Training Your Dog to Do Tricks Gives You More Than Bragging Rights
Trick training increases their focus and gives your relationship a boost.
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We’ve all been there: some talent show or another is unfolding in front of us — whether on lawn chairs at a state fair or on our couches watching America’s Got Talent — and the audience goes wild when a perfect little pup takes the stage. It’s objectively impressive every time a stage dog jumps through hoops or responds to complex commands. If we’re being honest, equal levels of “ooh”-ing and “aah”-ing erupt when our friends show us how their pup can shake hands or play dead. The simple truth is that there’s nothing more delightful than a dog with a few tricks up their, uh, paw.
But dog tricks don’t only serve as flashy exhibitions. Teaching your dog tricks provides them valuable skills and increases focus, and you’ll also grow your human-canine bond as you train with positive reinforcement.
Why is trick-training good for dogs?
No one understands this better than stunt-dog trainer and trick-dog performer Kyra Sundance. Together with her Weimaraner, Chalcy, she has entertained and educated thousands of pet parents around the world through her performances, videos, and books. “Teaching tricks not only teaches skills but also teaches focus and establishes a pattern of learning in the dog,” Sundance says. “Tricks are taught through positive training methods, which promote a bond between canine and human.” Through trick-training, a few key things happen:
Dogs get plenty of physical exercise
Dogs also get lots of mental stimulation
Bonds are built between people and their pets
Basic obedience skills are reinforced
Dogs have fun with short bursts of training
Dog trick-training is beneficial for all ages.
When Jadie came into her life as a puppy, Sundance was eager to begin puppy training. “We started training right away with simple tricks such as ‘sit,’ ‘shake hands,’ ‘spin a circle,’ and ‘fetch,’” she says. “We trained in many five-minute sessions per day and worked on several different tricks per session. We went through a lot of treats!”
Incredibly, at the age of four-and-a-half months, Jadie could perform 50 tricks, including rolling herself in a blanket, getting the newspaper from the mailbox, tidying her toys into a toy box, wiping her paws on a doormat, ringing a bell to go outside, and dropping litter into a step can. “Spending this quality time together while she was a puppy built a bond between us that will last a lifetime,” Sundance says.
Don’t fret if your dog is well beyond the puppy stage. Trick-training is the perfect outlet for dogs of any age. Regardless of their age or experience level, you’re guaranteed to have a happier, healthier dog when you teach them trick-training. You can start off by learning easy tricks, ranging from “sit” and “down” on command to “peekaboo” and “take a bow.” Treats are encouraged as a reward. “Sometimes, we need to remind ourselves that training is fun!” Sundance adds. “This joyful attitude builds a bond that will extend into all areas of your life.”
The Trick of Trick Training
One of the secrets to teaching dogs tricks is starting with what they naturally do. If the dog has a tendency to perform a particular behavior, then it will be easier to make that a cute trick that is performed on cue than trying to get them to do some behavior that is not part of their natural repertoire.
The term “capturing behavior” refers to reinforcing your dog for performing a behavior that they do on their own so that they will be more likely to do it again in the future. Once your dog has figured out which behavior is the one that causes you to give them a treat, it is time to start introducing the cue that you will use to tell them to perform that specific behavior.
For best success, try capturing behavior that comes so naturally to your dog that they do it often. You can then reinforce it often. You may have to fine tune the behavior to get the trick to be perfect, but you still start by capturing a behavior that your dog already does on their own.
Some natural behaviors that can be turned into tricks include using paws for high-five, wave, or shake. Dogs who tend to creep when lying down are easy to teach to crawl. Dogs who rest on their backs with their legs in the air are already doing a behavior that many trainers call “belly up.”
Wondering Where to Start? Try the Shell Game.
In the classic game, a ball is placed beneath one of three cups (or shells). The shells are quickly shuffled, and your dog shows you which one is hiding the ball.
What you’ll need:
You’ll need three identical flower pots which have a hole at the base allowing your dog to smell the treat underneath. Heavy clay flower pots work well because they won’t overturn easily.
1. Make one cup smell like treats.
Start with just one flower pot and rub the inside with a treat to give it lots of scent. You can even tape a treat inside the pot. Show your dog as you place a treat on the floor and cover it with the pot. Encourage them to “find it!” When they nose or paw the pot, say “good!” (or click your clicker), and lift pot to reward them with the treat.
2. Encourage your dog to paw it.
After your dog catches on, hold the pot in place and keep encouraging them until they paw at it. Reward any paw contact, and lift the pot.
3. Add more pots to mix it up.
Add two more pots and hold them in place so your dog doesn’t knock them over. Use the pitch of your voice to calm your dog as they sniff each pot and to excite them when they show interest in the correct one. If your dog paws at an incorrect pot, do not lift it; instead encourage them to keep looking.
4. Reward your dog for choosing correctly.
When your dog indicates the correct pot, encourage them until they paw at it, then say “good!” and lift the pot to reveal their reward.
What to Expect:
Be encouraging with your dog and avoid saying “no.” Practice only a few times per session and end with a successful attempt, even if you have to go back to using just one pot to get that success.
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Julia Lane, CPDT-KA
Julia Lane owns Spot On K9 Sports, a training facility in the Chicago area, and offers online dog-sport coaching. She is the author of several travel books, and her byline has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Poets & Writers and elsewhere.