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How to Train Your Golden Retriever

Haley Young photo

Haley Young

July 01, 2024

Dog Training

How to Train Your Golden Retriever thumbnail

Dog lovers everywhere know Golden Retrievers as intelligent and eager to please. These fluffy canine companions have earned a reputation for being quick learners—and they're often used as working dogs in various roles like search and rescue, service work, therapy programs, obedience competitions, and more.

In short: Retrievers are highly trainable! They're especially responsive to positive reinforcement training methods. If you've just brought home a golden of your own? You're in for the journey of a lifetime, building a bond like no other.

Here’s an introductory guide on how to start training your Golden Retriever. We cover:


  • How Golden Retrievers learn compared to other dog breeds
  • Key dog training concepts like operant and classical conditioning
  • Breed-specific instincts in Golden Retrievers
  • Supplies you need to train your new dog
  • Golden Retriever puppy growth timeline
  • Common skills, behaviors, and basic training to teach your puppy

Do Golden Retrievers learn differently than other dog breeds?

Golden Retrievers have been bred over generations to display certain physical traits and behaviors. While they might have some breed quirks (and it’s important to be aware of those, more on this in the next section) your Golden Retriever still learns the same way any domestic dog—and really any social mammal—does.

What is this learning? Primarily through associations!

Dog learning theory and training techniques remain the same regardless of breed

Our canine companions develop new behaviors and form habits through the principles of both operant conditioning and classical conditioning. Almost all dog training is based on these two common learning theories.

You can learn more about dog training theory in this article and about canine psychology in this one. Below we'll summarize some key concepts.

dog at show

Operant conditioning

Operant conditioning is a learning theory developed by B.F. Skinner. It’s sometimes called “trial and error” or “consequence” learning. At its simplest, operant conditioning is what happens when our dogs learn to associate their behavior with certain consequences.

If a behavior leads to good things? Dogs will perform it more frequently. If a behavior leads to something unpleasant (aversive)? Dogs will perform it less often (and perhaps develop fearful emotions—more on that in the classical conditioning section below).

There are four quadrants of operant conditioning, divided up on two dimensions:


  • Whether the consequence is the addition of something (like giving a treat or toy) or the removal of something (like taking away your attention)
  • Whether the behavior increases or decreases

If you add something, that’s called “positive”. If you remove something, that’s called “negative”. We know this can be confusing! Try not to think of it in terms of “positive being good” and “negative being bad”. Instead think of it like math class. Positive means addition. Negative means subtraction.

If the behavior increases, that’s called reinforcement. If the behavior decreases, that’s called punishment. Again, try not to think in terms of good and bad. Reinforcement and punishment, in an operant conditioning sense, simply describe whether the behavior has gotten more or less frequent.

Positive reinforcement

The positive reinforcement quadrant of operant conditioning is where you add something to increase a behavior. This is where you should focus most of your training!

Force free or reward-based dog training tries to use as much positive reinforcement as possible to show our dogs what we want them to do. It uses lots of food lures and favorite toys to motivate dogs.This way we can increase behavior we like without creating unpleasant emotions—it’s a highly motivating, low conflict way to train.

Negative punishment

The negative punishment quadrant of operant conditioning is where you remove something to decrease a behavior.

Most good trainers try to avoid the use of punishment. After all, it’s better to teach our dogs what to do instead of what not to do! That said, negative punishment can be unavoidable in our lives with dogs—and it can also be an effective part of training when paired with positive reinforcement for the behavior we do like.

Here’s an example:


  • If your dog jumps on you to be pet, you might turn away to remove (negative) your attention in hopes that they jump on you less frequently (punishment).
  • Then you might ask your dog to sit instead of jumping, at which point you give (positive) them affection in hopes that they sit more often to greet you (reinforcement).

Negative reinforcement

The negative reinforcement quadrant of operant conditioning is where you remove something to increase a behavior.

This might seem confusing—but you’re probably pretty familiar with negative reinforcement in your own life, even if you’ve never heard the scientific terms before. If you buckle your seatbelt so that your car stops beeping at you? That’s negative reinforcement. The removal (negative) of the annoying seatbelt alarm sound increases (reinforcement) the behavior of you buckling up.

Generally, good dog trainers avoid negative reinforcement in their training because it requires an aversive stimulus (like leash pressure) to be present at the start of a behavior. We want to minimize our dogs’ unpleasant emotions as much as possible.

