10 important Labrador training tips
Labrador Retrievers are great dogs. They generally have an even temperament that makes them perfect for family dogs, but they also have an innate love to retrieve that makes them wonderful hunting or gun dogs. They are also very smart dogs. If you are looking for help on how to train a Labrador Retriever, here are ten important tips.
Retriever training tip #1 – Learn how to read your dog.
A large portion of retriever training is being able to read and understand your dog’s body language. Dogs display many clues as to what they are thinking and planning to do. Being able to recognize these cues and understanding what they mean can give you a leg up on training. The faster you are able to correct your dog for an undesirable behavior, the faster your dog will learn.
Observe your dog’s behavior
Start with some basic observation.
- Where is his tail? If your Lab’s tail is high in the air and wagging. He is happy. If it is between his legs, he is submissive or not enjoying the work he is doing.
- Where are his ears? Labs have floppy ears, but they still move . If your dog’s ears are forward and out away from his or her head, your dog is happy and attentive. But if they are back and flattened against his head, he is not enjoying himself.
Are his hackles raised? Hackles is the hair along the spine of your retriever, generally between the shoulder blades and just before his tail. This hair stands on end when a dog is fearful or trying to be dominant.Some dogs raise their hackles when they want to play.
- Where is he looking? Is your dog looking directly at you? Or, is he distracted by something? Good eye contact makes training easier.
- Watch his mouth. Is his tongue flicking in and out or is he licking a lot? Tongue flicking or licking can be a sign of stress or indicate that your dog is confused.
Using this data can immensely improve your training. By paying attention to these cues, you can respond quickly and accurately to adverse behaviors and provide praise for good ones. This will speed up your Labrador Retriever’s learning and make each training session more productive.
Not only will being able to read your dog help you with training, it will also help when you and your retriever are around other dogs. You will be able to recognize their body language and be able to read their intentions. This can reduce stress and possible dangerous situations for everyone involved.
Retriever training tip #2: Make sure your dog understands what you are asking him to do.
As your dog’s trainer, it is your job to teach your dog each command and make sure that he understands exactly what is expected. If your dog is not responding as you expect on a command you are certain he or she knows, take a moment to consider that there may be other factors that are getting in the way.
Have you have ever been angry at your dog but talked sweet to him to get him o come to you?
This is an example of sending your dog a mixed message. Your voice sounds happy and upbeat, but your body language clearly shows anger. When you do this, your dog has to try to decipher what you are trying to say, and they can get confused by the mixed messages. Be careful about sending mixed messages which can hamper the communication and learning.
Constantly ask yourself, “Does my dog know what I want him to do?” This will help you be more aware. Then you can simplify your training.
Location, location, location
Dogs are place orientated. This means that just because your retriever understands a command in one location, let’s say inside your home, that doesn’t mean he understands it outside. Another example would be, just because your retriever knows SIT when he is next to you, doesn’t mean he understands SIT when he is 20 yards away from you. This is where training is vital to make sure you dog truly knows what you want him to do.
Retriever training tip #3: Keep commands simple and clear
I am a big fan of less is more. Especially, when it comes to giving commands to your dog. I avoid adding additional words which do nothing to clarify the command for the dog. Commands like “COME HERE” and “SIT DOWN” or “SIT STAY” are just a few examples of extra words.
The goal is always understanding
Keeping commands simple and clear helps your dog understand what you are trying to say. I have seen owners habitually negotiate with their dog to get them to perform a command. They add so many words it often sounds like they are trying to convince a toddler they will get a treat if they behave.
Short and concise commands work best
Instead, keep commands short and concise. Short, concise commands make it easier for your retriever to understand exactly what you are expecting of them. And always be consistent in the commands. For instance, if you use COME for your dog to come to you, always use COME, don’t sometimes use HERE.
Retriever training tip #4: Understand and use pressure correctly.
Pressure is a big part of retriever training. Pressure can be as simple as telling your dog NO when they are digging in the trash or pushing down on their hindquarters as you teach them to SIT. The amount of pressure needed generally increases as the dog advances in training. The key, however, is using pressure fairly and correctly.
How do I know if I am using pressure correctly?
Before you use pressure of any kind, ask yourself a few questions.
- Will the dog understand why they are getting pressure?
- If it is for doing something wrong, will they understand why?
- Is the pressure for enforcement or punishment, and will the dog know which?
Three types of pressure
While training retrievers, there are generally three types of pressure used: attrition, direct, and indirect. Let me use two training situations to explain how a trainer would use each type of pressure.
Training Situation A
Let’s say you are teaching your dog to heel without pulling, but your dog is constantly pulling as you start to walk.
