4 retriever training drills
All retriever training begins with obedience. Obedience is a foundation. It helps your retriever perform better both in the home and in the field. But, in order to maintain an obedient dog, you must practice obedience drills on a regular basis.
Don’t worry. It doesn’t have to take a lot of time. In fact, 5-10 minutes a day of obedience drills will provide excellent results.
Here are some easy obedience drills you can do with your retriever. And as a side benefit, these drills can be done regardless of the weather, and they can be done inside or outside.
What lead or leash to use for obedience training retrievers
Let me start out by saying, I am not a fan of using leads or leashes and would prefer not to. But the fact is, leads are key to developing an obedient retriever. Most people stop using a lead way too soon. Unfortunately, this can create problems and result in the need to go back and repeat previous lessons. If this happens enough, your dog will most likely become “lead wise”. This is similar to a dog becoming electronic collar wise. your dog will only be obedient while he has a lead on. We want to avoid this if possible.
Just because your dog is wearing a lead does not mean that you must hold onto the lead. A lot of training can be done with the dog dragging the lead.
Choosing the right lead for retriever obedience
I have an entire post about this topic, so if you really want to get into the nuts and bolts of this topic, read What dog leash for training retriever?
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With puppies and adult dogs that do not come when called, I start training sessions with a 30-foot lead. I need a lead long enough that when I command HERE, and the dog refuses, I can reel him/her in. With retrievers, you also need the longer length so that when you throw an item for the dog to retrieve, you can still hold the end of the rope and guide the dog back to you, if needed. However, most obedience work is done with a 6-15 foot lead.
When a retriever is strong on obedience, making few or no mistakes as I run through the drills, I move to a tab lead. This is a short rope, usually around 6 – 12 inches with a clip to hook on a collar. It is short enough that it doesn’t reach the ground while the dog is standing but long enough that I can grab it with my hand and hold it. Here is a nice leather tab lead.
I have my dogs wear the tab lead while obedience training and also on long marking drills. It helps solidify their obedience to and from the boat, blind or line, as well as cementing their steady work. Often people stop using the tab lead way too early.
One thing to note about leads, I stay away from any lead that has a hand loop built into them. It would be an extremely dangerous situation if a dog were running and or swimming to make a retrieve and the loop hooked on a tree branch or some other obstacle. A straight rope lead is best.
Choosing the right collar for retriever obedience
It is vitally important that you use the right collar for teaching your retriever obedience. A standard flat buckle collar, the kind you have your dog wear so that people know where to return him should he get lost, is not going to be effective for obedience drills.
A chain collar or prong collar is what you should be using as you train your retriever obedience. These collars are designed to put pressure on your retriever when he/she chooses not to listen. The correction is not harsh, usually it is just a quick tightening of the collar around his neck followed by a quick release, but this change in pressure is enough to help your dog understand that you are in control and he/she needs to listen.
Standard flat buckle collars are not designed to provide pressure. So when a dog pulls against a standard collar, they do not feel any pressure or tightening around their neck. This actually encourages your dog to pull even more.
And harnesses are even worse. A harness moves the pressure from around your dogs neck to around his/her chest. Retrievers have very strong chests already, so when you use a harness it allows your dog to use all his weight to pull you along.
Alternatively, when used correctly, a chain or prong collar can teach your retriever to heel quickly and effectively. Your dog will understand what you are asking of him/her and is encouraged to perform the task quickly and correctly.
If you are not sure how to use these collars correctly, read 6 vital tools every gun dog trainer needs.
Obedience drills for retrievers
When clients bring their dogs to our kennel for obedience issues, the major problem is often that they are not using the right tools to do the job. The right tools make a huge difference, so be sure and invest in the correct tools.
Drill #1 – Walking your retriever on-lead
The most common obedience drill is simply taking your dog on a walk on lead. This sounds overly simplistic, but the most common obedience problem dog owners have is surging or pulling on walks. It often looks like the dog is walking the owner instead of the owner walking the dog. I know you know what I mean!
This is such a problem that many devices have been invented to help cure this problem. I am not, however, a fan of these devices. I have yet to have a dog dropped off for training that I cannot quickly teach to walk obediently next to me with just a lead and a chain or prong collar. Other devices are just not needed.
How to stop retriever from pulling and surging during walks
An easy and quick solution for dogs that pull and surge, is to simply change directions.
Picture yourself walking along with your dog and they start pulling you. The correction would be to immediately turn and start walking in the opposite direction while making quick, sharp jerks on the leash and chain collar saying the HEEL command. Continue to do this each time the dog starts pulling or surging forward.
If your dog has been pulling you for a while, the first few sessions of employing this technique, may be frustrating. You may find that you are not even able to leave your driveway.
That is not uncommon. However, over time the dog will learn to pay more attention to what you are doing and where you are going as opposed to themselves. When this happens, walks become a lot more enjoyable for both you and your dog.
Walking off-lead with your retriever
If your dog is rocking this drill on-lead, and you want your dog to learn to walk off-leash, you can use this simple progression.
- First, practice walks with your dog on a lead that you are holding. Make sure you allow the leash to hang loosely between you and your dog.
- When you have the dog walking nicely at your side, continue the walk but now have the dog drag the lead. In this way, you can grab the lead and make any necessary corrections.
- After having your dog drag the lead for several sessions, you can progress to taking the lead off the dog but tuck the lead into a pocket on the side next to the dog. Leave a little bit of the lead exposed so the dog can still see it.
- Lastly, you can have the lead completely concealed in your pocket.
Make sure that you always bring a lead with you on walks, even if your dog is proficient walking off-lead. You never know what situations you may find yourself in. You need to always have a way to control your dog.
