Communicating with dogs requires more than words
If you have a retriever with selective hearing or one that blatantly ignores you, you know how frustrating that can be. Dogs can bring such joy to our lives, and I cannot imagine life without them. However, they can also bring anger and frustration when they are not obedient. So, how can you get your Labrador retriever to listen? You must focus on training which starts with learning how to communicate with them.
Why is your retriever not listening or ignoring you?
Let’s start with the problem. Why is your retriever ignoring you? There are many possible reasons.
Is your retriever a puppy or very young dog? Puppies are often the biggest offenders, but they have an excuse. All dog’s need to be trained to understand what behavior is acceptable and what is not. If your puppy has not been trained, your frustration is misplaced. The good news is young dogs learn quickly, so start training them right away.
Lack of training
It is amazing to me that some people think dogs automatically understand what is good behavior and bad behavior. This simply is not true. Dogs are not humans. They do not reason as humans do and they are not mind readers. You must train your retriever by showing him or her what is acceptable and what is not through praise and discipline. Then you must enforce it.
Some dogs have been trained on obedience and still don’t listen. This often happens when a retriever is distracted or excited. At these times, all previous training can seemingly go out the window. But it doesn’t have to if you train for these types of situations.
Rewarded for bad behavior
This may be hard to hear, but sometimes your dog doesn’t listen to you because he or she has been rewarded for not listening to you – whether knowingly or unknowingly. If you call your dog with a command of HERE or COME and the dog doesn’t come, but you continue saying the command several more times and when the dog finally comes and you praise the dog with petting and GOOD DOG comments, the dog has just learned he gets praise for being disobedient.
Nagging vs discipline
Some retriever owners are opposed to strict discipline with their dogs. So instead of giving a nice strong correction for disobedience, they nag the dog with a series of very light corrections. In our experience, this nagging is rarely successful in stopping an unacceptable behavior. It simply builds a tolerance for pressure that gets worse over time.
How can I make my retriever to listen to me?
If you want your retriever to listen, you need to understand your retriever and how to communicate to him exactly what you expect of him. Most retrievers are good natured and want to please their owners. If you set boundaries and consistently enforce those boundaries you will see a change in your retriever’s behavior. This does not mean that they will not occasionally test you. They are dogs and they will test the boundaries on a regular basis. But if, during these tests, you reinforce your expectations, most dogs quickly return to their acceptance of your authority and rules.
Cornerstones of retriever training
When training your retriever, start with the four cornerstones of retriever training:
Each one is very important, but let’s start with communication.
The importance of good communication with your retriever
Communicating with your dog is obviously very important. We cannot expect a dog to carry out our commands if they don’t understand or didn’t hear the command. But it goes even deeper than that.
With dogs, a surprising amount of communication comes from our body language. For instance: Have you ever been angry at your dog and tried to alter your tone, talking sweet or excited to get them to come to you? Did it work? Likely, not.
Dogs are exceptionally good at reading body language and responding accordingly.
How to communicate with your retriever
You need to start by teaching your retriever what your words, whistles, and body language mean. For example, saying SIT, blowing a single whistle toot, and putting your hand out in a stop gesture are all ways you can command a retriever to SIT. But each of these needs to be taught first by doing the command and showing the dog what you expect him or her to do when that command is presented.
Dogs are very perceptive. Therefore, as trainers, we need to be conscious not only of what we say, but how we say it and how we are acting and presenting ourselves. I believe dogs are so perceptive that I don’t even like wearing sunglasses when training, especially when doing yard work. I want the dog to look in my eyes and I want to look into hers.
Lastly, while training your dog you need to be consistent in your commands and body language (movement) so you are communicating exactly what you want. Use only one command for each objective. Don’t mix them up. For example, if you use HERE for the dog to come to you, always use HERE, don’t sometimes use COME. Think of you and your dog as a team and you are the coach.
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Training retrievers must include balance, separation of work and play
The second cornerstone of training is balance. Balance in retriever training was rarely discussed or even thought about 10 years ago. However, recently it has received more publicity and traction.
When we talk about balance, what we are referring to is the separation of work time verses play time.
You may have heard the phrase, “All work and no play make Jack a dull boy.” This phrase generally means that if someone only does work, he becomes bored.
For retrievers, it is a far more serious. A dog that is out of balance can become mentally and physically damaged. Retrievers thrive on retrieving. They love it. Therefore, as trainers, we need to harness that desire and use it to encourage them to work with and for us. Whether that work is hunting, competing at a hunt test, or simply training.
Let me explain how I encourage balance using a sample training day at Otter Tail Kennels.
Younger and new dogs to the kennel start their day with yard work focusing on obedience. During this training, I take several breaks from the session to throw fun marks for the dog. Doing this helps keep the dog’s attitude up and they respond better to the training.
If all I did was walk them around on lead all morning, it wouldn’t be long before they would become despondent and not enjoy morning training at all.
In the afternoon, we do field sessions with the dogs. This involves marking and retrieving setups. During these sessions, the dogs gets to retrieve birds which is a ton of fun for them. Since we know that these dog’s love retrieving, we can sandwich this fun with work. We teach tasks such as steady (sitting and waiting to be released) and honoring (watching other dogs get to do the retrieving) during these sessions.
Paying attention to balance, mixing in fun with the work, will make training more enjoyable for both you and your retriever and will pay huge dividends.
