Labrador Training: The Basic Principles

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In this article we are going to help you get to grips with the basic Labrador training principles, putting them into terms that even a brand new dog owner will find easy to understand and use.

There is a wealth of conflicting advice out there. So many different way to train a Labrador.

Different opinions, different methods, different styles.

Yet whilst there are many different opinions, approaches and interpretations of how to train a dog, the truth is, all dogs learn in exactly the same way.

They change their behaviour in the future, depending on the consequences of that behaviour in the past.

In the simplest terms this means that behaviours which are rewarded, will increase, and behaviours that are punished will decrease.

All trainers, whatever their methods, depend on this scientific fact.  However, recent studies have shown that dogs that have been punished are likely to be less obedient, and more aggressive than dogs that have been trained using only rewards.Black Labrador basic training

Fortunately some pioneering scientists and animal trainers have thoughtfully figured out exactly how to train animals effectively, without  using any punishment at all.

This has changed the face of dog training as we know it.

And it is now possible to train your Labrador entirely without force, provided you follow some basic principles

Basic Principles of Labrador Training

Here are some basic principles or guidelines, to help you get your dog training off to a great start, and to keep you on the right track.

Modern dog training works by reinforcing desirable behaviours.  So you need to:

  • Reinforce behaviours that you like
  • Don’t reinforce behaviours you don’t like
  • Teach alternatives to behaviours you do not want.
  • Set the dog up to win by building skills in easy stages
  • Proof your training carefully
  • Train regularly

That sounds a bit over simplistic, so let’s take a closer look.

Reinforce behaviours that you like

We all know that behaviours that are rewarded, are more likely to be repeated.   But so often in dog training, this simply doesn’t happen.

You make a big fuss of your dog when he comes back to  your whistle, but he still doesn’t come every time.

There are several reasons for this, but one of them is that many people are training with the wrong rewards.

Rewards do reinforce behaviour, but only if they are rewarding to the dog.  And many dogs, in many homes are actually denied rewards that are valuable to them.

Changing the kinds of rewards you use, can change your dog’s behaviour almost overnight.  Check out this article to find out more about choosing rewards for your Labrador

Don’t reinforce behaviours you don’t like

In order to stop bad behaviours becoming a habit, we need to prevent the dog having access to rewards after unwanted behaviours.

Many Labradors learn bad behaviours because their owners inadvertently reinforce them.  We stroke dogs when they jump up (or our visitors do), so they jump up some more.

Dogs that don’t come when they are called have often been poorly rewarded for doing so, but they have usually also been rewarded for ignoring their owner.

Think about it.  If you whistle your dog and he then has a game with another dog right after ignoring you  – he has been amply rewarded for ignoring your whistle.  The opposite of what you intended

So what could you have done?  The most effective solution in this situation is to do one of the following

Either

A  –  do not give the command at all

Or

B –  prevent the dog from accessing the reward

Pick and choose when you use your commands.  Not only is there no point in whistling a dog when he is heading full tilt for his best playmate UNLESS you have trained him to recall under these conditions,  you are also going to do your recall signal a lot of harm.

Preventing the dog accessing rewards during or immediately after bad behaviour is often best achieved using a trailing long line.  You can attach one of these to a body harness and use it to restrain the dog when he loses his focus on you.

Teach alternatives to behaviours you do not want

Modern dog training works by rewarding behaviours we want, rather than punishing behaviours we do not want.   But how do we go about stopping naughty behaviours –  like scratching at the door, or jumping all over the furniture?

Often, the most effective way to do this, is to teach an acceptable alternative behaviour in that situation.  This is also the most efficient system because there are many ways to be bad.  If you eliminate one of them, the chances are your dog will dream up another.

Better by far to teach your dog what he should be doing in any given situation, rather than what he should not be doing.  Check out this article for more information: How can I stop my dog…?

Set the dog up to win by building skills in easy stages

Making mistakes, failing, getting it wrong, these are all demoralising.  Not just for people.  Dogs quickly get disheartened if they make too many mistakes and fail to earn their rewards.

Make sure your Labrador is a winner every time.  Start each training session with something simple.

Finish with something simple, and increase levels of difficulty in small increments.

Set your dog up to win and keep his confidence sky high.

Proof your training carefully

There are lots of books and webpages which tell you how to teach your Labrador how to ‘sit’, but not so many that teach you how to stop him getting up again!

But getting your dog into a sit position is the easy part.    How to keep him there is what you really need to know.

And what about making him stay in a sit whilst people or other dogs walk past?  This can be tricky.

The fact is, teaching a basic behaviour is pretty easy, but we don’t just want a basic behaviour, we want our dogs to obey us in all kinds of situations.  We want them to sustain behaviours like ‘sit’ and ‘walk nicely on a lead’ for more than a second or too.

And that is what effective Labrador training is all about.   It isn’t just about learning a skill. It is about proofing that skill against all kinds of distractions.

A portable command!

You need a ‘portable’  command that works wherever you might find yourself,  and one that is able to sustain the behaviour you have taught your dog for as long as  you need him to.

