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Starting Your Puppy the Right Way

Three basic retriever behaviors to shape early in your training.

Starting Your Puppy the Right Way

Start small and dream big by building on your puppy's basic retrieving instincts. (Tony J. Peterson photo)

I’ve written many times about how important it is to have a training plan in place as soon as you bring your new retriever puppy home, but what I’ve never touched on is a couple of easy-to-overlook behaviors that start out as little tendencies, only to bloom into something much bigger. While it’s totally understandable to dream big when you pick up a new pup, to the point where daydreaming about triple blind retrieves is common, it’s the seemingly insignificant stuff at this stage that makes all of the difference later.

With any sporting dog youngster, you’ll see glimpses into behavioral issues when they are eight weeks old that portend future action on a larger scale. Some of these things you’ll want to train out of the pup, others you’ll want to encourage. In either case, what’s important is acknowledging them and understanding how to work with these behaviors in a way that will produce a positive outcome.

Here are three behaviors that every retriever owner should pay attention to.

Natural Retrieving 

When a specific behavioral trait is so common in a line of dogs that it becomes part of their name, you know it’s important. When it comes to retrievers, it’s in their name and it’s in their genes, but a lot of folks see this as a negative with little puppies in the house.

The reason for this is that when your Lab pup picks up the TV remote, or one of your shoes, or the kids’ toys over and over, it can be annoying. This leads to a lot of folks taking the object away and making the experience a negative one. That can create puppies that are hesitant to pick anything up for fear of getting in trouble.

That’s the exact opposite way I look at it.

I love puppies that demonstrate a lot of natural pick up and carry. This, as a trainer, is something I can work with and will be a huge asset to the dog’s development and performance throughout life. But that won’t happen if the dog gets continually scolded for engaging in it as a puppy. The best way to avoid this, and allow your pup to pick up only what you want him to, is to puppy-proof your house.

Put objects out of reach that you don’t want him carrying around and you won’t give him a chance to break your rules. It’s simple, but also sets you up to make retrieving really special and allow you to encourage and heavily praise your pup, for doing what you want him to.

Puppy Jumping 

A 12-week-old puppy is going to look to you for security and love. Often the best way for him to instantly get that is to jump up on your leg to get your attention. Or your kid’s leg. Or the stranger at the park who is clamoring to pet your adorable puppy. Each one of these sets the precedent that jumping up on someone produces a positive result for the pup.

This is cute, and seems harmless when you’re dealing with a 15 pounder. When that same Lab or Chessie matures and keeps up with the jumping behavior, it’s a lot less appealing. This is a hard one to deal with, because so many random people you encounter will encourage this behavior out of your puppy, but you’ve got to set the ground rules.

Tell folks that jumping up is off-limits, while also telling them to get down to the puppy’s level if they want to give him some love. Practice this yourself, while holding your hand down and physically keeping the puppy from jumping up. This is a lesson that needs to be set in stone early, or you’ll deal with it throughout the remainder of the dog’s life.

Discouraging A Puppy From Jumping
Make it off-limits for your puppy to jump to prevent future problems. (Tony J. Peterson photo)

Puppy Mouthing 

Puppies experience the world through their mouths, which is most evident if you watch a litter of them rolling around and playing. It’s chaos, and the play-biting is almost nonstop. This behavior is inherent in them, and while it’s cute to watch littermates chewing on each other’s ears, it’s less cute when you’ve got a sharp-toothed 12-week-old puppy that sees your hand as an opportunity to chomp away.

By the time a pup is about nine weeks old, I’ll address this issue by picking him up and holding him in my arms so that I control the lesson and he can’t run away before I can offer a correction. While holding the pup I’ll put my hand in front of his mouth, which in most cases, is like an invitation to gnaw away.

When he takes the bait, I’ll gently press his jowls against his teeth to put a little pressure on. Immediately I’ll repeat this drill, and when he bites down again, he gets the pressure on his jowls, but this time I’ll increase it slightly. You don’t have to say anything while doing this, just make sure that each correction gets a little firmer and his discomfort with each increases ever so slightly.

Discouraging A Puppy From Mouthing
Gently press your puppy's jowls against his teeth to discourage unwanted mouthing behavior. (Tony J. Peterson photo)

What you’re doing with these drills is giving him the option to choose between one behavior that results in a correction, or one that doesn’t. It doesn’t take long before they figure out which one they prefer, but the lesson doesn’t end there. Whether it’s with your spouse, or kids, or whoever has some authority and responsibility over the dog, they all need to go through this biting drill so the puppy understands that the rules apply to everyone, not just you.


Good habits start young and from the moment you bring your young pup home. Addressing just these three things with the right strategy might not be as fun as working on triple-blind retrieves but will create a very pleasant dog to be around, which is always appreciated—whether you’re at home or in the duck blind.

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