Contrary to the popular saying, even older dogs can learn new tricks! Learning tricks helps your dog to learn how to pay attention to you, which reinforces general obedience training and strengthens your alpha position in the pack. Tricks also provide dogs with an opportunity to exercise their brains, which, like physical exercise, helps to keep them from getting bored and engaging in destructive behaviors. Tricks can also replace negative behaviors, such as jumping. Consider how much nicer it is to be greeted at the door by a dog that wants to “shake” your hand instead of jumping on you.
Every dog should know how to come when called, how to heel, sit, lie down, stay, “leave it,” and “get off.” But beyond these basic obedience commands is a big bag of tricks that have no purpose other than having fun learning together. And yes, you should be learning as well as your dog. To be a good tricks teacher, you need to learn how to pay attention to your dog’s body language as well as your own, and you need to practice consistency and patience. The end result will be a shared sense of pride, a deepening of your bond, and fun opportunities for you and your canine companion to entertain friends at parties.
Here are a few tricks and trick-teaching tips to get you started. If you and your dog enjoy learning tricks together, look into taking a local class together. You can also find some great resources on the Internet, including a variety of YouTube training videos.
• Shake: Take your dog’s paw and gently move it up and down as if shaking hands, while saying, “Shake.” Practice this several times for a few days, and then don’t take his paw and just say “Shake.” If he gives you his paw, reward him with a small treat. If not, go back to taking his paw and shaking it while saying “shake” and try the second step again later.
• Spin: Stand in an open space with your dog. Have a small treat hidden in your hand and let your dog smell the treat without taking it. Lead your dog by moving the hidden treat in your hand in a clockwise circle, repeating, “Spin” while he follows your hand. Be sure he has enough room to follow the circling treat. Reward him with the treat if he follows it. Repeat these steps several times and then say, “Spin,” without leading him with the hidden treat. If he “spins,” give him a treat (from your pocket or treat pouch). If he doesn’t, return to the previous steps and practice a few more times.
• Crawl: Begin with your dog in a down position, and a treat hidden in your hand. Hold the treat just in front of his snout and move it slowly away from his nose about an inch at a time, saying, “Crawl.” Don’t let him get up. Gently reposition him in the down position if he tries to stand, repeating the command, “Crawl.” As soon as your dog starts to “crawl” toward the treat without standing, praise him, and reward him with the treat. Gradually increase the distance you ask him to crawl, withholding the treat just a little bit longer each time.
• Keep it fun. Never punish your dog if he doesn’t get it right!
• Break each trick into small steps. Teach one step at a time and practice it before moving onto the next step.
• Reward your dog with gentle praise even for simply paying attention and trying. Reward him with big praise and a treat for succeeding!
• Consider your dog’s breeding and personality when selecting tricks to learn. For example, some dogs are more athletic and can learn how to catch a Frisbee in a few minutes, but due to size or personality, these same dogs might be very uncomfortable “rolling over.”
Belinda Recio is the Contributing Editor of Nature & Psyche at Organic Spa Magazine. She is the recipient of the 2004 United States Humane Society’s Award for Innovation in the Study of Animals and Society.