TRICKS – A different Approach to Training Your Dog by Valerie Barry

A Different Approach to Training Your Dog

A Different Approach to Training Your Dog


The next time I adopt a dog, the first thing I’m going to do is teach him or her some tricks!

We have just recently started teaching a group Tricks class again, which we haven’t done in a long time. Teaching dogs to perform tricks is a lot of fun and it’s a ton of fun to watch as other people do it! Beyond the fun, though, teaching dogs to perform tricks has a lot of really valuable benefits.

Tricks as Impulse Control

One of the developmental stages we focus on a lot in our classes is that of the adolescent dog. We think of that stage as occurring roughly between 6 months and 3 years of age. During this time, your dog is still developing mentally and emotionally and it’s the prime time to continue to put your training efforts into your dog – don’t stop just because puppyhood and house training is over.

Lack of impulse control is probably the biggest issue people have with adolescent dogs. Poor impulse control is displayed by dogs who:
-jump up on people;
-bolt out the door of the house or car;
-pull on leash;
-chase wildlife or the pet cat;
-have poor greeting skills with other dogs;
-are play bullies; and
-generally lack the ability to focus and the patience to hold still and be polite.

How do tricks help dogs learn impulse control? Well, if you teach your dog to Spin or to Roll Over, your dog is performing a quick release of controlled motion followed by stillness. That’s impulse control – it’s a fun burst of energy followed up with the patience to wait politely for another opportunity. Then the “performance” of his impulse control exercise is reinforced in a way that is very rewarding to the dog – perhaps a treat and then the chance to do it again – that’s good training.

Some tricks that teach impulse control: Spin, Roll Over, Play Dead, Leg Weaving, Back Up.

Tricks as Help for the Shy Dog

Dogs who are fearful or shy and timid need to have ways to help build their confidence. Teaching them common obedience cues like Sit and Down can certainly be confidence building if you use positive training methods. However, we humans, place a pretty high value on obedience and as such have a habit of being very serious when we’re teaching obedience. Even though you’re using positive methods to train, if your demeanor and voice are more focused and serious, it can be very intimidating to a nervous dog.

Teaching tricks tends to be a much more light-hearted endeavor, which means that shy dogs are less likely to feel inhibited by our behaviour during training. Timid dogs will often blossom when they realize that no matter what behaviour they offer, there is no wrong answer. Almost everything can be shaped into a fun trick and there is no better way to build confidence. It’s a fun process that trainer and trainee visibly enjoy. Your dog is able to be successful and accomplish something that makes humans smile and laugh with delight, which is very reinforcing to your dog.

Shy dogs also tend to afraid of certain types of handling. Many tricks can change how handling takes place and can help a dog feel better about it. A Shake-A-Paw, for example, can begin to help a dog who has difficulty having his paw held for nail trimming. A dog who is afraid of greeting strangers can be taught to Wave instead. The smiles and laughs he gets in response to a Wave will help begin to create a more positive association and emotional response to strangers.

Tricks for interacting with people: Nose Targeting (nose to hand), Paw Targeting (paw to hand or foot), High Five, Shake a Paw, Wave, Bow, Curtsy.

Tricks for the “Do-Over” Dog

If you adopt an adult dog, whose history you may or may not know, it can sometimes take quite awhile to really see their personality. It takes some time for them to really begin to trust you and to trust that their new situation is permanent. This is particularly true if the dog has had multiple homes in his or her lifetime.

I often find that dogs who have had a lot of punitive training in their past, have been corrected a lot, have had no training, and/or are very sensitive seem afraid to offer behaviours or “tell us what they are thinking” in order to get some feedback from us. I meet a lot of dogs who are what I would describe as “shut down”. These dogs seem afraid to make the wrong choice, so they make very few choices in an attempt to try and stay out of trouble. It’s sad that they feel they cannot express themselves without fear of punishment.

Tricks are a really good vehicle to use to teach your new dog that offering behaviours to you is a safe and informative thing to do. Using tricks to convey this is far less stressful for the dog. It’s actually less stressful for us too because it doesn’t matter whether we’re successful or not – we’re really just working on building a trusting relationship.

One of the classic activities for teaching dogs that “there is no wrong answer” is a fun game called “101 Things To Do With a Box”. This game is one that came about for dogs as a result of the efforts of a legendary leading figure in the science of marker-based positive reinforcement training for animals, Karen Pryor. You can get a full explanation of it at her website www.clickertraining.com, search “101 Things To Do With a Box”.

The game involves using a cardboard box of any size cut down to about 3 inches on the sides. You simply Click or mark and treat your dog for any and all interactions he has with the box – as fast as they happen. For example, as soon as you present the box and he looks at it, you Click and treat and keep going in that manner – working in short sessions. This is a challenging game for dogs who have been trained with traditional methods – “wait until you’re told what to do”. We are now saying to them “do something on your own and I will Click and treat”. A simple cardboard box is a good tool for the game because it’s neither particularly scary nor likely to have any terrible associations and interacting with it is pretty safe. As your dog’s confidence builds, he has an opportunity to get creative and brave – maybe even jumping into the box, or pushing the box across the room. It’s fun for the dogs and fun for us to watch their personalities blossom!

Tricks as Handler Training

One huge benefit to trick training is how much you can learn about “how” to train without fear of wrecking any “serious” cues like Sit or Down. When you start to train using tricks, you really begin to learn more about the subtleties of dog body language. You’re not just looking for the simple “butt on the ground” like the criteria in a Sit. You learn to start looking for the subtle beginnings and the small progression of steps in what will become the finished behaviour.

Take the Back Up for example. In the early stages, you are often marking and reinforcing simple shifts in body weight from the front feet to the back feet before your dog begins taking a single step back. You learn to mark and treat while your dog is still in motion, so you develop the skill of recognizing body language that means motion is about to stop or will carry on. As your training progresses, you also learn the skill of Shaping a so-so result into a high quality result – maybe getting exactly 5 steps backward, backing perfectly straight, or the really cool back half-way up the wall.

Teaching tricks allows you to practice your skills and timing without the fear of making a mistake. Any mistakes you might make are just a part of practicing for when you begin your more “serious” training. The skills and feedback you observe during trick training can all be applied to making traditional obedience cues so much more reliable and so much more impressive – the “rocket” Recall; the “instant” Down; or the “anywhere and everywhere” Sit.

Tricks that can be shaped into traditional obedience: Targeting into Recall; Bow into Down; Play Dead into Stay.

Tricks and Games as a Relationship Builder

There is no better way to build or develop a positive relationship and a bond with your dog than to play a game that is enjoyable to both of you. Your dog enjoys every moment of the time you spend playing together and you, in turn, enjoy watching your dog have fun and literally sparkle with happy energy.

Games are really just tricks. A game of fetch is a good example. Fetch is really just a trick with several small components – chase it, pick it up, bring it back and drop it. A lot of dogs are natural fetchers but you can teach any dog to fetch. The hardest component tends to be the Drop It because chasing and being chased can easily turn into more fun for your dog!

Other games that are fun to teach and play: Tug, Targeting, Soccer or Treibball, Find It.

In Summary . . . The more dogs I meet and work with, the more it becomes clear to me that the flexibility to approach training in many different ways is critical to a dog’s success. Luckily when you work with dogs using positive methods, the ways to solve problems or work with so many different dogs feels literally endless. There are always new or different options available to try. I am always learning from dogs by the feedback and information they have to offer, and it’s always fun to watch them learn!