Drill # 2 – Strengthening your retrievers SIT command
Most retriever owners have taught their dog the SIT command. But I often see that the command is weak, meaning that as soon as the owner moves or there is a distraction, the dog moves. Strengthening the SIT command is not difficult but does require consistency and standards.
- Start by having your dog SIT and then walk a few feet away from him or her. If your dog moves, simply tell him NO SIT and then walk him right back to the exact spot where he was originally sitting prior to moving. Sit him back in that spot and repeat the command SIT.
- You may want to place a piece of tape on the floor or mark the ground in some way. Location is extremely important in this drill. The dog knows exactly where he was prior to moving. You need to make sure that he does not gain any ground, meaning your need to take him back to the exact spot from which he moved or even further away from you.
- As the dog gets steadier and stays seated, extend the distance.
- Now add tests and temptations. For instance, walk in a big circle around him, bend down, clap your hands, even pulling gently on the lead. Let your imagination run wild and test him. If he moves, take him right back to spot he moved from, and repeat. The more work you do on this command, the better. It will result in a nice strong SIT that you can feel confident in.
Drill #3 – Teach your retriever SIT on whistle
There are many benefits to teaching your retriever to respond to a whistle in addition to voice commands. Whistles commands carry further than voice, can be heard over other noises, and are crisp and clear, with no hint of human emotion. In my experience, retrievers always respond better to a SIT whistle than to a voice command.
With whistles there are only two commands – SIT and HERE. A SIT whistle is communicated with one toot on the whistle. The volume of the whistle and sometimes the length of the whistle blast may need to vary depending on the distance the dog is from you and the emphasis needed for the SIT.
A HERE whistle command is a series of 3-whistle blasts in a row – toot-toot-toot with no break in between.
Teaching SIT on whistle is not difficult.
- Start out with your dog in a HEEL position and on lead. Tell your dog to SIT and then immediately blow the whistle one toot. After he SITS, start walking with your dog at HEEL. Walk a few yards and then repeat the SIT verbal and whistle command. Repeat several times.
- Now, switch the order, do the whistle command first. Toot then voice command SIT.
After many repetitions of the above, the dog will have made the connection and you can eliminate the voice command and just use the whistle.
Drill #4 Teach SIT at distance
Just because your retriever understands the SIT command, does not mean that he or she understands SIT at distance. The SIT command is almost always taught with your dog next to you. The SIT AT DISTANCE command teaches your retriever that whenever you say SIT, no matter where they are, they should SIT.
Teaching SIT at distance can give you more control over your retriever when he or she is off lead. This command is especially useful if you are an upland hunter or if you just want more control in the home. SIT at distance makes your retriever more responsive to your commands and can make your upland hunt more enjoyable.
To teach SIT AT DISTANCE, you need to start with the dog within a few feet of you. You will eventually progress to further away as your dog starts to understand what you are expecting of him or her.
- With your dog a few feet from you, say SIT. Pay attention to exactly where the dog is standing, if he moves, walk over and using a lead, tab lead or collar bring him back to the exact location where you first said SIT. Then walk back to where you were when you said the SIT command and say the command again.
- If your retriever does not SIT when you say the command, start walking toward your dog saying SIT, SIT, SIT. When your dog SITS, say GOOD DOG.
- Give your dog a release command, we use OKAY, so that he walks around a bit. Then after a few minutes repeat step one. Do not move further away until your dog is consistently sitting when you say SIT from a few feet away.
- Over time, as your dog progresses you can start moving further and further away and your dog will perform the command quickly.
The more you work on this, the better your dog will respond. You can also add the SIT whistle with the command. Eventually, you will be able to voice the command SIT or use a SIT whistle and your retriever will SIT no matter how far away they are from you.
Fun HUNT IT UP drill to do inside the home
This is not an obedience drill, but it is a fun drill to work on inside your home that will teach your dog to use his or her nose and look for something or “hunt it up”.
Having a retriever that can mark and run to where a downed pheasant or grouse lies is incredibly valuable. But having a dog that can hunt up a crippled bird is money in the bank. To teach this behavior we use a command called HUNT IT UP.
How to teach the HUNT IT UP command
You can start teaching the HUNT IT UP command inside your home.
- Start by picking up all dog toys on the floor in your home.
- Next, place your dog on a SIT command in the middle of the floor.
- Place (not throw) one of his toys on the floor away from him but where he can see it.
- Now, release him from the sit command with the HUNT IT UP command. When you begin doing this, it is important that you sound enthusiastic and excited, allowing the dog to feed off your energy and making the command sound fun.
- Once your dog finds the item and picks it up, lavish him with praise.
- Repeat the exercise, gradually increasing the dog’s distance from the item and make finding the toy more difficult.
If you work on this often, it will not be long before you can make a game of it by hiding the item in your house and having the dog search your house for the item once hearing the HUNT IT UP command.
When the weather gets nicer, you can do this HUNT IT UP drill out in the yard. Progress to using bumpers and then birds and before you know it, your dog will be hunting it up on command.
Final thoughts on obedience drills for retrievers
Obedience may not be the most fun training you do with your retriever, but it is essential. A strong foundation of obedience will deter many other issues and problems in the home and in the field. In addition, the obedience training will increase your dog’s ability to learn other training, such as training for hunting or competition if so desired.
Remember, if you really want your retriever to grow and progress this year but doing the training yourself sounds overwhelming or maybe your schedule is just too busy to get it done, I am here to help! You can email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) or just give me a call. I would be happy to discuss your goals for your retriever and tell you about the programs I offer.
Until next time, happy retrieving.