Inevitably when you get your Golden Retriever home, you will have to teach it some desired behaviors, and you’ll wonder what training method works best to accomplish this goal. While that may sound easy, you may soon find that it’s not so black and white.
There are many dog training methods. What training method to use can be confusing and is often strongly debated. The waters can get even more muddied by celebrity tv trainers who magically can make a dog behave after 10 minutes by jabbing a finger or yanking on the leash.
So, in your quest to be a responsible parent to your Golden Retriever, you will inevitably ask yourself the question; what training method is the best for a Golden Retriever?
The best training method for a Golden Retriever is reward-based training. Reward-based training promotes the use of force-free, humane techniques using science-based learning theories. This method is highly effective while having a positive impact on your dog’s welfare.
The dog training industry in North America is unregulated. Unregulated opens the door to a lot of misinformation and confusion. Anyone can call themselves a dog trainer and can use various techniques, good or bad.
How is a person supposed to understand the right training method for their Golden Retriever when there is so much conflicting information? Fortunately, this is beginning to change with evidence-based research showing that specific methods work better and dispelling certain myths that have prevailed for much too long.
To determine why reward-based training is the best method for your Golden Retriever, we need to do a quick review of the available techniques and define some concepts. Doing so will help “un-muddy” the waters a bit.
What Is Science-Based Training?
Science-based training is a growing field of science focused on the best techniques for training dogs and other animals. Not only what methods are best, but how to do so in the most humane way possible.
Not surprisingly, this evidence-based field is coinciding with public sentiment for the more compassionate treatment of animals. Consequently, we’re now seeing more trainers adopting a positive based methodology. Trainers using aversive methods are beginning to understand better, more humane ways, are available, although plenty still adhere to traditional methods
While many people consider science-based training as a method in and by itself, it’s more of a field of science than a system of training. It’s a research-focused branch of scientists and animal behaviorists using evidence-based methods to understand a dog’s behavior and which techniques work best to produce a positive behavior outcome and which do not.
Consider Psychology, which is a field of science studying the human mind and behavior. It utilizes research to determine what techniques or methods work best to elicit a positive outcome in human behavioral issues.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), for example, has been shown to utilize effective techniques in dealing with depression, while Freudian methods are shown now to be mostly ineffective.
Therefore, CBT is a method consisting of techniques that have been shown by evidence-based studies within the field of Psychology to be most effective. CBT is the method, and Psychology is the field of science.
Similarly, reward-based training (RBT) utilizes positive reinforcement-based techniques and tools supported by evidence-based research. RBT is the training method, whereas science-based training would be the field of science showing its effectiveness.
All the training methods discussed below fall within a science-based focus. They utilize tools grounded in either classical or operant conditioning, regardless of the name or label they use.
Basic Training Principles
Dog training relies on the two principles of classical and operant conditioning, and both of these are heavily based on science.
- Classical conditioning occurs when two stimuli are paired together, such as food and a bell, to elicit an involuntary behavior such as salivating. After enough pairings, the bell elicits a salivating response in the absence of food.
- Operant conditioning occurs when a behavior is learned or modified by utilizing a reinforcement (reward) or punishment (aversive) after a behavior occurs. For example, praising a dog that jumps up to greet you makes it more likely to happen again in the future. Punishing the dog after it jumps on you makes it less likely to happen again.
Classical and operant conditioning each utilize specific tools to teach, modify and reinforce specific behaviors.
In a report  prepared for the BC Humane Society, author Dr. Joanna Makowska, Ph.D., describes the basic tools used in training dogs in each category of classical and operant conditioning, as summarized below.
Classical Conditioning Tools
|Training Tool||Definition||Example||Reward or Aversive Based|
|Counter-conditioning||Modifying an unwanted behavior to the desired behavior by applying a reward or aversive stimulus||Giving a treat to counter a fear of skateboards, using a shock collar to stop barking.||Both*|
|Desensitization||Gradually applying a stimulus and at a low intensity, increasing both over time.||Turning on a vacuum from a distance and for a short duration, gradually decrease distance and increase duration.||Both*|
|Habituation||Applying a stimulus repeatedly to diminish an emotional or physical response.||Ringing the doorbell over and over without anyone appearing.||Both*|
Operant Conditioning Tools
|Training Tool||Definition||Example||Reward or Aversive Based|
|Positive Reinforcement||Modifying a behavior by providing a rewarding stimulus.||The dog sits and gets a reward.||Reward|
|Negative Reinforcement||Modifying a behavior by removing negative stimuli.||Releasing pressure on the leash after the dog sits.||Aversive|
|Positive Punishment||Modifying a behavior by applying negative stimuli.||Apply pressure on the leash to get the dog to sit.||Aversive|
|Negative Punishment||Modifying a behavior by the removal of a rewarding stimulus.||Turning your back and ignoring dog to deter jumping up.||Both*|
Common Training Methods
Most training methods fall into two categories—aversive-based (punishment) or reward-based (positive reinforcement). So, as you’ll see, while there are different methods or systems, what makes them distinct is the use of either aversive or positive reinforcement techniques and tools.