Positive punishment

The positive punishment quadrant of operant conditioning is where you add something to decrease a behavior.

This is punishment in the most familiar sense that we think of. (Though try to remember to keep your personal associations out of it at this point—again, we’re simply focusing on a decrease in behavior when we talk in an operant conditioning sense—and we’ll talk more about emotions in classical conditioning below). In positive punishment, you add something that your dog finds aversive in that moment to decrease the behavior they performed right before the consequence.

It’s important to remember that if we aren’t thoughtful, even things we want to be reinforcing can inadvertently be punishing! A great example of this is a dog who doesn’t enjoy being patted directly on top of the head. A doting pet parent might think they’re rewarding their pet for coming when called when they pet them between the ears—but the dog might actually dislike the sensation and decrease their behavior moving forward.

Generally, the use of aversives in dog training, and especially aversive-based training where punishment or corrections are used regularly, has fallout. This is because the dog often starts to associate the unpleasant consequences with their owner, trainer, or the environment itself. This process is called classical conditioning.

Classical conditioning

Pretty much everyone has heard of Pavlov’s dogs. The scientist taught his dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell that always predicted food. But technically, “taught” isn’t quite the right word.

While operant conditioning deals with behavior (things your dog is aware of and actively chooses to do) classical conditioning deals with reflexes and emotions (things your dog can’t control). Pavlov’s dogs didn’t drool on purpose. They had just come to associate the sound of a bell with the arrival of food. Their bodies began to treat the unrelated stimulus (the bell) as a biologically relevant one (food) and have the same response to it.

Classical conditioning happens all the time with our dogs. We can never just “turn it off!" This means it’s important to be aware of what emotions we’re creating in our pets as we train them.

One common classical conditioning example is dogs getting excited when they hear the doorbell ring. They’ve come to associate the noise of the bell with the arrival of guests who give them affection, which increases their arousal in anticipation. They aren’t thinking about their behavior at this moment. They know the doorbell predicts visitors regardless of what they do.

a middle aged golden retriever looks happily at the camera

Breed can be helpful for understanding your puppy’s natural instincts

How much breed influences our dogs’ behavior can be a surprisingly controversial topic. The answer depends on many factors!

While every dog can be categorized into some sort of breed makeup—even mixed breeds can get DNA tests to identify tiny percentages of their ancestry—they’re also each individuals who might have specific preferences and traits that go against breed norms. In a broader sense, all domestic dogs share some common traits that aren’t limited to dogs but rather are seen among canines in general (like prey drive, for example).

When it comes to your own Golden Retriever training, their breed can provide helpful information about what sorts of behaviors they might be prone to. Herders often love to control moving objects, for example, while hunting dogs can be especially prone to chasing prey. That knowledge is good to have ahead of time so you can prepare to prevent potential problems!

But while different dog breeds may exhibit variations in their learning styles and preferences based on their genetic characteristics and breed traits, it’s important not to fully box your Golden Retriever into their breed. Remember to work with the dog in front of you. Individual dogs—within any breed—vary in their learning abilities, temperament, and motivations. Each dog is unique! Factors such as your Golden Retriever's age, previous training experiences, socialization, and training methods can influence their learning outcomes.

Golden Retrievers are known for, well, retrieving!

Golden Retrievers were originally bred as retrieving dogs. Our ancestors primarily used them for hunting and retrieving game both in water and on land. They have a natural instinct to carry and hold objects, which was a valuable skill for their original purpose. This instinct is deeply ingrained in their genetic makeup and has been passed down through generations and generations into many dogs who are now primarily pets rather than working animals.

What does this mean for your pet dog training? You should be prepared for some mouthiness—and potential resource guarding if you try to take objects out of your Golden Retriever’s mouth as a puppy without teaching them an “out” or “drop” cue first. Food aggression is somewhat common.

Here are some good skills to work on when your retriever is young:


  • “Out” or “drop” and the “trade up game” where your dog learns to relinquish objects on cue without conflict
  • Alternative behaviors to mouthing hands and clothes, like sitting politely for attention instead

And here are some training tips to keep in mind when setting up your house and planning your training sessions for your new Golden Retriever puppy:


  • Keep items you don’t want your puppy carrying around, like socks or children’s toys, out of reach until you’re able to teach your dog what belongs to them and what doesn’t
  • The same goes for food! Many Golden Retrievers are known for being “bottomless pits” who will eat anything in sight
  • Shorter training sessions are best to keep your puppy an enthusiastic learner. (Going too long can get boring or tiresome, even for golden puppies who have lots of energy—baby attention spans are short!)

