Southern Skies Flat-Coated Retriever Club

by PJ Lacette
 Every one of us wants to show off how smart our dogs are, and a great way to do that is to teach them some obedience tricks. Common tricks such as sit, down, stand, stay and come are fun to teach and demonstrate for our friends, and the marvelous fringe benefit is that dogs who learn these behaviors are very pleasant to be around.
A dog that is sitting on cue is not doing any of a thousand other things at the same time, like jumping up or chewing on the sofa. One that comes when called is not running away or stealing shoes (or at least if he is stealing shoes he brings them right back!).

 One of the most efficient ways to teach puppies to sit, down, or whatever is desired, is clicker training or operant conditioning. Using operant methods, the puppy is rewarded for offering a behavior such as a sit any time he happens to plunk his bottom to the ground, but the cookie is preceded by the sound of a toy clicker or some other auditory signal or word. Pretty soon, the puppy is sitting at every opportunity, looking up at the owner with a flat-coat grin and wagging his whole body while doing his best to still keep that flat-coat butt firmly planted on the ground!
The puppy gets clicked then treated for every behavior resembling one you want it to do and a cue (command or signal) is added. If it is not offering enough of what you want, then treats or toys can be used to help the puppy figure out how to win the game.
To teach the puppy to sit, for instance, lure the pup’s head up by teasing him a bit with a yummy dog cookie. To teach “down,” slowly move a cookie from right in front of his nose to the ground in between his front paws. You can reward for tiny bits of the behavior at first, like lowering his head to smell the cookie, even before he lays down all the way.
Don’t forget a stand position, too, since that is handy for wiping off muddy feet and at the veterinarian’s office for examinations. Lure the puppy forward from a sit or down until he is up on all four feet, then click and reward.
Learning to do a trick on cue will make it easier to control that behavior at other times. A classic example is “speak” because a puppy that will woof on cue will find it easier to learn the "off switch" for barking as well. Some behaviors are innately rewarding for puppies, though. Barking can be stress-relieving for dogs even though it tends to promote stress in people, so make sure the cookies for barking stop very quickly! Get your barking puppy to bark nonstop for about 10 minutes during a planned training session – with only praise as his reward – then give him really great, strong-smelling treats for stopping the barking. He will quickly figure out that “shush” is a great game, and is much more rewarding than the “speak” game!
Coming when called is a lifesaving issue for puppies. While he is very young, your flat-coat pup 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 less than thrilling and give your puppy lots of cookies for coming when called to build up a reinforcement history.
Play hide and seek a bit with young dogs in safe areas far away from traffic and other animals, where you pop out of sight for a moment or two. This teaches the pup to keep an eye on you because it has learned that otherwise you might disappear!
Giving a yelp of pretend (or real!) pain as soon as sharp little retriever teeth hit your skin, then placing an appropriate toy in his mouth and encouraging chewing on that, will help your puppy understand people have delicate skin and should not be considered giant chew toys. If he continues to play roughly with his mouth, put the pup quietly in his crate for a few minutes without any corrections. If he plays gently when he comes back out, reward him with treats and more play time.
One of the favorite tricks of all dog owners is housetraining. Puppies rewarded for eliminating in the right spot outside, and supervised closely (even rigidly) at all times when loose inside, quickly housetrain themselves. Verbal and physical punishments for housetraining can actually set back the process because the pup becomes afraid to get your attention when he needs to eliminate. Teach your pup to sit at the door before going out and soon he will try to get your attention by sitting and staring at the exit door to the potty area.
Pulling on leash is another common problem that often results in your giving the dog attention when he is doing something you would rather he not do, so try to change that pattern. If the pup pulls ahead, you stop your forward motion, stand still and become silent, moving again only after rewarding the pup when the tension goes out of the leash for a brief moment and he looks back at you.
To ward off chewing problems, praise and reward your puppy for gnawing on safe chew toys such as the hard nylon bones, Kongs and sterilized bone (treats, peanut butter or leftovers stuffed in the Kongs and sterilized bones will make them more desirable).
When you live with a retriever, it is a bad idea to yell at him for picking things up even if the object of his desire is the remote control or a shoe. Once it is already in his mouth, praise him for bringing it to you and trade it for a toy in the early stages of learning, then later for one of his own toys. Correct him if you must when he reaches for inappropriate objects, not after they are already in his mouth, so he will not be afraid to approach you with anything he “finds.” Also teach him a “leave it” command by covering up a tidbit in your hand, and he only gets to eat it if he draws his head back from your hand.
One of the rewards for teaching obedience tricks is that very soon you may find your flat-coat is ready to earn obedience titles from the American Kennel Club or other registries. At beginning levels, dogs can earn a Canine Good Citizen title for demonstrating mastery of basic skills like walking politely on leash past people and other dogs, briefly staying in position, coming when called, accepting brushing and petting, and behaving well around distractions like bicyclists, joggers or loud noises.
Obedience trials put on by AKC clubs offer an opportunity to further demonstrate your flat-coat’s joyful enthusiasm channeled through heeling, group stays, recalls, retrieving, jumping hurdles, scent discrimination and other skills. Dog and handler teams have to earn a qualifying score under three different judges to earn titles at each of the three obedience levels: novice (for a Companion Dog or CD title), open (Companion Dog Excellent -- CDX) and utility (Utility Dog -- UD).
A novice title only requires heeling (both on-lead and off-leash), stand for examination, recall and group sit and down stays. Open and utility classes are entirely off-lead, and add jumping, retrieving and other skills to the fun.
There is also an Obedience Trial Championship (OTCH) for the creme de la creme of obedience competitors. Once dogs already have their UD titles, an OTCH is earned by reaching the 100-point mark for top placements in Open B and Utility B obedience classes. AKC has also added a Utility Dog Excellent (UDX) title for those remarkably consistent dogs that qualify in both open and utility on the same day in 10 obedience trials. Like the OTCH, this title is earned only after the dog’s UD has been completed.
Obedience competition is a wonderful family-oriented event that requires teamwork, sportsmanship and communication – pretty much the same skills that help you train your flat-coat to be a loving, well-behaved companion.

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