Using attrition pressure
To use attrition pressure to solve this problem, each time your dog started to get ahead of you, you would repeatedly turn into the dog and walk in the opposite direction. The only command would be HEEL each time you turned into him. You will continue to turn into your dog each time he gets ahead of you until the dog learns through attrition that he must stay in the heel position or he won’t get to go anywhere on the walk.
Using direct pressure
Using direct pressure to stop a dog from pulling would require you to give a correction each time the dog gets out of position. The correction can be a jerk on a chain collar with a HEEL command or a nick with an electronic collar with a HEEL command. It could also be a tap on your dog’s bottom with a heeling stick. With direct pressure you are correcting them instantly for a wrong behavior.
Using indirect pressure
Indirect pressure can be a little hard for humans to understand, but dogs seem to understand it well. If you were walking your dog at HEEL and he starts pulling ahead of you, you can use indirect pressure by immediately commanding NO, SIT and giving a correction for SIT at the same time.
Using indirect pressure, you stop the dog and give him pressure for a different command, such as SIT, then repeat the command HEEL. The dog will learn that they are being corrected for failure to try or giving up and will put in the proper effort for the HEEL command.
Training Situation B
Let’s say your dog is at an advanced level and is currently doing blind retrieves. You notice that on one blind, halfway out, your dog decides to give into factors (wind, terrain, previous mark, or other factors) and breaks down.
Using attrition pressure
Using attrition, you repeatedly stop the dog without any other forms of pressure and keep repeating the correct hand cast until they take it. Or, you call your retriever back to you and repeat the blind. With attrition, you are essentially wearing your dog down to a point where they decide to listen to you and perform the correct task.
Using direct pressure
Using direct pressure, you would stop the dog immediately and give the dog pressure via the e-collar (assuming the dog has been collar-conditioned). With direct pressure you are correcting them instantly for the a wrong behavior.
Using indirect pressure
Using indirect pressure, you would stop the dog and give them pressure for a known command, such as SIT, then repeat the cast. The dog learns that they are being corrected for failure to try or giving up and will put in the correct effort.
Indirect pressure is most often used for lack of effort. You are correcting a dog for giving up on a task and choosing to take the easy way out instead of performing the correct/desired task. In this case you are applying pressure on one command for failure to respond to another.
It is important with all types of pressure, that your dog understands what is required. Also, your retriever should never be surprised by getting a correction. This will cause your dog to act sheepishly, always wondering when they are going to get punished. The dog must know why they are being corrected. These are God’s creatures; treat and give them the respect, love, and fairness they deserve.
Retriever training tip #5: Plan and log every training session.
If you are following a training flow plan, such as Mike Lardy’s or mine, the steps should be laid out for you. However, training your retriever is not like baking a cake, you need to be able to recognize when your dog needs extra time or repetitions in certain areas. One way to help you notice this is to keep a logbook.
I, personally, log every training session for each dog. I do this for several reasons. It helps me:
- make sure each dog is on track and staying balanced
- plan out what I am going to work on the following day or session.
As I write notes about each training session so I can mentally map out where the dog is in our program and make note of what I should work on next session. In this way I am always working toward my end goal. This helps me get the most out of the dog.
Keep in mind that things can and do pop up during a training session that can derail your plan, this is okay. Just make note of it and get back on track as soon as possible.
Avoid non-productive training
You need to avoid nonproductive training sessions. These are sessions where you are working without a plan or just training whatever comes to mind. Or, and this is probably worse, you spend the session only working on what the dog is good at or what you, the owner, enjoys doing. Your dog needs to be pushed to expand their skills.
Train with short lessons
Short lessons, where you and your dog are working as a team, when done right can be a lot more productive then long sessions where you both are just going through the motions. Body clues given by your dog will help you keep your dog in balance. Refer to How can I get my Labrador Retriever to listen.
Retriever training tip #6: Communication is more than words.
When training your Labrador Retriever, your dog interprets everything you say and do as a form of language and communication. Therefore, you need to communicate as much as possible in as few words as possible.
Incessant babble is not needed or productive. Your dog needs to learn that when you say SIT, it means for SIT. You don’t need to say is COME ON MY LITTLE PUPPY WILL YOU SIT FOR DADDY TODAY, THAT’S MY GOOD GIRL?
In addition, you must be aware of your body language. Make sure it matches what you are saying. Dogs often pay even more attention to your body language than your words.
Retriever training tip #7: Training retrievers requires good timing
Timing, in training, is a difficult thing to define. Basically, timing is about saying a command or giving pressure at exactly the correct time. If your timing is good, your retriever will understand perfectly what he did wrong and what you are asking him to do. Dogs need praise and/or punishment as close as possible to the behavior you are trying to repeat or stop.
