How to Obedience Train a Labrador Retriever

Easy
2-12 Weeks
General

Introduction

The intelligence and trainability of Labradors makes them excellent service dogs. These wonderfully loyal and clever dogs love to please people, thrive on the mental challenge of training, and are quick learners to boot. However, your dog is the exception to the rule. For starters, while he quickly learned to 'sit' ahead of putting his supper on the kitchen floor, try and get him to sit when out on walks and he looks at you dumbly. 

Another classic is his flaky recall. You're petrified of losing him in the park, and so worked at his recall in the yard. Same thing. He runs to your side in a heartbeat when training at home, but go to the park and he rapidly becomes a blur in the distance as he runs off after other dogs. 

There's obviously more to obedience training than meets to the eye... so where are you going wrong?

Defining Tasks

Obedience training any dog is imperative and part of being a responsible pet parent and raising a good canine citizen. Start with basic commands such as 'sit', 'stay', 'down', and 'come', and you will have good control over your dog in a range of situations. 

Obedience training is most successful when reward-based methods are used. This encourages the dog to think for himself and work out what is required in order to earn a reward. This is far more humane than outdated training methods which rely on dominating the dog. 

However, obedience training should always be fun for the dog, so be wary of overtiring or overtaxing him. It's better to train a couple of times a day, for five to ten minutes, than to hold one longer session. And remember, practice makes perfect so commit to daily training and you will have a well-trained Labrador to be proud of. 

Getting Started

To obedience train a Labrador your main requirements are to understand how the dog's mind works and use skillfully timed rewards in order to motivate him. You will need: 

  • Bite-sized treats
  • Consider using a range of treats from relatively boring (such as his regular kibble) to highly motivational (a small cube of cheese) when teaching something new or tricky
  • A bag or pouch to keep those treats handy

The Reward-Based Training Method

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1
Understand why reward-based training works
Labradors, along with all dogs, learn best when they think for themselves about how to solve a problem. When the problem you set is to 'sit', the dog has to think through what the word "sit" means and what action he has to do to comply. So what is the magic motivation which makes it worthwhile for the dog to go to all this trouble? Rewards! Use either tiny food tidbits or a brief game with a favorite toy, in order to motivate the dog. In short, he gets a payout--do what the pet parent says and you get a reward. However, unlike straightforward bribery with treats, eventually you decrease how often he gets the payout, thus making him work harder in order to please.
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Choosing the right reward
When obedience training, you won't achieve much if every time the dog does something right, he settles down to a treat that takes five minutes to eat (not that anything lasts five minutes with a Labrador). Instead, choose small pea-sized treats that are tasty and smelly. Small cubes of cheese, chicken, or sausage work well. You can also use his regular kibble, for basic training that the dog already knows and just need gentle reinforcement, and save the ultra-tasty stuff for strong motivation for recall or tricky stuff.
Step
3
Use verbal encouragement
When the dog completes the action he gets a reward. However, help him along the way with verbal pointers that he's going in the right direction. For example, when teaching recall, if the dog takes on hesitant step towards you, say "Good" in an excited, encouraging voice. Likewise, if the dog looks away from you as if to move away, say "Uh-oh" in a disappointed voice, so that he gets a cue that this is the wrong action.
Step
4
Using a reward as a lure
Many of the actions we want the dog to do, such as sitting, staying, or lying down, can be taught by luring the dog with a treat. For example, when teaching 'sit', hold the treat by the end of the dog's nose so he can smell it. Then move the treat in an arc over and behind his head so his bottom drops to the ground in order to follow it. You would then say "Good" as his butt drops down and give the reward once he is sitting.
Step
5
Label with a cue word
In the previous step you learned to lure the dog into a sit. Once the dog starts to anticipate what's going to happen, he will offer a sit and drop his bottom to the ground. Now is the time to tell the dog what this action is called and say "sit" as he's in the act of sitting. Moving forward, once the dog makes the connection between the word and the action, you can say "Sit" in the absence of a lure and he will offer the desired behavior. At which point, give him lots of praise and be sure he understands how clever he's just been.
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The Do's and Don'ts Method

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Don't: Dominate the dog
For far too long there has been a vogue for training dogs by letting them know who's in control or 'dominating' them. Unfortunately, dominance theory is based on faulty science. We now know that dog, for the most part, aren't trying to get one up on us, but that they actually want to please us and enjoy the safety of structured learning. This makes reward-based training methods both more ethical and more effective. If your dog misbehaves, don't punish him but think about how you can communicate more clearly about what behavior is required.
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2
Do: Keep training fun
Labradors learn best when they want to please you. Keeping training sessions fun by thinking of fresh and interesting ways to train, and holding short sessions but a couple of times a day--rather than one long session.
Step
3
Do: Teach new commands a step at a time
Let's say you want to teach your Labrador to put his toys away in a bucket. This is within the capabilities of the average Lab, provided he's taught in a way he understands. Key to teaching complex actions is to break it down into steps, which you teach one at a time, adding each new skill onto the previously learned one. For example, you'd first teach the dog to pick up a toy, then to fetch the toy from a distance, then to drop the toy into your hand, and finally to drop the toy into a bucket.
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4
Do: Interact with the dog
Be sure to give plenty of verbal praise and encouragement while training. It will help the dog look forward to training sessions when given enthusiastic praise which builds his self-confidence.
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5
Do: End each training session on a high
It's important to end each training session on a high note. If the dog is getting tired and starting to make mistakes, be sure to end things with him feeling upbeat. For the final command, do something you know he has a good grasp of, such as 'sit', so that you can shower him with praise.
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The Place and Time Method

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Step
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Understand the idea
Have you ever had a dog that sat beautifully at home, but refused to stay still out on walks? This is because the dog learned only to execute the sit command at home in the kitchen. Taken out of context, such as the park or obedience class, he doesn't make the mental leap and understand what's expected. The place and time method is all about reinforcing basic skills by varying where you train and how long he's expected to hold the action.
Step
2
Teach the basic command
Let's take the example of 'sit'. Teach the dog the basic command using the means suggested in the 'Reward-Based Training' method.
Step
3
Vary where you train
It's perfectly appropriate to start training in a distraction-free environment. However, once the dog has grasped the basics, be sure to vary where you train. If the pup is too young to venture out, then train him in different rooms in the house and in the back yard. As soon as the dog is allowed out in public places, then take your training on the road. Of course, it's going to help to do the initial training in a low-distraction area such as the park when it's not peak dog walking time... this will come later. The important thing is that he doesn't start to think "I only have to sit when in front of the fridge."
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4
Add in distraction
You've done a great job and he now sits outside the school gates when the kids are still in the classroom. Excellent. Now up the ante with a little distraction. Use a high value treat to really get and hold his attention, and train while the kids are streaming out of school. A piece of smelly sausage or cheese has magical abilities to hold his attention, even in the face of distraction.
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5
Extend the time
Once the dog learns to sit, wherever you command, make him wait a little longer each time, before he gets his reward. This is the start of you being able to control the dog when not immediately by his side, and is a great way to keep your dog safe. Aim to have the dog maintain the sit for at least a minute - which is a skill which could save his life if he's about to run onto a busy road.
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Success Stories and Training Questions

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