Golden Retriever Training 101 – Dr. Jo de Klerk, DVM

The following is an excerpt from "The Complete Guide to Golden Retrievers" by Dr. Joanna de Klerk, DVM. For more information visit the books Amazon Page.

Author Credit: Dr. Joanna de Klerk, DVM

As we have said before in this book, your Golden Retriever is an intelligent dog. The characteristic that is officially used to describe him by the breed standard is “biddable,” which means eager to please. So, all he is waiting for are your instructions! There is a reason why Golden Retrievers are used as assistance dogs and in search and rescue, and that is because they are so trainable. From the very beginning you can set high expectations for your dog. Even if you are not aiming for a TV talent show, a well-trained dog will fit in with your life so much more easily, and in turn your dog will be happier. With a large dog like a Golden Retriever, training is the key to a harmonious family relationship.

The key to teaching your dog to obey your rules lies in associative training. This is a principle that creates connections in your dog’s brain, as evidenced in the case of Pavlov’s dog. In the early 1900s, an experimental scientist named Ivan Pavlov, who was investigating canine digestive function, noticed that his subjects would salivate when presented with food. He then introduced a specific sound at meal times, and found that even when food was not present, the dogs would still salivate at the sound, demonstrating that a dog can form associations in the brain, a process termed “classical conditioning.”

Remember the key to successful training is to get your dog to focus his attention on you. Take a hint from Pavlov’s dog that food is an excellent motivator. Golden Retrievers are very food oriented so training with a treat in your hand will produce rapid results. You can just use a portion of his regular kibble for training; otherwise, you can use small training treats or tiny pieces of baked liver so you don’t build too many extra calories into your dog’s daily ration. Whatever your choice, you should adjust his meal portions accordingly. Praise also means a lot to your dog, and as you progress, you can reduce the treats and just reward him with a lot of fuss for doing the right thing.

Potty Training

For the purposes of this section, we will assume you are bringing home a puppy. However, if you have adopted or purchased an adult dog that perhaps has lived in kennels or not been properly trained, the method of toilet training, or housebreaking, is broadly the same. The difference between a puppy and an adult dog is that the puppy does not yet have full control of his bladder and bowels. Therefore, however much he may want to please you when he realizes outside is the place to toilet, if he is not being taken outside regularly enough, he may involuntarily mess inside the house. On the other hand, an adult dog in most cases has the physical control, but his habits are more deeply ingrained. In both cases, patience is the key, and success should follow sooner or later.

There are different strategies to housebreaking your dog. The first is active supervision, always being ready to take your dog outside; the second is to restrict your dog’s access to the home in the early stages by closing doors, using play pens, or installing stair gates; and the third is crate-training. However, all these approaches require a scheduled routine of toilet breaks, which should include extra breaks after eating, drinking, playing, or awaking from a nap.

Golden retriever sit
Photo Courtesy – Dylan Starer

The basic principle of toilet training is for your dog to learn by association the appropriate place to urinate or defecate. In this regard he is guided by two things: scent and texture. Using puppy pads inside the home can be counterproductive, because the dog will associate soft surfaces such as furnishings and clothes with acceptable places to toilet. From the outset, he needs to recognize the texture of grass under his paws to encourage him to toilet outside. Therefore, it is vital to take him out very regularly in the early stages, so that he has ample opportunity to toilet in the appropriate place. Initially he will not know what is expected of him, so patience is needed to wait out that moment when he starts to toilet. At this moment, and not before, you may use your command word (e.g., “Busy”) so that he associates the word with the action. You may use this command once it is learned to promote the action, but not until he understands it, otherwise you will be fruitlessly using the command in connection with an action he is not doing, and the association will be lost.

After your dog has toileted in the correct place you should make a big fuss over him and give him a treat. If you are clicker-training (which is a method of reinforcing associative training) then click and reward immediately after your dog has completed his business. Don’t distract him with praise and reward while he is actually in the process as he may not finish the job.

Once your dog has been toileting appropriately outdoors for a while, the task will become easier, as he will have set up areas where he recognizes his scent. You may also find he is naturally inclined to urinate outdoors to cover the scents of any passing wildlife or neighborhood cats that may have visited your yard.

