Teaching your retriever the release command.
Working in the "Okay" command into your training program with every control command teaches your dog that praise and petting do not release him, that Okay and only Okay does.
You need a word or expression for releasing Your retriever from control, but it may seem ludicrous to call it a "command." After all, it releases young Feather-Fiend (or old Mallard-Muncher) from the control of whatever command you had previously given him. Thus, it is more properly an "anti-command." However, those who developed our retriever lingo long ago weren't too concerned about the fine points of logic. To them, whatever a trainer says to his dog that causes the critter to react in a predictable way is a command. And who are we to disagree with them?
That settled, let's first cover teaching the release command. Then let's review its more common uses. And finally, and most importantly, let's examine its place as the very cornerstone of predominantly positive control training, which both you and your pooch will enjoy.
Different trainers use different words or expressions for a release command. I've always used "Okay." I've heard others use "Free," "Hie-on," and even "School's out." Use whatever you're comfortable with, but be consistent. Your retriever can master an amazing number of commands, but he'll do best if you use only one word or expression for each trained response. Synonyms will only confuse him--unnecessarily.
Although the release command is sine qua non (without which there is nothing) for predominantly positive training, you cannot teach it first. Since it releases your dog from control, you can't teach it until after you've at least begun teaching him a control command. Sit, which most people teach to a new puppy first, is ideal. While teaching Sit, you can also work on your release command (I'll use Okay hereafter). With one hand on his rump and the other under his chin, command Sit as you gently force the puppy into a sitting position.
Then, while still holding him in place, praise him lavishly and gently pet him. Praise and petting are very important at this time, as you'll see below. After a few seconds, say Okay, and bring him back up into a standing position. Then play with him awhile. Repeat this a few times a day and before long your puppy will sit when you say Sit and get back up to play with you when you say Okay. It's that easy, but it does take time and patience.
If you're starting with an older dog, the process is the same.
Then, as you teach him other control commands (Heel, Come, Down, Stay), use Okay regularly to release him from each one. In no time, it will not only become a part of his working vocabulary, but it'll almost certainly become his favorite "command."
If you use your retriever as both a waterfowl retriever and an upland flusher, you'll rely on Okay plus the Sit-whistle and the Come-whistle to control him in the uplands. Cast him off to start hunting with Okay. Whenever he pushes out too far ahead, stop him with the Sit-whistle and make him sit there until you catch up, and then cut him loose again with Okay. Whenever he swings too far to either side, call him back toward you with the Come-whistle and when he's back where he belongs, release him on the fly with Okay. When he trails a moving bird, stop him with the Sit-whistle whenever he gets too far ahead, and then after you catch up, release him to continue trailing with Okay. I covered this upland flushing process in detail here in my "Retrievers" column in the October 2005 issue.
Any time you want to give your dog a fun-retrieve, that is, a retrieve in which he can break and chase, simple say Okay before you throw the dummy or bird. Realizing he is free, he'll take off so fast that he may sometimes catch whatever you throw before it hits the ground! Fun-retrieves are a great way to end every training session, and especially those inevitable teeth-grinding "experiences." Then, too, while hunting, when your dog finally gets to retrieve a bird after a long wait beside the blind or a long hunt in the uplands, you should give him at least one fun-retrieve with the bird he has just delivered. It does wonders for his attitude.
You can also release him from various commands around the house and yard with Okay. Similarly, you can use it to release him for a romp in the park or wherever.
Key To Positive Training
When I started out in retrievers, way back about the time Hannibal crossed the Alps to sack Rome, I heard several trainers, both professional and amateur, say that if you pet a retriever, you'll lose control. They were primarily concerned about keeping the competitive edge on their field trial dogs. Fortunately, they never convinced me of this. If they had, I would have given up on retriever training before I really got started. But I already had a background in pointing dogs and obedience trial training, in both of which successful trainers pet and praise their dogs almost ad nauseam.
I figured that those who said you can't pet a retriever didn't use a formal release command, or at least didn't use it properly. Thus--whenever they petted or praised their dogs--said dogs interpreted it as release. As you might imagine, their training sessions were pretty grim. Whenever the dog made a mistake, the trainer corrected him, which is as it should be. But whenever the dog did everything right, the trainer said nothing, did nothing, lest he "lose control." How would you like to work for a boss who treated you like that?
However, if you work Okay into your training program with every control command, you can easily teach your dog that praise and petting do not release him, that Okay and only Okay does that. As stated above, while teaching Sit, you should praise and pet your puppy while holding him in place until you say Okay. If he were to slip out of your hands, you'd say No, put him back where he belongs, and then praise, pet, and hold him in place again until you say Okay. Then, to gradually convince him that your praise and petting never release him, as you teach him each new command, you should reward his obedience, correct his disobedience, and release him only with Okay. While he is obeying a command, praise him, even pet him if he's nearby. Whenever he misinterprets your verbal/digital kindnesses as release, correct him, bring him back under control, and then resume the pleasantries. The correction you should use will vary, depending on his age, temperament, level of training, and proximity. For example, when heeling, you can correct him with a sharp jerk on his lead. If he misinterprets your praise while on a Come command, you can correct him with a checkcord, or better still, a retractable lead. Later, when he's sitting facing you at a distance after stopping on a Sit-whistle, if your