A golden retriever pees in the grass

Golden Retrievers are usually friendly, but they still need thoughtful socialization

Socialization involves exposing your new dog to a range of stimuli—and supporting them as you do, so they’re able to learn normal everyday things that could come across as scary (like the vacuum cleaner or restaurant banners blowing in the wind) really aren’t a big deal.

While Golden Retrievers are usually bred to be easygoing in nature, a thoughtful puppy socialization process is still important for many reasons!


  • A properly socialized Golden Retriever has a better understanding of boundaries and manners with different types of people and among other animals, which is important for future behavior as they grow up.
  • Dogs socialized with each other are often less prone to fear, aggression, and insecurity, which can manifest in dangerous ways. Yes, even Golden Retrievers can develop behavioral problems like reactivity or aggression! Remember that breed alone doesn’t completely determine who your dog grows up to be. All dogs need positive experiences.
  • Canines learn much of what they carry into adulthood during their first three months of life. This is why early initial socialization is encouraged by pet professionals!
  • Socializing your Golden Retriever allows you to enjoy more experiences with your canine best friend. A well-socialized dog can do more things because they feel confident and secure. That’s something every owner wants, regardless of whether or not you actually plan to frequent dog-friendly patios or public dog parks!

You can learn more about socializing your Golden Retriever puppy in this article.

Supplies you need before you start training your Golden Retriever

There are a few things you should prepare ahead of time before you start doing any real training work with your Golden Retriever puppy.

Patience

First things first, remember that your new dog is just a baby! Puppies physically mature much faster than human children do (at eight weeks they can already romp and play, and within a few months they’ll appear almost full grown) but their brains are still developing for the first couple years of their life. If you’re going to successfully work with a young dog, you need to practice your patience.

Harness or collar and leash

You’ll need a comfortable way to keep your Golden Retriever puppy secure when out and about in the world (or even while inside your house full of distracting things to explore and possibly chew).

Harnesses can work especially well for young pups by giving them freedom to move around comfortably without risking trachea damage, all while still providing you with a way to rein them in if necessary.

We recommend:


  • 1" or 1.5" collar if you choose to go the collar route—the wider the fabric, the more any pressure is distributed around your dog's neck
  • A Y-shaped harness if you decide to go the harness route—this shape doesn't restrict your dog's shoulder movement
  • 4-to-6-foot flat training leash for daily use
  • Long line or long leash for situations where you can give your dog more freedom to explore

Treats or toys

These can help motivate your puppy to work with you in training sessions. Plus it's just fun to enjoy a good time together!

Several Golden retriever puppies eat out of a puzzle feeder dish

Golden Retriever puppy growth timeline

We've big believers in puppy training. You don't want to ask your dog to grow up too quickly, though! Understanding key milestones in your golden puppy's development will help you provide age-appropriate training.

Eight to twelve weeks of age

This is an important time to prioritize exposing your puppy—in a safe, controlled way—to the things you hope they’ll be comfortable with throughout their life. Try to introduce them to as many situations as you think they can handle, all at their own pace.

Focus on:


  • Taking your puppy into new environments to experience sights and sounds while being supported by you
  • Housetraining with regular bathroom breaks to set a healthy foundation for your dog’s potty habits
  • Looking for a reputable positive reinforcement “kindergarten” class that focuses on structured, safe socialization with other dogs and people
  • Getting your household all on the same page with a puppy raising schedule

Twelve weeks to six months

Your new dog will start to show more personality and develop more advanced social skills both with humans and with other animals. It’s important to continue your thoughtful socialization process to set them up for success. By sixteen weeks, your pup is ready for some more impulse control in their basic obedience along with some leash training.

This time period is also when your Golden Retriever's permanent teeth start to appear. Teething can be a difficult process for both dog and owner! Prepare yourself for a lot of chewing—puppies have very sharp teeth—and be ready to redirect from your hands and furniture to acceptable alternatives like designated chew toys.

Six to twelve months

This period in your puppy’s life is when they’re often equated to human teenagers. While their attention span will be much longer than when they were littler, they might also start to test boundaries, which is only natural for a young dog growing up and figuring out how to influence the world around them.