While your dog’s sensitive nose can work to your advantage in this way, it can be a problem if he has toileted indoors and the soiled area has not been cleaned adequately, as he will return to this area and toilet again. It is important to use an enzymatic cleaner to break down the urea in the soiled area, and not to use any cleaner containing ammonia, which smells like urine to a dog. You may then go over the area thoroughly with a carpet shampooer if you have one, to prevent staining.

One of the worst mistakes an owner can make in housebreaking their dog is to use harsh punishment. Your Golden Retriever learns by association, so if he is punished when he is caught toileting indoors, he associates the punishment with doing the action in the presence of his human, not with doing it in an inappropriate place. He then may become a “stealth toileter,” sneaking away to toilet indoors privately. The right action to take when catching your dog in the act is to say “No” firmly and whisk him outside where you can give him a reassuring pat. If you find the evidence but have missed the action, the moment is lost for stern words, so you should just clean up and resume positive toilet training at the next opportunity.

Patient and consistent training with plenty of toileting opportunities should soon result in a housebroken dog, but be sure not to stop toilet training your dog when you think he has “got it.” The habit needs to become deeply ingrained, so you should continue with positive reinforcement long after seeing results. If at any stage, however, your previously housebroken dog should start to regress and toilet in the house again, it is worth seeing your veterinarian, as this can be symptomatic of illness or infection. Alternatively, if it is a psychological issue, a behaviorist may help you work through an unexplained change in your dog’s habits. For a dog as intelligent as a Golden Retriever to regress is an unusual step, so it should always be taken seriously. A formerly housebroken dog knows the rules and will be as troubled about displeasing you as you are to find him soiling the home again.

How to Teach Sit

The first command you will teach your dog is to “Sit.” Not only is this a vital command for your dog’s own safety in certain situations, but it is a simple first step in the journey of communication with your dog.

Get your dog’s attention fully on you. This will not be a problem with a Golden Retriever, as the only thing he loves more than his human is his human with food in their hand. Now with a smooth motion, guide the dog into the sit position by moving your hand with the treat up and over his head. His hindquarters will instinctively lower. Only when his bottom is fully on the floor do you give your dog the treat and praise him.

Golden retriever puppy
Photo Courtesy – Jamie Smith

(If you are clicker-training your dog, you will click as well as treat at each point he does the right thing. Clickers are an optional extra associative reinforcement that the action is correct.)

At this stage, you are not using any command word. Only once the action is firmly in place after several repetitions should you use the word “Sit” as you do the hand motion, as you can reliably predict that it will result in a sit. This way the word becomes associated with the action in your dog’s brain.

With further repetitions, you can wean your dog off the hand signal by making the gesture smaller, until you are using no hand signal or body language at all, but just the word to produce a sit in your dog. Your timing is very important in rewarding the correct behavior with a treat and praise.

The next step is to wean the dog off the treat altogether, since in practice you will not have a treat on hand every time you want your dog to sit; neither would this be good for his waistline. So, as you continue the command, do not treat on every repetition. You can still praise your dog, but just produce the treat on intermittent repetitions.

You do not have to reach all these stages in one training session. Keep sessions short for your dog and end on a positive note. Build training into his daily routine so it soon becomes second nature, and it will not be a chore for either of you!

How to Teach Stay


Golden retriever stay
Photo Courtesy – Amanda and Erik Allworth

Although the command “Stay” can be taught along with the word, another method is the “Silent Stay.” This assumes that after you have placed your dog in the sit, you wish him to stay in that position until he is released from it by you. “Stay” therefore does not need a word, but your dog may be released by a word such as “Free.”


To teach this method, place your dog in the sit, and keep his attention by telling him he is a good boy. Then when he is sitting attentively, you may lead him away from the sit with a treat in your hand. As he gets up, use the word “Free.”

In the first stages, you will need to keep the time in sit very short, before your dog loses attention and gets up of his own accord. You need to stay in control of his actions. He will soon learn he gets a treat by staying until you release him. Increase the time in silent stay as you progress, including walking away from him before you release him from the position.