For instance, scolding a puppy for peeing in the house two hours after it happened, is not good timing. The puppy has long since forgotten about peeing in the house and will not understand why he is being punished.
Good timing would be catching the puppy in the act of peeing in the house and scolding him and taking him immediately outside. Then, if he goes potty outside, praising him for that.
The same can be said for enforcement of commands. Let’s say you say the SIT command and your retriever, who knows this command, does not SIT. Good timing would be enforcing the command immediately following the refusal instead of saying SIT three or four more times before enforcing the command.
Along with timing, your dog needs to be tuned into you. Your dog needs to be paying attention, receptive, and able to respond to you. While I am training a dog, I am very cognizant of their attitude and health. Some days are just not good days. The dog is not “feeling it” and needs a break or the session needs to be cut short. Just like people, dogs have bad days and may need time to recharge.
Retriever training tip #8 – Getting the most value out of praise.
Praise is an important part of training your retriever. You should always include it in your training work. But when people praise us for everything we do, it loses its value. It becomes like background noise. It is the same with dogs. Syrupy, nonstop praise does not help train your retriever. Praise needs to be appropriate, received, well timed and not an excuse.
When first teaching a puppy to SIT, we can praise the dog with words, petting, and treats for performing the task. But when a dog is older and knows the command, these types of praise do not carry the same weight nor are they needed. Always be sure praise is earned.
I have often heard trainers commending their dog by saying GOOD DOG when the dog is in the process of picking up a 100 yard plus retrieve. It is unlikely the dog can even hear the handler at this distance. I believe the handler says it more for his/herself than for the dog. For praise to work, the dog must be able to hear you, as well as be in the correct state of mind to receive that praise.
Well timed praise
For your retriever to understand praise, like saying GOOD DOG, it needs to be given immediately after he or she performs an act you commanded him or her to do. The dog needs to understand the praise is associated with a desired action.
Praise is not an excuse
When you praise your retriever for sitting, whether you use words or petting them, the dog should not change into a crazy dog and start jumping all over the place. You need to be able to have your dog SIT and be able to pet him without leaving the SIT position. Praise must never become an excuse for being unruly.
Retriever training tip #9 – Proper use of punishment is crucial for training retriever
Punishment that is done fairly, justly, consistently, proportional, and appropriate aids in training retrievers. However, before applying pressure/punishment, stop for a split second and look at the situation from the dog’s perspective. If you are not sure the dog understood or if the punishment is for something they have not learned yet, stop, take a deep breath. This is not the time for punishment.
When applying punishment, there should be no confusion in your dog’s mind on why they are getting punished. You should never punish because you are mad or frustrated. Dog training takes patience and understanding.
A note on electronic collars
The electronic collar has helped train many dogs, but sadly, I believe it has hurt more dogs than helped. Inexperienced owners and trainers often use the electronic collar as a quick fix. But the collar should be used more like an insurance policy, something you hope you never need to use but you have it just in case. I have an extensive post on this, check out Using an electronic collar to train retriever.
Retriever training tip #10 – Retriever training requires consistent communication and firm expectations
Dogs thrive on consistency and consistency starts with communication. If you can communicate with the fewest words, use body language, and be consistent no matter what the circumstances, you will be on the right path for training your retriever to achieve his or her true potential.
Consistency and Communication
Communication and consistency is the most abused tip I see when someone brings me a retriever to train. Consistency can be difficult, especially if there are several people in your household. To battle this issue, everyone in the household needs to be on the same page. You all must have the same level of expectation and be using the same verbiage for your retriever.
In addition, you and your family need to agree on expectations for your furry friend. When you say SIT, are you expecting and demanding your dog to sit right away? Or, do you allow the dog one freebie before you make them SIT?
I prefer, as the dog learns and understands a command, they respond the first time. But whatever your expectations are, do not get into a begging situation where you are asking your dog to perform the task. Command, don’t ask.
Everyone needs to agree on what commands you are going to use for your dog. Some examples are:
- here or come
- give or leave
- kennel or place.
It really does not matter to your dog what words you use, but training can be very difficult if everyone is using different words.
Final thoughts on how to train your Labrador Retriever
As you can see, there is a lot that goes into training Labrador Retrievers. Whether you are just looking for an obedient companion dog or a hunting machine, it all starts with some basic dog psychology and understanding how your dog thinks and operates. Following these tips will help you get the most out of your retriever training sessions and over time you will see your retriever achieve his or her true potential!
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’m here to help! You can email me (email@example.com) 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.