You’ll need to provide plenty of mental stimulation and reasonable physical activity throughout your dog’s entire life, but especially during their adolescence. Your puppy won’t have much of a threshold for boredom—and a frustrated puppy isn’t fun for anyone involved.

You can also expect some undesirable behaviors during this stage. Your pup will reach sexual maturity and might appear to “regress” in their training even after successfully performing cues and behaviors around a variety of distractions previously. Don’t worry! This is completely normal. Keep up your routine, engage in lots of play and exercise, and don’t hesitate to reach out to a professional trainer for support if you need to. By staying consistent, you should be able to prevent long-term bad habits in your adult dog.

What behaviors and skills should you teach your Golden Retriever?

The sky’s the limit when it comes to training your Golden Retriever puppy as they grow up! The following three things are usually top priority for most dog parents: comfort in a kennel, using the bathroom only outside, and some basic dog obedience training.

Crate training

Crate training is a vital skill for dogs to have. There are many situations where your dog might need to be comfortable in a confined space for a little while, ranging from vet visits to traveling in the car to staying at new locations like hotels out of town to attending sports trials and more. When trained through positive reinforcement, the crate can become a safe space for your dog. Kennels can even make training other skills (or working on a behavioral modification plan) easier!

You can learn more in our crate training article below. A greater range of information is always available on the dog training section of our blog, too.

An important note about crate training: Some puppies might come with a negative association to a crate, especially if they’re from a rescue situation. Even if your dog is from an ethical breeder, it’s a great idea to set up a combination of an x-pen (like a larger crate without a floor or ceiling that you can position around your house as you like) with a smaller crate inside to ease your puppy into the process of loving their new den.

While crates are an important part of most dog training and management, it’s inhumane to leave your dog inside for hours and hours on end without adequate fulfillment—and it isn’t fair to just expect your puppy to be comfortable left alone right away. Take the crate training process slowly, just like everything else.

dog has accident

Potty training

Every puppy needs to be house trained growing up. We know how difficult it is to enter a room only to be greeted by a big, smelly accident. This is one of the most common and most frustrating parts of dog ownership. Struggles in the house training department can take a toll on our own stress levels, routines, and homes—but we promise the process is worth it in the end.

You can read more about finding a successful house training process in our other blogs about potty training:

Basic manners and cues (formerly called basic commands)

Teaching your puppy some basic skills can open up your world. If your pet is able to sit, lie down, and come when called, you'll be able to take them more places with you! They can enjoy the freedom to frolic off lead and join you while meeting a range of new family and friends. Plus even this basic obedience training can do wonders for building a lasting, positive relationship between you and your companion.

Take a look at some of our articles on teaching basic cues below. Be sure to start training in a quiet environment and work up to greater distractions slowly over time. As you and your dog grow together, you'll be able to pursue more advanced training if you like!

You can read more about positive reinforcement training in our complete puppy training guide! All the information is applicable to Golden Retrievers.

Dog and owner on a pier near a city

Trainer Review of this Article

There is so much misinformation out there, and we want to make sure we only provide the highest quality information to our community. We have all of our articles reviewed by qualified, positive-only trainers. 

Lindy Langum
Founder - K9 Fun Club
Staff Trainer - Summit Assistance Dogs
Certified in Canine Studies (CSS), NW School of Canine Studies

Haley Young photo

Haley Young

July 01, 2024

Dog Training

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    American Brittany Rescue, Inc. is a registered 501(c)(3) non-profit organization formed in 1991 as a cooperative effort of Brittany owners, breeders, trainers, and fanciers who ABR believes have a responsibility not only for their own dogs and the dogs they produce, but for the breed as a whole. For 30 years, the organization of volunteers has worked to rescue Brittanys and place them in loving homes. Over the years, thousands of dogs have found hope and a forever home, thanks to our placement efforts. Nearly 9,000 dogs have been rescued and lovingly adopted into carefully selected households. Included in this number are dogs from nearly every state, Canada as well as Greece and Spain. This work is accomplished by an army of dedicated ABR volunteers. There are over 1,500 amazing, active volunteers located within all 50 states and across Canada. From the President and Board members to the volunteers and the all-important foster families, each one plays an important role.
  • FurryTail Endings Animal Rescue thumbnail

    FurryTail Endings Animal Rescue

    We save dogs from high kill shelters & off the streets to find each of them their perfect #FurryTailEnding.