By Frances Powrie, Judy Cerney & P.J. Lacette
When a cuddly Flat-coat puppy first arrives in your home everything your new companion does will be cute and funny, but soon your 10-lb. puppy will be a vigorous 50 - 70 lb. bundle of energy. You will find that teaching basic obedience commands from the beginning will get you and your new friend off to a much better start.
Basic obedience gives the owner a way to distract the puppy from unwanted behaviors, teaches responsible behaviors and helps eliminate an owner’s frustration in trying to communicate with their canine friend. Any dog is happy when it knows its place in the pack (family) and knows routinely what behaviors receive positive reinforcement and which behaviors to avoid and not receive negative reinforcement from its pack. Positive reinforcement can be playtime, receiving a toy or food reward, petting, and verbal cues such as “Good dog!” Negative reinforcement will usually involve no verbal praise, no reward, and a correction depending on the nature of the undesired behavior. Teaching acceptable behavior and employing basic obedience commands can be fun and rewarding.
Flat-coated Retrievers enjoy companionship and like to please their owners. Only mild corrections are necessary in most cases. Obedience creates a tight bond between a puppy and its family as they learn to communicate with each other in a way the dog can understand. Dogs work mostly through a cause and effect world and this is why positive reinforcement for desired behaviors ONLY is so important.. Researching obedience training before the new puppy arrives is a great idea. A lot of helpful information can be obtained through books, videotapes, and discussions with other dog owners.
There are many rewards to be gained by teaching a dog the basic obedience commands. A dog that knows the sit command will sit patiently for its food, will sit before being greeted by small children, and will sit while the owner gets a collar on or gives/applies medication to the dog. A dog that knows a stand command will be much easier for a vet to examine. Teaching a puppy the stay and come commands can possibly save the dog’s life when a car is a approaching and your dog decides to chase a squirrel at the wrong moment. The importance of the come command cannot be stressed enough, especially as your dog reaches his adolescent stage and the outside environment becomes more and more interesting.
While he is very young, your puppy will tend to stay very close to you, but as he enters adolescence he will range farther on his own. Make sure “come” is never associated with anything the puppy perceives as a threat or a negative experience and use lots of positive reinforcement when teaching this command. Teaching a dog to stay before exiting out a door or from the car is also a good safety feature to instill. If possible, new owners should seek out a puppy class to take their new puppy to at about 3 months old. A good puppy class should focus on positive reinforcement (using food or toys as motivators) as much as possible as well as proper socialization with new people and other dogs. A gifted obedience trainer is invaluable in getting a new owner on the right foot with their new puppy. A good trainer will ‘read’ the dog and be able to help with changing unacceptable behaviors.
If the new owner enjoys the puppy class, they have the option of continuing obedience classes at whatever level they choose. This can be a continuation of pet obedience or the challenge of competitive obedience. Any such classes will only improve the quality of your relationship with your dog.
There are many training methods available: positive reinforcement combined with some negatives, operant conditioning often called clicker training, or the older techniques that use more force. You will have to be the judge of what works best for you and your dog. It is very easy to teach the sit, down and come commands to young puppies. Carrying around some small treats in your pocket as you go about your daily activities with a black or liver shadow, you can begin “sit” by luring the pup with treat placed slightly over it’s head and as soon as his bottom hits the ground, say “good sit!” and treat. Very quickly, your puppy will learn that sitting means a treat, then you can move to giving the command before the action. Always praise by reinforcing the command “good sit!” so the dog will know what he has done correctly. Teach “down” by holding the treat slightly below the pup’s nose and moving it towards his chest and the floor at the same time. This will get the head and shoulders down for sure, but in the beginning you may have to wait for the entire “down”. Teaching the “come” command is really fun.
As your puppy explores the house or yard going away from you, say his name and “come” either running backwards or crouching down to his level and clapping your hands. Instant praise and treat will insure that the puppy will be back for more. Two people can play a recall game with young puppies both indoors and outside by sitting with legs straddled and a little distance apart. One person gently restrains the puppy a few seconds while the other claps and calls. Again, treat and praise “good come!” Let the puppy go back and forth several times each session, always making it exciting and then you can increase the distance. While walking on a flexi in the neighborhood or exploring off lead in safe areas, you can also randomly recall the puppy to you and reward. This is just the beginning of a reliable recall, but the more you practice it with a young puppy, the better off you will be when puppy becomes an exploring adolescent and chooses to ignore you for more interesting things.
Many of the basic commands in obedience can be carried forward to other helpful behavior modifications. A dog can be taught ‘place’ and the owner will be able to have a nice calm dog at his designated place when visitors come to call. The command ‘off’ will make a visit with senior citizens and small children a little less frantic and a lot more polite. If you have a very vocal Flat-coat, you may find teaching ‘speak’ and ‘quiet’ very helpful. This can be accomplished through positive reinforcement for the proper behavior and teaching the dog a cue word for the desired behavior.
Another good command to have in a retriever owner’s repertoire is the ‘give’ and ‘leave-it’ commands. The give command can be used to receive something from the retriever’s mouth. It is important to NOT discourage carrying items in their mouth, but the “give” command allows you to take improper items and replace them something appropriate, such as a chew toy or treat “Leave it” can be taught by covering up a tidbit in your hand, and the pup only gets it if he draws back his head from your hand. Pair this with “leave it” and “o.k.” This is not saying that a dog should be a controlled robot. Rather having these commands at the owner’s disposal will allow some control over certain situations as needed.
As an owner begins working with a dog and learns how rewarding and fun it can be, they might want to continue and go farther with this experience. There are all kinds of venues and levels in obedience. It is fair to say that almost any other canine activity (such as hunt tests, field trials, agility, flyball, frisbee, and freestyle obedience) requires the dog to first understand communication with its handler through basic obedience commands.
Competition obedience can be one area to become involved in. This level of obedience carries the same skills of basic obedience to higher level but requires more time, teamwork, and close communication. The American Kennel Club as well as other canine registries sponsors obedience trials. These are conducted by member clubs and allow an owner to exhibit their obedience skills in specific, detailed exercises performed in obedience rings. Titles as well as placements through points earned are very exciting to those who compete in obedience trials. If an owner wishes to continue obedience training and compete in trials, it is important to get a buddy with experience in showing at obedience trials or trainer to mentor them. Obedience competition is a wonderful family-oriented sport. This article is not intended to tell new owners how to teach all the obedience commands to their dog, but rather to show the value of basic obedience for a Flat-coated Retriever as well as any other breed and give some suggestions for getting started with basic obedience. Hopefully, it gives the new owner some encouragement to research further into giving basic obedience a chance to enrich their life with a Flat-coated Retriever.
Below are some suggested reading materials to assist you in training your new family member.
Video and/or Book:
Sirius Puppy Training by Ian Dunbar
The Art of Raising a Puppy by the Monks of New Skete
How to Raise a Puppy You Can Live With by Claire Rutherford
Retriever Puppy Training by Claire Rutherford
Competition Obedience: A Balancing Act by Judy Byron and Flat-Coat owner Adele Yunck
P.J. Lacette runs a training school in Florida as well as competes in Obedience with her own Flat-coats. Judy Cerney recently completed a UDX with her first Flat-coat, as well as training in Field and Agility. Frances Powrie owns and trains two Flat-coats in Field, Conformation and Obedience and has completed her first UDX, partial MH and second SH, and second UD. She also helps teach puppy classes.