Dominance Theory, Koehler (or Traditional dog training), and electronic methods utilize punishments; hence they are aversive-based. Clicker, model/rival, and relationship (Modern dog training) are reward-based as they utilize mostly positive reinforcement.
According to Makowska, aversive techniques involve the use of anything the dog may perceive as emotionally or physically uncomfortable. So, negative and positive punishment is always considered aversive.
At the same time, counter conditioning, habituation, and desensitization can also be aversive if they employ techniques that cause discomfort or pain, e.g., shock collars.
Koehler or Traditional Dog Training
The Koehler method is one of the oldest forms of training and was very popular in the 1960s to 1980s. In this training method, William Koehler taught that the dog chooses it’s action based on the expectation of either reward or avoids a behavior due to anticipation of punishment.
The Koehler method is based mostly on aversion – negative reinforcement and negative or positive punishment, including choke and chain training collars. Koehler also popularized the knee to the chest for dogs that jump up and other techniques widely seen as inhuman in today’s training circles.
Although still practiced today, especially with military or police dogs, this method is not as widely prevalent or commonly used. Like the dominance theory discussed below, a growing number of organizations and trainers have come out against most of the techniques used in this method as inhumane and abusive.
Alpha or Dominance Theory
Popularized in the main-stream by Caesar Millian, the alpha or dominance theory of training is based on the idea that dogs have evolved from wolves and have a hierarchical structure where an “alpha” rules the pack.
According to Dominance Theory, you must become the alpha or “pack leader” for your dog to listen. Dominance theory is most noted for its alpha rolls (putting a dog on its pack), leash corrections (jerking the leash), and other aversive techniques like jabbing a finger into the dog.
Animal behaviorists have widely criticized Dominance Theory for inhumane methods that suppress the causal behavior and often exacerbate the problem by increasing a dog’s fear, anxiety, or aggression. Many research studies have demonstrated the model as being an ineffective choice for dog training and the wolf theory as being highly flawed.
A growing number of organizations have come out with position statements against the Dominance Method of training, including The Association of Professional Dog Trainers, the International Associate of Animal Behavior Consultants, Pet Professional Guild (PPG), and many more.
For a discussion on Dominance Theory issues, you may find veterinarian Dr. Sohia Yin’s article The Dominance Controversy quite enlightening.
The position statement from the Pet Professional Guild (PPG) on Dominance Theory in Animal Training also includes discussions on the use of aversion techniques like those found in the Koehler method (e.g., choke chains and prong collars) and the ill effects of various aversive methods.
Electronic training involves the use of an electric shock as an aversive. The most common of these is the shock collar, but devices can also include fences, mats, or other such aversive devices.
As with the Koehler and Dominance-based methods, this method is widely viewed as inhumane and abusive. A growing body of research shows these aversive methods exacerbate and cause problems rather than fix them. Many countries now ban the use of shock collars or shock-related devices.
For an in-depth literature review on the consequences of shock training, please see The Use of Shock in Animal Training by the PPG.
In contrast to aversive training techniques, reward-based training methods use primarily positive reinforcement. Counter-conditioning, habituation, and desensitization can also be reward-based if they employ techniques that use positive associations, e.g., counter-conditioning a fear of mail carriers with rewards.
Negative punishment is a grey area where some see it as aversive, while others see it as reward-based. With negative punishment, you are removing a reward as a punishment, e.g., you stop playing with your puppy when it bites too hard. Play is the reward, and stopping the game is the punishment.
Clicker or Marker Training
Clicker training is a method of operant conditioning, and it is a positive reinforcement only training system. It uses a small device that makes a clicking sound when pressing the button.
The clicker is a marker because the “click” is performed after the desired behavior and before the reward. In this way, the clicker is the bridge to let the dog know a reward is forthcoming.
A verbal command can also be used as a marker. Words such as “yes” or “awesome” can be used as a marker to create a bridge in the same way the clicker does.
Clicker training was developed by Karen Pryor and has been shown to be a highly effective training method for dogs.
Relationship or The Modern Method
Relationship training utilizes the relationship between dog and owner and focuses on building a positive relationship. As the name suggests, it’s relationship-based. The methodology uses tools such as learning what motivates a dog, reading a dog’s body language and putting the dog’s needs first.
