Dog Training – Teaching Tricks: Our regular contributor, Karen Boyce of Beastly Thoughts Professional Dog Services (BTPDS), tells us how teaching your dogs to do tricks can be rewarding for you and your pet.
Fun Dog Training: Teaching Tricks
With our dogs, we tend to teach all the well-known, but fundamental, everyday commands such as “come here”, “sit”, “down”, “stay”, etc. We make them a part of the dog’s daily routine. To learn more about this, sometimes we read a book, watch a video or, of course, join an established training club.
And all with good reason. To be happy, your dog needs to be obedient so they can have the freedom to be themselves. However, I quite like to teach my pooches tricks, and I like my clients to teach them too!
Any trick will do so long as the dog is physically capable of it and that the trainer, ie the owner, can teach it.
Reward Marker Words
Now, why is it a good idea to teach a trick? Well, there is a whole host of reasons:
- It means you can practise your dog-training skills.
To teach a trick quickly and easily, the owner needs to show the dog the movement they are looking for. When they get it, they must tell the dog they have done the right thing and reward them. I tend to use “good” or “yes” as my reward marker words. Think of them as the beep on the microwave to tell you your dinner is ready!
There is quite a lot of skill in getting the dog into the correct position and also in the timing of the marker word. Please don’t get the marking wrong; otherwise, you may end up teaching your dog to blink when you were trying to teach them to wag their tail (true story!).
- When teaching a trick, the owner will most likely be far less serious about the whole outcome. That way, your dog can enjoy the interaction and the food reward without feeling so stressed. We sometimes put our dogs under a lot of pressure when training them.
- I will use such light-hearted behaviours (tricks) as a relaxation opportunity in the middle of a more complex or problematic training session. A spin left and right with a marker word and reward can put the dog back into the right mood for the next “stay” or heelwork instruction.
I might also do a few tricks in the vet’s waiting room to lower my dog’s anxiety. Indeed, you can do this in any situation where your dog is getting a little worried. Even asking your dog for a paw and making them feel successful can lighten their mood and relax them.
- Fun training sessions are real relationship-builders between dogs and owners. So long as we owners stay happy and chilled!
- It is nice to impress friends and family members with your and your dog’s fantastic skills. A little bit of fame and appreciation for all the time and effort you put in with your dog.
What Can You Start With?
I would suggest starting with a left and right spin. That is, just getting the dog to move in a tight circle one way or the other reasonably close to you. It is quite an easy behaviour to teach and a good one to practice your training skills. It is beneficial for the dog to use and be aware of his rear end, particularly as he gets older.
Teaching to Spin on Command
The first thing to think of is the starting position of the dog. For this command, it would be from a standing position. Most dogs like to sit when working with their owners, so to start with, reward your dog for just standing by you. Alternatively, you can throw a piece of food away from you and form the circle as they walk back to you. Note you can teach this with them in front of you or to one side.
Use a food lure on his nostrils to get the dog’s attention. Take your hand in one direction to draw your dog around and back to the same spot. If they struggle with this, start with half circles or just have the dog turn their head and moving their front paws a little. You can always build back up to full circles.
Please don’t bring the food higher than your dog’s nose when drawing them round, as most dogs tend to see this as a “sit” signal. Say something just before the circle is complete to tell them they were successful, ie use your marker word. Feed them as they complete the circle.
Be careful not to be too slow at the end and allow the dog to sit as you hand the food over. That’s not what we want to teach.
Honing the Skill
As with any new behaviour, you have to make sure the movement is there before adding a command. Once the dog has mastered following the food, you can start to say “left spin” or “right spin”. (I imagine an L and R stamped on my dog’s left and right shoulders. “Left spin” asks the dog to move left and “right spin” is to move right.
You then need to phase out the food to eventually draw the dog around with no food in your hand. The dog should want to follow your hand if it looks the same as it did when you were holding the food. Say your marker word as before and then produce the food, ie treat.
Next, gradually start to remove the hand signal. Make the hand movement smaller, shorter or higher, or reduce it to a finger movement. The aim is to be able to spin the dog left or right simply by saying the commands.
Vast Array of Tricks
There is a vast array of tricks you can teach your dog – from simple to very complex. A few simple tricks would be a bow, a crawl or “commando”, and a peekaboo (that is, the dog approaching from behind to stand between the owner’s legs. More complex training might involve them rolling over or backing up.
Complex or straightforward trick training is well worth doing and indeed, you might find it so much fun that you turn your dog into a fully-fledged trick artist.
Here is a link to the fantastic dog trainer Emily Latham of Kikopup. She uses a clicker to mark instead of a marker word. Note she cuddles food sometimes! She can do this because her dogs learnt from eight weeks only to expect a treat after the click.
The videos show a couple of the exercises mentioned and then a proper training workshop. Have fun!
Karen, 57, is originally from Shrewsbury, but now lives in Froncysyllte. She has been helping families and their pets for 20 years as the owner of BTPDS.
BTPDS is the largest pet dog training establishment in Wales. They specialise in puppy training and reactive dogs, but offer a whole host of obedience training classes, lectures, webinars and online training hubs and groups. Karen was named Animal Star Awards Dog Trainer/Behaviourist of the Year in 2019.
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