If you wish to use the word “Stay” while he is staying to reinforce the point, there is nothing wrong with this, but you should still use the word “Free” to release your dog from this position.

How to Teach Lie Down


Golden retriever puppy training
Photo Courtesy – Claire Moody

It is easiest to start teaching the lie down command from a sit position, so you should ask your dog to sit, and reward him to focus his attention on you.


Kneel in front of your dog, so that you have good eye contact, and bring a treat to his nose, then lower the treat in your closed hand to the floor between his legs and close to his body. Your dog should instinctively lower his front legs, but you should not reward him until both elbows are firmly on the floor. His hind quarters should also go down, but if they do not, you should not push them, which creates resistance, rather you should use your other arm like a limbo pole. Place it across the dog’s back, and move the treat forward, so in creeping forward toward the treat, the dog has to lower his back beneath your other arm.

Repeating this exercise many times in succession should lead to a more automatic response, but in the unlikely event that your Golden Retriever is slow to learn, you can teach the command incrementally, rewarding first a dip of the head, then a lowering of the elbows, until you have achieved the full lie down position.

Once your dog sits nicely with you kneeling beside him, raise your body to a crouch and then a stand, which will add to the challenge, as you will not be bringing the treat all the way to the floor for his nose to follow.

As with “Sit,” you should not use the command “Lie Down” until your dog is reliably being guided into the correct position with the treat. The next step is to wean him off the treat so that he acts consistently on the word alone. As with “Sit,” do not reward on every repetition, but vary the times he gets a treat or just some fuss.

Adding the silent stay to the lie down command is the next step, so that you have a dog that will lie down and stay down, which can be extremely useful when you have visitors. Just as with stay, you should release your dog from the position with the word “Free.” Initially, release him after only a few seconds, building up the time he remains in the lie down position. But remember to release him at the end of the training session, or your obedient dog may be too afraid to get up and will remain forgotten in the lying down position!

How to Teach Walk On the Leash


Golden retriever leash
Photo Courtesy – Samantha Hector

Your Golden Retriever puppy is going to grow into a large, strong dog, so teaching him to walk nicely on a loose leash is vitally important from the outset. The initial difficulty is that puppies are naturally exuberant, and will be more inclined to jump around and bite the leash than be led nicely by it at their owner’s heels. Achieving this objective is going to take time and patience.



You need to have realistic expectations about walks when leash training your dog. This is because you will not be going consistently in one direction or at one speed. You will also have to work to keep your dog’s full attention by being an exciting person to be around, and more interesting than his surroundings. To your dog, the leash is an impediment to going where he wants, and he will instinctively pull. He needs to disassociate pulling with getting where he wants, and associate going forward with the feeling of a loose leash. This means every time he pulls, you will stop. Put him in the sit so that you can regain a loose leash, then proceed. Your walk is going to be a continual sequence of stopping and starting in the early stages, and you should also keep changing direction to keep your dog interested. Eventually, he will realize there is a lot more walking and a lot less stopping and sitting when the leash connection is loose, and he will deduce that the right place to be is by your side. Have your training treats on hand so you can reinforce his correct behavior when he is walking nicely as you would wish.

If you are attending puppy classes, you may find your Golden Retriever puppy learns very quickly in class and walks beautifully on the leash. However, once you are outside on a walk, he is a hooligan. This is hardly surprising, as there are so many more distractions in the big outdoors. Your challenge is in working that bit harder to maintain his attention outside, as you already know he can do it in a different environment. It may feel frustrating when you just want a nice stroll in the park with your dog, but this time will come. The early months are for training which is a different experience altogether, but a totally worthwhile investment for the years to come.

How to Teach Walk Off the Leash

Your Golden Retriever was bred for working in the field and as a consequence, it is natural for him to romp off leash and expend much more of his boundless energy in doing so than he would if trotting at your heels for the same amount of time. The initial problem in reaching this stage of confidence is getting him to come back.

Just as you invest your time and energy in teaching commands like sit, lie down, and stay to your dog, you are inadvertently also teaching recall, because you are establishing a bond between yourself and your dog, and exerting your position as master and pack leader as well as teaching him his name. Your Golden Retriever wants to please you and is a very devoted breed, so naturally he wants to come back to you. The problem may be that he wishes to do this in his own time.

