Tricks, Treats, and Training

July 19, 2013  

Going beyond sit, stay, and down

By Liz Palika, CDT, CABC

Bashir, my 7-year-old dog, probably knows about 100 different tricks. I have to guess because I’ve never run him through all of them at once to count them, plus I’m always teaching him new ones. He can weave through my legs, touch my hand or another object on cue, identify various objects by name, roll over, shake, play dead, crawl, bow and bark furiously when I ask, “Is Timmy in the well?”

Although trick training is still training – just as obedience training is – the primary difference is that most dog guardians consider trick training fun. Personally I think all training should be fun; after all, both dogs and their people are more apt to do anything when they enjoy it. But trick training isn’t serious and so everyone tends to consider it play rather than work.

While there are a wide variety of training techniques, for trick training I like to use a lure and reward technique. A high value treat (one the dog really likes, such as Swiss cheese or bits of chicken) are used to help the dog learn the steps of the trick. The treat is then also used as a reward. This technique is easy for owners to use and is easy for dogs to follow.

Spin is a fast exciting trick that’s easy to teach. You’ll initially teach your dog to turn in a circle in front of you, but as your dog learns it you can ask him to spin more than once. However, don’t ask him to keep doing it until he’s dizzy; that’s not nice.

1. With your dog standing in front of you, let him smell a treat in your hand.
2. Using the treat as a lure, begin moving your hand so that he is walking in a circle in front of you.
3. As he’s moving, tell him, “Sweetie, spin!” (Using your dog’s name.)
4. After one circle, stop, praise him and give him the treat.
5. Repeat four or five times and take a break. Practice again later.

Over several practice sessions, as you see your dog moving more eagerly, make the circles a little faster so the movement is more like a spin and less like a walk. Eventually, with practice, you will also be able to decrease your hand signal. You’ll be able to sketch a small circle in the air rather than lead your dog by the nose.

Later, teach him to spin the other direction. Simply come up with another name for the trick, such as “The other way” and teach it the same way except move your hand – and dog – in the opposite direction.

Teaching the ABCs
Supposedly only humans can learn how to read, right? What if your dog could learn how to spell his own name? Bashir can. So can Riker, my 12-year-old. It’s great fun. Plus when we do therapy dog visits with kids, the kids – and often their teachers – are amazed.

Go to a craft store and buy some wooden letters that spell out your dog’s name or any other word you’d like him to recognize. I usually paint the letters so they are attractive, but that’s not necessary.

1. Begin with one letter. With your left hand, hold that letter a few inches from your dog’s nose.
2. Hold a treat in your right hand and place it immediately behind the letter so your dog has to touch the letter to get the treat.
3. As your dog touches it, say, “A!” (Or whatever the letter is.)
4. Praise your dog and pop that treat in his mouth.
5. Do this four or five times, take a break, praise him, rub his tummy or throw the ball for him.
6. Come back and repeat those steps.
7. After several days set that letter aside and repeat with the second letter.

When you think your dog understands that each of those letters – or wooden shapes – has a different name, then hold up two letters and say the name of one of them. If your dog touches the correct letter with his nose, throw him a party! Give him a handful of treats, praise him, and tell him what a smart dog he is. If he’s confused, go back and repeat the training steps with a high value treat.

Then begin with another letter. As your dog learns each letter and can easily recognize it when you say the letter, then transition the letters to a table or on the ground. Mix up the order of the letters during training sessions so your dog doesn’t expect them to be in any order. However, when you want him to spell his name, simply ask him to touch each letter in turn. Praise and reward each letter.

To teach Bashir his name – six individual letters – took time. The first letter was easy, as was the second. But when I added each subsequent letter, Bashir went through stages where he was confused, frustrated, or not interested. However, with praise, Swiss cheese (his favorite treat), and time to absorb each lesson, he learned it.

Take a Bow
This is a fun trick to do after you’ve had your dog show off all of the tricks he knows. After all, good performers finish their routine with a bow.

1. Have your dog stand crosswise in front of you with his head by your right hand and his hips to your left side.
2. Let your dog sniff the good treat in your right hand.
3. Tell him, “Sweetie, take a bow!” and move your right hand from his nose towards his front paws.
4. As his head follows your hand, praise him.
5. Keep your left hand close to his belly. If he begins to lie down, block that motion with your hand so that his hips remain high.
6. When your dog’s elbows are on the ground, praise him and give him the treat.
7. Repeat four or five times and stop. Praise your dog and tell him how wonderful he is. Repeat the training session again later.

In Conclusion
Remember trick training is still training. The dog is following your directions and cooperating with you. However, this is fun training. Keep it light, encourage your dog, and have fun with him. Don’t get frustrated if your dog doesn’t understand. Instead, break the training steps into even smaller steps until your dog does understand. Be your dog’s cheerleader while you’re training and even afterwards when she performs the trick. Enjoy this time with your dog.

About the author: Liz Palika is a Certified Dog Trainer, Certified Animal Behavior Consultant, and a prolific writer about all things dogs. For more on tricks, see her book, “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Dog Tricks.”

This article was originally published on October 31, 2011.

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One Response to “Tricks, Treats, and Training
  1. Anne says:

    Very straightforward and clear. Thank you, Liz! Loved the pictures!