Respecting your dog is essential to training
The third cornerstone is respect. Respecting your dog is an essential part of not only training, but dog ownership in general. God gave us these fine animals to care for. We must provide for and love them from puppies to old age.
We believe respect is the most important training cornerstone. Whether you are training your dog to become a master hunter or a lap dog they need to be treated with respect.
Here are ways you can respect your retriever:
- Give them a regular diet of quality dog food and clean drinking water.
We discussed diet in previous articles but to sum it up, dogs are creatures of habit and thrive on the same food at the same time each day.
- Allow them time for play as well as work.
If you are training your dog as a working dog, play time and work time need to be separated. But both are vital as previously discussed.
- Relieve unwarranted stress
Dogs get stressed when they do not understand what you want from them. So, to relieve stress the number one thing you can do is be consistent. For instance, no matter if you are in work mode or play mode, when you say SIT the dog needs to SIT.
- Regular veterinarian appointments and vaccinations
Dogs need to be seen regularly by a vet you trust. Make sure they stay up to date on vaccinations and medications such as heart worm.
These are simple, but substantial ways that you can show your respect for your retriever and for his/her role in your life.
Respect the training process (Don’t test your dog too soon!)
A second aspect of respect regarding retriever training is respecting the training process. As you train your retriever, it is natural that you might be proud of the progress your retriever has made in his or her training. Unfortunately, this often leads owners to “show off” their dog’s new skills in front of friends and family. When done too soon this is often a losing proposition with devastating results.
A defined process of order to training
When training your retriever, it is important to understand that all dog training follows a defined process or order. The human equivalent of this is crawl, walk, run. In dog training, we call it teaching, learning, and enforcing.
Showing off does not respect the process
Hoping your dog can outperform your buddy’s dog or showing off how awesome your dog is to your neighbors can be examples of not respecting the process if you:
- You expect your dog to perform tasks they are not done learning
To avoid embarrassment, remember you cannot expect your dog to perform a task they have not been taught or are not solid on.
- You expect your dog to perform a task in a new situation or with distractions he is not familiar with
You should not expect your dog to obey you in the field if they are still struggling at home. Putting your dog “to the test” in situations that you have not trained for is just asking for problems.
What does the process look like?
The first step to training, whether you have an 8-week-old puppy to an 8-year-old dog, is the same.
- You need to teach the command first. For example, you say the command SIT and then press down on the dog’s bottom, making him sit. This is teaching the dog what the command SIT means.
- Once a command is taught, we then enter the learning stage. During this stage, you can tell that the dog knows the command, but they are still making mistakes much of the time.
- Once your dog is performing a task around 90% on command with no correction, then you can start making sure to enforce the command the instant they choose not to obey.
Enforcement of commands in various locations
Start enforcing commands in this order in these locations:
- Start in the house,
- move to the yard,
- away from home such as on walks,
- in front of other dogs and distractions,
- finally, in the field.
Following the teaching, learning, enforcing pattern of dog training will make life easier and better for you and your retriever.
Consistency breeds mental stability
The fourth training cornerstone is maintenance. Unfortunately, this is also the one most people fail at. Establishing and maintaining training standards gives retrievers security, helps them thrive.
Maintaining standards = consistency
Dogs love and thrive through consistency. Here are some areas that you should strive to be consistent.
You can maintain consistency by establishing schedules and strictly adhering to them. For example, feeding your dog the exact same food at the exact same time of day, every day. As humans, we would find eating this way boring and bland. But dogs respond positively because they know what to expect and when. It gives them security, knowing they can count on you to provide for them.
If there is no consistency in the feeding schedule, the dog is left wondering when they will be fed. This causes confusion and makes them unsure.
Giving and enforcing commands
Have you ever been around a dog owner who continually “asks” their dog to respond to a command? You can hear the owner saying the command multiple times and changing their voice to a point of begging their dog to respond. This is not good, for the dog or the owner.
Instead, say the command once. If the dog doesn’t respond with the appropriate behavior, move to immediately enforce the correct behavior. With the SIT command, this would be as simple as pulling up on their leash or pushing down on their behind while saying the command.
Remember, all of this assumes that the dog knows and understands the behavior associated with the command. This is not part of the teaching phase as previously discussed.
Consistency must be practiced continuously
Letting something go or slip is not doing you or your dog a favor. For example, if you are pheasant hunting and your dog runs too far ahead and does not respond to a HERE command, it is time to stop hunting and start reviewing obedience. Yes, this will derail your hunting for the time being, but it will pay huge dividends later as your dog learns that HERE means HERE no matter when or where.
Consistency not only breeds mental stability; it translates to love.
Final thoughts on how you can get your Labrador Retriever to listen
Training is fundamental to getting your retriever to listen and obey you. Using these cornerstones of retriever training, you can teach your retriever what is acceptable and what is not acceptable while being a thoughtful, respectful trainer.
Through this process, you will find that your dog will develop a respect for you and the boundaries you establish for him or her. That respect will drive behavior change in your retriever and soon he or she will listen to you.
If you really want your retriever to grow and progress in his/her hunting this year but doing the training yourself sounds overwhelming or maybe your schedule is just too busy to get it done, I’m here to help! You can email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) or just give me a call (651-303-6459). I would be happy to discuss your goals for your retriever and tell you about the programs I offer.
Until next time happy retrieving.