As with your previous training, you should carry treats in your pocket when teaching recall. That rabbit scent will need to be very distracting to a Golden Retriever to divert him from a food treat. Some Goldens also find a ball very motivating in staying focused on their owners off the leash. You do need to give your dog permission to go away from you, however, otherwise being off leash will not have the result that your dog can run freely, for the good of his mind and body. So, while calling him back regularly and treating him for his prompt attention, you should release him again with the “Free” command. The command “Come” is preferred for recall, as it is more associative with the action than simply calling the dog’s name.

Begin recall training in a safe enclosed space before venturing into open countryside. A flexi-leash will not be helpful to you in teaching your dog to walk off leash, as your dog will still sense the contact, and it does not provide sufficient range. A training line, however, may be useful if you do not have an enclosed space and your dog might run off. These are extremely long, and should be lightweight. They should be attached to a harness so that if your dog runs to the end of it, he does not suddenly get a harsh jerk to the neck. The dog will have very little sensation of being attached to a leash, but you have the security of being able to bring him back from a far distance if all else fails. Training leashes should not be used near other people or dogs, however, as they risk entanglement.

One thing worth noting is that your Golden may soon learn recall; it is in their nature, and he may return at your command very reliably. However, at adolescence, many dogs regress temporarily. In a Golden Retriever this is around 8-18 months of age. This can be a challenging period as your dog becomes driven by his own instincts, and while it may affect all his training, recall can be the most alarming thing to lose because of the danger of losing your dog. If you notice your dog becoming more disobedient about coming back from the age of 8 months, don’t panic as this is only a phase. However, you may wish to consider walking him in more confined spaces for a while, such as the park rather than open countryside, and be sure that he is wearing a collar and tag in case he should stray. You may even wish to go back to the training leash and to treats in your pocket, but don’t be discouraged, as after this brief period your dog will be ready to settle into adult life, with all his early training magically back in place.

Golden Retrievers are excellently suited to Agility because they are so intelligent and athletic. If you have a high-energy dog, Agility can help a great deal in managing his hyperactivity, and provide a fun pastime that will keep you both in good shape.

Young puppies cannot participate in Agility because of the risk of damaging growing bones and growth plates. However, those early months may profitably be used in obedience training so that when your dog can start with the basics of Agility at twelve months, his focus is on his master and he understands about following commands and the principles of reward training.

Agility involves taking your dog around an obstacle course against the clock, and is graded so that initially your dog will only be jumping very low poles. At this stage he will also learn the other elements of the course, such as the tunnel, hoops, the A-frame, the walkway, the see-saw, and the weaves. As his bones and joints reach maturity, the course becomes more demanding. Most Golden Retrievers will love the challenge and exercise involved in Agility and it will increase your bond. If, however, your dog doesn’t seem to be enjoying it and seems stressed by the experience, you may need to accept that his personality is different and look instead for what he really enjoys.

Flyball is another exciting pastime that your Golden Retriever may enjoy, as it involves retrieving a ball from the end of an obstacle course and returning with it, and naturally, retrieving is your dog’s greatest skill!

If you are less mobile and would find running an Agility course with your dog problematic, Flyball may be a more attractive option, as for the most part, the dog is going it alone.

As with Agility, your dog needs to be twelve months before starting Flyball to ensure his growth plates are closed, but the initial stages will only involve low jumps. Your dog should have good recall, because he will be sent away down the course to retrieve the ball before returning, but beginners’ runs are usually fenced each side.

In the early months before your dog starts Flyball, your obedience training is providing a sure foundation. Fitness and diet are also very important for a dog that is going to take part in high-energy activities such as Agility and Flyball.

Starting out with a Golden Retriever is very exciting because of their innate ability to learn. Training a Golden is very rewarding, and leads to a connection that really shows why dogs are known as man’s best friend. As such, the Golden Retriever is the best possible ambassador for its species, and actually, almost human!

To read more from "The Complete Guide to Golden Retrievers" by Dr. Joanna de Klerk, DVM, or purchase on Amazon, visit the link below:

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