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Why Dog Trick Training is Good For All Dogs

Teaching your dog trick training skills like the shell game increases their focus and gives your relationship a boost.

by Julia Lane, CPDT-KA
July 23, 2012
Black and white spotted dog playing a shell game with three different colored cups on the floor with treats inside while a person and a tan cat looks on in the background
DoraZett / Adobe Stock

Your pet wants you to read our newsletter. (Then give them a treat.)

One of dog trainers’ biggest challenges is encouraging people to continue training their dogs after class ends. Not only will this help dogs remain well-behaved, but it also gives them attention for a lifetime, not just during a six-week beginner obedience class. Watch someone who genuinely enjoys playing with her dog and you know that dog has a home for life.

Teaching your dog tricks provides them valuable skills and increases focus, and you’ll also grow your bond as you train with positive reinforcement. Try out this easy dog training trick: the classic shell game.

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,” says Sundance. “Tricks are taught through positive training methods, which promote a bond between canine and human.”

  • Gives dogs plenty of physical exercise

  • Dogs also get lots of mental stimulation

  • Builds bonds between people and their pets

  • Reinforces basic obedience skills

  • 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,” says Sundance.

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!” enthuses Sundance. “This joyful attitude builds a bond that will extend into all areas of your life. Trick training teaches the dog that it is safe to offer behaviors, and that is what makes a really trainable dog.”

Want to start with an easy dog trick? 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.