Dogs have a curious lack of ability to generalise. This is their weakness. It is easy to teach a dog to sit in your kitchen, you could probably do it in minutes. But it is far harder to teach him that ‘sit’! means sit no matter where he is, or what else is going on.

In fact initially, we teach him this by ‘retraining’ the command in each new place, or under each new condition. Every time we do this he gets quicker at ‘catching on’, so it is not as time consuming as it might seem. This process is called ‘proofing’

A commitment to proofingin gentle stages enables you to train your dog effectively without frequent corrections.

The basic commands

You will need to teach your Labrador the following commands

  • Here
  • Sit
  • Heel
  • Down*

You won’t need to teach him to ‘stay’, that command is only for people that forget to teach their dog not to get up again until he is told!   *’Down’ is not an essential command,  but it is a helpful one if you will be taking your dog out and about to friends’ houses or the local pub, as it means you can ask him to lie quietly for long periods of time.

Heel, sit and down are all ‘positional’ commands. To find out how to get the dog into the required position, read our article entitled “Getting into position: heel, sit, down Part I

A system for Labrador training

It is helpful to have a ‘system’ in mind when you start to train a new skill.  Each time you teach your dog a new command you  should follow the basic steps below

1. Pick a location:

It can be your kitchen, the patio, wherever you like, but use the same location until your dog ‘gets it’.    Then teach him  the same command all over again in a different location.  Repeat until he understands that the command applies ‘anywhere’.

2. Just the two of you:

Pick a time when there is no-one else present. Dogs really struggle to learn new skills if there are any distractions around.   When he can do it on his own with you,  allow another adult to stand and watch quietly.  Teach him to do it all over again  like this, and then repeat whilst an adult walks quietly about.  Gradually increase the distractions involved, until he can ‘sit’, ‘heel’ etc in any situation.

3. Instant rewards:

Each time the dog completes the action you require, whether it is a recall, or a sit, or any other behaviour, you need to provide an instant reward.  It is no good rewarding him five minutes later.  He will have forgotten what the reward was for.   Reward every single action to begin with.  Phase out rewards very gradually until you are only rewarding one in every five to ten actions.

4. Slowly increase difficulty:

It is much harder for your dog to sit for five  minutes than it is for him to sit for five seconds.  This is obvious, yet many people fall down by making huge jumps in difficulty so that the dog is almost bound to fail and need correcting.   There is no need to do this.  Increase the duration of tasks gradually and your dog will rarely fail.

5. Proof against distractions

Proof your new skill carefully so that your dog is able to perform it in all kinds of situations.   Check out the three Ds of Dog Training to help you get this right

Regular training session

Understanding the principles of modern dog training will enable you to raise an obedient and well-behaved labrador.  Having a simple system in mind will come in handy.  But all the knowledge in the world won’t help you, if you don’t put the time in.

Training requires regular interaction between you and your dog.

And like so many worthwhile endeavours, you get back what you put in.

Make a commitment to train your dog on a regular daily basis, using the principles and guidelines here and elsewhere on this website, and you will be successful.

Enjoy your dog training journey, and don’t forget to join the forum for help and moral support

More information on puppies

Happy-Puppy-jacket-image1-195x300For a complete guide to raising a healthy and happy puppy don’t miss The Happy Puppy Handbook.

The Happy Puppy Handbook covers every aspect of life with a small puppy.

The book will help you prepare your home for the new arrival, and get your puppy off to a great start with potty training, socialisation and early obedience.

The Happy Puppy Handbook is available worldwide.

This article was originally published in October 2011 but has been considerably expanded and updated. 

The Labrador Site Founder

Pippa Mattinson is the best selling author of The Happy Puppy Handbook, the Labrador Handbook, Choosing The Perfect Puppy, and Total Recall.

She is also the founder of the Gundog Trust and the Dogsnet Online Training Program 

Pippa's online training courses were launched in 2019 and you can find the latest course dates on the Dogsnet website

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Pippa Mattinson is the best selling author of several books on dogs. She is the founder of the Labrador Site and a regular contributor. She is passionate about helping people enjoy their Labradors and lives in Hampshire with her husband and four dogs.

3 COMMENTS

  1. This is a great read, thank you. My golden lab has just turned two, we started her training from a pup and continue to do so, she is fantastic at returning, sitting, walking to heel etc. We are training her to be a gun dog but the one thing she really struggles with is dropping the dummy..positive reinforcements just don’t seem to work! Any suggestions would be much appreciated 🙂

  2. hi pippa,

    i have a 10 months old lab name jade, and he is totally great at everything, but just one thing troubles me, once or twice a day, he just flips, and jumps up at either myself or my wife, and tries to bite our hands, arms, if we try to catch him he will run over the garden and repeat jumping and tries to bite you again. If you turn your back and ignore him, he bites your clothing, and pulls hard shaking his head trying to (and succeeding) tear your clothes. the only way is we try to make him sit, and after 1 or 2 mins he will clam down and no jumping or biting at all.

    the techniques we were using to correct his biting behaviour is we turn our back on him untill he sits down quietly and we will give him a treat and this is working while he is not jumping and tries to bite us.

    we are quite confuse of what we should do to correct his jumping and biting behaviours once or twice a day..

    thank you

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