The relationship method uses positive reinforcement for desired behaviors while addressing unwanted behavior by controlling the environment, ignoring undesirable behaviors, and teaching incompatible behaviors.
Relationship training avoids aversives. The relationship method of training uses capturing, luring, shaping, and cueing techniques and can include other positive-only training methods such as clicker training.
The relationship method or modern training is used by well-known dog trainers such as Dr. Ian Dunbar, Karen Pryor, Patricia McConnell, Jean Donaldson, and Zak George, among many others.
Best Friends offers an in-depth discussion on this method entitled Relationship-Based Dog Training: Benefits. Best Friends also considers this the most effective method, and it incorporates many of the other positive reinforcement training methods discussed.
Model/Rival and Mirror training use a model to demonstrate the desired behavior. The goal is to have the dog learn the behavior from viewing the model perform the behavior first. The dog gets rewarded when it successfully performs the desired action.
The model/rival employs a second person who performs or “models” the behavior and is also the rival for the trainer’s attention. The model demonstrates the action to the dog and receives a reward for correct labeling.
Irene Pepperberg developed the Model/Rival method to teach an African Grey Parrot to label a large number of objects.
Mirror training is similar and is based on the premise that dogs learn by observing and then “mirroring” the behavior. In this method, the owner would initiate the action and reward the dog for mirroring the desired behavior.
The Model/Rival method is not frequently used, and if it is, it is typically done in conjunction with other reward-based methods.
In the video below, Dr. Patricia McConnell loosely demonstrates Model/Rival method.
Why Is Reward-Based Training the Best Method for a Golden Retriever?
Aversive training methods are increasingly being shown in many evidence-based studies to cause poor consequences for dogs, including fear, anxiety, and aggression. These methods often employ inhumane and abusive techniques and impact a dog’s welfare in a negative way.
Reward-based methods also have fewer unexpected and unintended consequences such as fear, aggression, or anxiety compared to aversive techniques. The method produces better obedience, is the easiest to learn for dog owners, and develops a better relationship between owner and pet.
Two studies from 2017 illustrate this point, and each incorporates a literature review on the effects of aversive training methods in dogs.
In 2017, Ziv  concluded that aversive training puts the welfare of your dog at risk and has unintended and negative consequences. Ziv further concluded that aversive training techniques are not more effective than reward-based training, and trainers should use positive reinforcement, not negative or positive based punishment techniques.
A second study , also released in 2017, came to the same conclusions, although not as strongly worded as Ziv, but added that more studies on the effects are needed.
A report based study  in 2019, surveyed veterans with PTSD who were assigned psychiatric service dogs for therapy. Training methods were divided into five categories: “positive reinforcement (e.g., physical praise), negative punishment (e.g., ignoring the dog), positive punishment (e.g., verbal correction), dominance (e.g., alpha roll), and bond-based (e.g., co-sleeping).”
Researchers discovered that the reported use of positive reinforcement or bond-based training methods (reward-based) were linked with much more positive outcomes. In contrast, positive punishment (aversive-based) is associated with more negative consequences, including fear.
In 2020 another study  directly addressed if the training method matters. Researchers in this study concluded that:
“companion dogs trained with aversive-based methods experienced poorer welfare during training sessions than dogs trained with reward-based methods.”
The researchers also concluded that dogs trained with aversive-based methods experienced poorer dog welfare outside the training context than dogs trained with reward-based methods.
Finally, a comprehensive report created for the BC SPCA  reviewed and analyzed the scientific literature on training methods and their effects. That report strongly supports the position that reward-based training is the most effective method.
The webinar below from the BC SPCA is based on that report. The evidence discussed in the webinar supports the many organizations and trainers who believe reward-based training is the best way to train dogs. If you prefer to watch instead of reading, this is an excellent webinar.
Should I Use a Trainer for My Golden Retriever?
That depends on your goals, your time availability, and your commitment.
With an introductory obedience class or two from a qualified reward-based trainer, you should be better equipped to have a well behaved and adjusted, happy dog going forward into the future.
That said, there are many good books and online instructional courses that can equip you to teach your Golden Retriever as well.
Teaching your Golden basic commands is not difficult. The Golden Retriever is amazingly smart, and within a few weeks, your dog can quickly know it’s basics. The key is to do so using reward-based methods only.
If you’re interested in why Golden Retrievers are easy to train, check out this article:
If you wish to find online instructional classes or resources such as books, please visit my Gold Bar Products and Gear. I only recommend reward-based tools and methods – no aversive allowed.
