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Is “Shake” a Bad Word For Your Dog to Learn?

Uh, who else got that memo?

by Marissa Gainsburg
September 13, 2022
A woman sitting outside of a tent wearing a fedora and headphones shaking a dogs paw.
Milles Studio / Stocksy

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Earlier this summer, I brought my two-year-old Aussie, Miley, to an outdoor bar with some friends. When the server approached us to take our orders, she did what most dog-friendly service people do: She asked if Miley could have a T-R-E-A-T. “Sure,” I said, and before I knew it, Miley’s left paw was nestled in the server’s right hand. I, being the one who taught Miley to shake, was proud.

That was, to my surprise, until two of my friends broke into a conversation about how they purposely didn’t teach their dogs to shake. After a little bit of back and forth, my pride quickly turned into embarrassment, and shortly after that, shame.

When did “shake” become a no-no? Did it deserve its seemingly new bad rap? And more important: Should I stop using it? For the sake of my own pride after that interaction with my friends, I had to find out.

A Little Bit of History

“Shake,” as a command, has been around for a very long time, but it wasn’t up for debate until semi-recently. In the ’80s and ’90s, dog trainers taught tricks for consistent and impressive conduct — but without a strong grasp of canine behavior and learning theory (how a dog processes and retains knowledge), says Kim Roche, CDBC, CPDT-KA, a dog trainer and certified behavior consultant in Austin, Texas. It wasn’t until the 21st century that trainers became educated in learning theory and could truly understand the power of a certain command, she says. As such, most have stopped teaching it. But why?

The Problem With “Shake”

“‘Shake’ is a really cute trick, and so it’s often one of the first people teach their dog,” says Jamie Hansen, dog trainer and owner of Diamond Hill Dog Training in La Center, Washington. “People love the contact and interaction with a dog through a human gesture.” 

The issue is: Cute can quickly turn ugly, warns Roche. “‘Shake’ is usually a harmless trick, but I have seen it go wrong,” she says, recalling stories of dogs knocking tea out of someone’s hands or whacking a child in the face.

That risk is inherent in the trick because “we know now that any behavior we teach a dog through positive reinforcement will almost always occur spontaneously, too,” says Roche. This means that unless you’re living with a trained service dog or you’ve done a lot of work on stimulus control, your dog will probably extend its paw in hopes of getting a treat or a handout in moments you don’t want them to.

It’s a slippery slope, says Roche. “If we teach a dog to shake, we’re teaching them ‘go ahead and put a paw on a person.’ For most dogs, it’s incredibly hard to know that one is OK but two isn’t, and before you know it, you have an otherwise great dog jumping when that’s not an encouraged behavior,” she explains.

Someone could get very hurt.

For your dog — particularly if you have a shy one — “shake” could also invite distress, adds Roche. Your pup might be cool with being touched in one context but not another, and bringing strangers into the mix (often the case with the “nice-to-meet-you” shake trick)? It could put them on edge and result in a not-so-welcoming reaction. 

Shaking Off “Shake”

That’s not to say you can’t or shouldn’t teach your dog to shake — your dog, your decision! Don’t let anyone’s opinion or judgment (note to self: not even your friends’) dissuade you from something you feel good about.

“All that matters is your personal tolerance — do you care if your dog paws when you don’t want them to?” asks Hansen.

If you do care, you can stop asking for a shake and just reinforce a nice sit. But you can also teach your dog an even cuter, but less problematic trick, says Hansen: the wave. It’s a little harder to teach, she notes, but it (1) removes the contact, and (2) takes more effort for your dog to execute, so they’re less likely to do it unprompted.

To teach it, Hansen says you’ll first need your dog to learn how to sit on their hindquarters: From a sit position, hold a treat over their head and get them to stretch a little from their hind legs.

Next, have them hold this stretched position for a few seconds (keep giving them treats — P.S. they’ll have to use those muscles!), then show them how to wave by one of two ways. Either take their paw and raise it up, giving them a treat as you say the word “wave.” Or, if your dog is pretty sharp, you can wave yourself, saying the word until they try it on their own.

As for me and Miley? We’re slowly casting out the word shake, but we haven’t quite gotten a hang of the whole wave thing yet. I’m confident, though, that we’ll get there…and when we do, everyone — servers, friends, myself included — will be not only proud, but impressed.

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Marissa Gainsburg

Marissa Gainsburg is a writer, editor and content strategist who recently traded East Coast humidity for West Coast waterfalls (and wildfire smoke). She lives in Portland, Oregon, with her thru-hiker boyfriend (how cliché) and their freakishly intelligent Aussie, Miley. She previously covered all things wellness and lifestyle as the features director at Women's Health. Her work has also appeared in CosmopolitanSELF, and Men's Health.