover some of the other commands on the bottom level of our pyramid of progress.

Happy Training,

John Schulte DVM