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How to Train Your Soft or Strong-Willed Retriever

Train your puppy based on individual personality.

How to Train Your Soft or Strong-Willed Retriever

Different dogs demand different approaches, but the end result can always be a great house and hunting dog. (Photo By: Daz Stock/

We often refer to breeds in generalities. With retrievers, it’s common to hear people say that they are always one way, or never another. While some traits and hunting styles are certainly endemic to specific breeds, the reality is that every dog is an individual and needs to be trained as such.

This is true regardless of bloodlines, and often boils down to whether you’re dealing with what we’d call a soft dog, or dog that is strong-willed. For amateur handlers, it’s often a good idea for them to own a dog that falls right in the middle of the spectrum, but getting a puppy like that involves more than just crossing your fingers and plucking one from the litter. Working with a breeder to match up with the right pup is the best choice, because they’ll have had weeks of interaction with each puppy, which gives them a good glimpse into their personalities.

Even with a breeder’s approval, you’re still going to want to do your own assessment of a puppy’s will. I’ve written about this a lot, but it’s worth repeating. Simply pick your pup up and cradle it in your arms, like a load of wood (with the puppy on its back in the crook of your arms). Then, apply a slight amount of pressure and then pay attention.

What you’re looking for is the instant the pup relents, or relaxes. Most will struggle a little before giving up, but some will squirm for 10 seconds. Either way, when the dog does relax, immediately release the pressure but don’t set the pup down. Basically, what you’ll start to see after doing this a few times is where your pup falls on the passivity scale.

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Soft Pups

The pup that relents almost instantly when you test its will is a puppy that usually needs a bit of confidence work, which is a huge component to a well-rounded bird dog. This means that you’ll have to play with this youngster in a way where you might lay down and let it crawl all over you so that it starts to learn to assert itself. Your role as the dominant leader will come later, but for now it’s all about putting the puppy in situations that will grow its confidence.

This seems simple enough, but is a tightrope walk. You don’t want to put the dog in any situation where it’ll fail, or need to be disciplined. Soft dogs don’t handle discipline well as young puppies, so you’ve got to check your temper at the door.

how to train a retriever
A soft dog is one that will need coaxing and a proper, long-game buildup to these seminal moments. (Photo By: Tony J. Peterson)

This goes for many of the stages of puppy development from the most basic obedience, to later—intro work with water, birds and gunfire.  Anything that goes wrong, or really wrong, can prove to be a serious setback, so I can’t stress this enough.

A good way to illustrate this is with early retrieving work. With soft pups, you want to encourage them to go hard, so I might even let them break a little early at first. I don’t want to do anything to quell that growing desire, although I do pay close attention to what I’m letting the pups get away with as the sessions progress.

Up to this point, it probably feels like a soft dog might not turn out to be a duck hunting machine, or one that absolutely lives to retrieve. Neither are true. In fact, a soft dog with a high retrieving desire might be the best dog personality-wise, for an amateur handler to own. That’s a dog that won’t need tons of discipline, operates in a world where the retrieve is the ultimate reward, and is very likely to want to please its owner. Those traits are all positive, and are the foundation of some of the best duck dogs you’ll ever see in a blind or boat.

Strong-Willed Pups

At the other end of the spectrum are the pups that bully their littermates around. This is a youngster that will try its best to squirm out of your arms when you do the pressure on/pressure off test to see where it lands on the softness scale. These puppies, unlike softies, require more restraint training. This is a dog you might have to dial back by making him wait for a retrieve or a food reward.


A strong-willed pup, just like a soft pup, comes with its own pros and cons. In the former category, you’ve got a dog that is likely to be able to start training early while being exposed to the structure of different lessons and drills. These dogs also tend to shrug off handler mistakes much quicker than softer dogs, which is a huge benefit to all trainers whether they are pros or not.

On the con side of things, you know a headstrong pup is probably going to be a real challenge to steady. Since steadiness is the cornerstone of all well-behaved duck dogs, it’s imperative to recognize this need if you’re dealing with a hard-charger of a pup. Recall can be another issue, and it’s something that needs to be addressed early on and throughout the dog's formal years of training, otherwise the dog might make the decision that it’s his call when he returns to you.

how to train a retriever
Using a "cradle test" can be a great way to evaluate your pup's personality and passivity. (Photo By: Tony J. Peterson)

Stronger-willed dogs often love to hunt and retrieve, which is a good thing, but it comes with responsibility when they are puppies. If you don’t take the right steps to establish behavior expectations with them from the get-go, they can be harder to rein in as they mature and start to test your boundaries.

Buy the best bloodlines you can afford, but understand that this is just a starting point. You’ve still got to assess your pup and decide what type of dog your dealing with, and then develop a baby-step training plan that factors in just how soft or strong-willed your pup is. While the paths to a great dog might be vastly different depending on the variance in personalities, the results should be the same.

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