Of course, you can train your Golden Retriever to do tricks, agility, scent, therapy, and the list is almost endless. So, you may need to avail yourself of trainers who have a little more expertise, especially for highly specialized endeavors such as scent competitions or agility/rally sports.
Or, you may encounter a behavioral issue that you’re ill-equipped to handle or can’t seem to remedy. In those instances, it is wise to avail yourself of the services of a well-educated and experienced trainer, and especially if your dog is showing reactive or aggressive behavior.
At the minimum, owners, when possible, should enroll themselves and their dog in an obedience class to learn basic commands. Barring that option, the owner should take it upon themselves to learn basic obedience via reputable reward-based instruction either by streaming or book.
What Should I Look for in a Trainer for My Golden Retriever?
Ask lots of questions. Be a detective. You want a trainer that employs positive training methods only. Ask how they deal with undesirable behaviors. Do they use leash corrections, alpha-rolls, or choke chains, who do they respect as dog trainers? Do they have references and past students you can speak with? And anything else you can think of to ask to ensure you feel comfortable.
A Trainer Should:
- Use only rewards: treat, praise, or toys
- Allow you to participate
- Make your dog feel comfortable and safe
- Use positive-only techniques that are humane
- Answer all questions to your satisfaction
A Trainer Should Not:
- Use striking, jabbing, shouting, or harsh leash corrections
- Ban you from participating
- Make your dog feel uncomfortable or scared
- Use choke chains, prong or, shock collars
- Avoid your questions or be evasive
Also, be leery of trainers who use statements such as “there are many ways to train a dog, not just one” as a defense for using aversive techniques or a justification for punishment-based training.
Quick, easy, and effective does not necessarily mean better. For example, there are many ways to lose weight. Pills, starvation, or a tape-worm are quick and effective but can come with consequences, some dire.
Often such justifications fail to address whether a method is humane or what the consequences down the road are for their use. A particular method may elicit the desired behavior, but at what cost? If your dog is now fearful of you, stressed, less trustful, or aggressive, is that really what you want for your Golden Retriever?
Another issue to beware of is trainers that use a hierarchical method. With this method, the trainer initially uses positive-based techniques but will move “up the ladder” to more aversive-based techniques if the dog does not learn the desired behavior.
The problem with the hierarchical approach is it becomes too easy for the trainer to use more aversive techniques if not getting the desired behavior quickly enough. It may be especially tempting for trainers with little experience, skills, and training.
Some dog certifications utilize this philosophy, e.g., CPDT, so be mindful of this should you want a trainer that avoids all aversive methods and techniques. The PPG warns of trainers using this approach for the reasons discussed.
It’s very clear from the mounting science-based evidence that reward-based training is the most effective method while balancing what is best for your Golden Retriever and you.
More and more agencies – humane societies, training organizations, veterinarian groups, SPCA’s and many more – are coming out with strong positions against aversive-based training. Mounting evidence shows that aversive techniques negatively impact a dog’s welfare and have unintended and unforeseen consequences such as fear and aggression.
At the end of the day, we love our Golden Retrievers. We want what’s best for them. And the evidence is quite clear now.
Reward-based training is the most effective method for teaching your Golden Retriever while having a positive impact on your dog’s welfare and your relationship. That’s a win-win for your Golden Retriever and you.
1. Makowska, IJ. 2018. Review of dog training methods: welfare, learning ability, and current standards. British Columbia Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
2. Ziv, G. 2017. The Effects of Using Aversive Training Methods in Dogs – A Review. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research (19) 50-60.
3. Guilherme Fernandes, J., Olsson, I.A.S., Vieira de Castro, A.C., 2017. Do aversive-based training methods actually compromise dog welfare?: A literature review. Appl. Anim. Behav. Sci. 196, 1–12.
4. LaFollette MR, Rodriguez KE, Ogata N, O’Haire ME., 2019.k Military veterans and their PTSD service dogs: Associations between training methods, PTSD severity, dog behavior, and the human-animal bond. Frontiers in Veterinary Science 2019;
5. Ana Catarina Vieira de Castro, Danielle Fuchs, Stefania Pastur, Liliana de Sousa, I Anna S Olsson, 2020. Does training method matter? Evidence for the negative impact of aversive-based methods on companion dog welfare. PLOS ONE
Position Statement American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior: “Position Statement on the Use of Dominance Theory in Behavior Modification of Animals”
Association of Professional Dog Trainers: “Dominance and Dog Training”
International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants: Position Statement on Dominance Theory
The Pet Professional Guild: Position on Dominance Theory in Animal Training
The Canadian Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA): Humane Training Methods for Dogs – Position Statement