by Jenny Turner
Some people may consider tricks silly and useless. But I believe there are many good reasons why tricks are not only fun but beneficial to dogs and their owners.
Tricks make the learning process more fun. Because of this, people are more likely to practice, and practice feels less like “work”. Tricks have been proven to change the owner’s attitude towards their dog. If they have unsuccessfully tried to teach the less exciting commands like sit, drop and stay, they may be frustrated with themselves and their dog. But if a trainer can get their dog to do a trick in a few minutes, the owner will feel instantly proud and their opinion of their dog will increase – “look how smart my dog is, he can shake hands!” Teaching obedience is often less relaxing or fun and more stressful because we “expect” dogs to be obedient, but we don’t expect dogs to be able to do tricks. At the very least, tricks will increase your control and improve your training skills and your relationship with your dog.
There are also health benefits associated with learning tricks. Tricks such as “bow” and “beg” improve your dog’s flexibility and will stretch and warm up muscles.
When teaching tricks, always use positive reinforcement. Start by rewarding small movements in the right direction, then shape them into the desired end result. Use creative clues – even if you have a certain trick in mind but your dog does something completely different, you can reward that and shape a totally different behaviour, then go back to teaching your original idea later. Don’t miss the opportunity to teach a trick that the dog may offer at a guess. Even if it wasn’t what you were looking for originally, it may turn out to be something even better. You’ll need to use a fast marker signal, such as the word “yes” or better still try a clicker. The clicker is quick and precise, it will signal to the dog the exact moment that he did the right thing. Of course this relies on you being able to use the clicker effectively, so make sure you practice before starting to teach. You can prompt the dog by using a lure to start.
Tricks To Try
Hold a treat in your closed fist. Show the dog your fist. When the dog touches your fist while sniffing it, reward with a “yes” or a click, then give the treat. When the dog becomes consistent, add the command word such as “hit”. Increase the difficulty by taking the treat out of your fist. (Your dog is still targeting your fist and getting the treat, it’s just not in your fist any more.) Then use your half-open fist, then an open hand, then move to a different object (start with something short like a pen, then work up to a long object like a wand or ruler). Work up to touching either hand on either side of your body, make the dog stretch, walk around or jump up to reach the target. This trick is great for getting the dog to switch to your other side if you participate in the sport of agility.
Kneel down beside your standing dog. Place one hand underneath the dog’s tummy, then lure the dog down towards the drop position using a treat at the dog’s nose. Hold briefly and say “bow”, then treat. Make your touch softer and softer on the dogs tummy, then eventually remove your hand altogether. If the dog drops to the floor, lure back to a stand, then treat. When your dog is bowing reliably with the lure, give a hand signal and verbal command before you use the lure, and the dog will start to anticipate that the signal means you’re going to lure him into a bow. He will then start to bow when he sees the hand signal and hears the command. Then you can phase out the lure.
Start with the dog in the sit position and lure using food held above his nose. Move the food up and back with the aim being that the dog will stretch and lifting his paws off the ground. Reward even the smallest lift off the floor – even if it’s only 1 foot. Once the dog is lifting both paws off the ground increase the length that he has to hold the position, then work on being able to give the signal at a distance without the lure.
Start with dog in the drop position and lure him with a treat in front of his nose, but just out of reach. If he stands to reach the treat, withdraw it and put him back in the drop position. Start by rewarding the very smallest step, which would be a stretch of the neck. Alternatively, you can sit on the floor with your knees pulled up to make an A-frame shape and lure the dog underneath your legs with a treat. Bear in mind that this won’t work if you have a large dog and short legs. There just won’t be enough room for the dog to squeeze under you.
Great for a submissive dog, as it builds their confidence in you when they do something that would normally be scary. Also great for a dominant dog, as he’s willingly being more submissive by letting the owner stand over him. Method: present your leg first (point your toe and put your knee forward to form an arch), then present your hand, containing the treat, underneath the leg (these should be two separate movements!) Eventually, the dog will anticipate that the leg is the signal and will begin to weave before you put your hand down. Lure the dog underneath your leg by pulling the treat away. If the dog is not willing to go all the way underneath, reward if he sticks his head under your leg. Then next time, reward if he sticks his head and shoulders under your leg. Work up bit by bit until he’s willingly going underneath you. Practice with both legs and build speed.
Pawing and Waving
With a really yummy treat in your hand, present your closed fist to your dog around his chest height. It’s important that the treat you’re holding is something highly desirable so that the dog will persist in trying to get it out of your hand. The theory is that the dog will try all sorts of tactics to pry the treat from you – including licking, nudging and eventually pawing. If it seems that the dog will never put his paw up, then you’ll need to get out your clicker. Ask the dog to sit and lure him with a treat above his head, when his head is up and he’s sniffing at the treat, move the treat to the side quickly. This will cause his head to follow the treat and as he leans, one paw should come off the ground to keep his balance. At the exact time this paw comes up, click with the clicker, then treat. (This tactic will also work if you can’t get the dog to lift his paws off the ground when teaching the begging trick.) Surprisingly, if repeated enough, the dog will realise that he’s being rewarded for taking a paw off the ground, and will hopefully give you the pawing action voluntarily. Eventually remove the treats from your hand and just present your fist, then work up to a half-open fist, then an open hand, then ask for either paw. To change this pawing to a wave, ask for the paw but pull your hand away while the paw is in the air and reward him for missing. Add the command “wave” and repeat pulling your hand away until the dog puts his paw up just on the command.
Put food in your hand and make a loose fist, then present both your fists to the dog. He should easily be able to tell which one the food is in, and should paw the correct one. (See how to teach pawing.) Reward when he hits the correct hand. Remember to alternate which hand the treat is in or the dog will anticipate the same hand every time. To make it more difficult, add another person i.e., 4 fists but only 1 has food. Add a command word as you present your fist, such as “sniff” or “find it”.
Scenting has so many more possibilities. Have you ever wondered what to do on those days when you’re dog is still hyperactive even after he’s been for his walk? Well, scenting is your answer. 15 minutes of mentally stimulating work, such as scenting, is equivalent to a 1 hour walk. Put your dog in a sit-stay or drop-stay and let him watch while you drop little treats around the house. Put them in the corners, under the table, on the steps, etc, then give your dog the scenting command and watch him go. He may cheat at first, as he’ll remember where you’ve dropped some of the treats and will use his eyes to find them, but once he understands that he’s supposed to use his nose you can put him in another room while you lay out the treats. As he’s picking up the first few treats, introduce your scenting command word. If he misses some treats and thinks the game is over, you can give the command again and he’ll realise that he’s got to keep looking.
Points to Remember
Keep in mind that any new exercises may cause stretching or fatigue of muscles. If the dog stops, he may be sore or tired.
Train at a pace that’s comfortable for the dog – there’s no need to practice each command an exact number of times.
We’ve been taught to learn in stages, e.g., get one stage perfect before moving to the next. This is not necessary to do – it’s OK to skip small stages if your dog is learning quickly.
Obedience instructors can include tricks in their beginners class, perhaps a new one each week. It gives your students a larger variety of commands to choose from, so they’re more likely to practice.