Tricks are both enjoyable and extremely useful. Really, dog tricks are not much different from a person performing gymnastics, doing algebra, dancing, sinking a putt or playing the piano – all learned physical and mental skills, practiced to perfection. Similarly, dog tricks are no different from basic obedience commands. Although a lot of dogs perform obedience exercises more reliably than tricks, and a lot of dogs have more fun performing tricks than obedience commands, it need not and, indeed, shouldn’t be that way. Tricks should be as precise and reliable as obedience commands – as precise as scoring a perfect 10. And basic obedience should be as much fun as performing tricks – as much fun as dancing.
How often do we see dogs fail to “Sing” or “Speak” on late-night television Stoopid Pet Tricks? How often do we see dogs require six requests before they deign to rollover and play dead? Sloppy! No reliability, no proofing. Whether a trick or as basic manners, the dog should be trained to do it on the first request. If an American Football quarterback required six requests from the coach to execute the right play, he would soon be sent to the dog house and so should the owner if the dog doesn’t “Speak” following a single command.
The good thing about tricks is that everybody smiles, laughs and giggles — the best reward of all. In fact, in no time at all, performing the trick becomes the reward in itself, i.e., the trick becomes self-reinforcing. And the trick becomes a reward for other exercises. Asking the dog to “Give us a hug” is a great reward for a good down-stay on greetings, and allowing the dog to jump through our arms becomes a rewarding finale for a lightning recall. But how many times do we see highly trained dogs performing ultra-precise heels, recalls, sits and stays — machine perfect but without sparkle — working with owners who give ‘praise’ that could freeze a frog in Florida? Hey! No one died! Wake up you Scrooges! This is life! Enjoy it! No warm-up laps, no reruns. Have fun with your dog. Now!
Dog trick: Rollover
Have your pup sit and lie down, and then, keeping the food lure extremely close to the pup’s body, instruct the pup to “Rollover,” and move the lure backwards along one side of its muzzle to the top of its neck and over its shoulders. It may help if you tickle the doggie’s ‘doodads’ with the other hand. (Physical contact in the inguinal region causes most dogs to raise a hind leg.) As your pup rolls over onto its side and back, keep moving the food lure so that it rolls completely over into the down position once more. Once your puppy has mastered roll-over, a variation is to have the pup roll in the opposite direction with the obvious request, “Now, roll the other way.”
Dog trick: Bang
Another variation of rollover is to have the pup stay on its side or back and play possum. Firstly, try this from the down position. Say “Bang,” point your finger like a pistol, move the lure as above, but as soon as the pup is on its side or back, say “Stay” and keep the treat stationary. Secondly, try this from the sitting position. After saying “Bang,” give a down signal followed by the rollover signal. Thirdly, try “Bang” from a stand-stay using the combined down- and rollover-signals as before. Finally, try it when the pup is walking. Kids just love this one. So do many adults. “Bang” is the essence of the Omega Rollover.
Dog trick: Beg
Have your pup sit-stay, say “Beg” and raise the lure a head’s length above the puppy’s nose, so that it lifts its front paws of the ground and sits back on its haunches. If the pup jumps up, lower the lure and move it backwards a tad. Initially, it may be easier practicing this exercise in a corner, so the puppy may lean against the walls to keep balance.
Dog trick: Back-up
With your puppy in heel position, sandwiched between yourself and a wall, instruct it to “Back-up,” and then move the food lure under the pup’s chin and into its brisket. Alternatively, this exercise may be taught in a narrow passageway, such as between a bed and a wall. It is good to alternate “Back-up” with both “Forwards” and “Stand-stay.” The concept of forwards and backwards is a good one to learn in other body positions, such as the sit-stay. “Sit Forwards” and “Sit Back” are fine-adjustments to ensure that the dog is ideally placed to set off heeling for example. “Sit Back” is also good when the dog is too eager to get out of the front door.
Dog trick: Grovel
Start with the pup in a down-stay, and inch the food lure along the ground a little way in front of its nose. If the pup stands up, just try again. Alternatively, move the food lure under some low-slung barrier, such as a bed, coffee table or even under your leg. “Grovel” is helpful for dogs with creeping down-stays. By alternating “Grovel and “Down-Stay,” the dog at long-last grasps the essential difference. Now of course, “Grovel,” previously the problem that distracted from obedient stays, has become the reward for good down-stays.
Dog trick: Give us a hug
Start with your dog in a sit-stay. Say “Give us a hug,” energize the dog by waggling a food lure in front of its nose, and then, slap your chest like a gorilla. It is wise to alternate “Give us a hug” with both sit-stays and down-stays. Thus, the dog learns the difference between enthusiastic and controlled greetings. This wonderful trick is a simple solution for puppies which like to jump-up. First, we train the puppy to sit when greeting people, and then, we may teach the adult dog to jump-up, but only on our terms, i.e., only on cue, when the time is convenient, and we are prepared to enjoy the dog’s advances. For example, probably only certain doggy-people will invite the dog to jump up, when they are wearing dog-proof clothing. (The dog-disinterested may be instructed to say “Steady,” “Off,” “Back-up,” “Go to your mat” and “Sit.”) On returning home, instruct your dog to down-stay. Formally greet the dog, and then change into dog greeting clothes, and once prepared, ask the dog to jump-up and hug. Now, jumping-up (something the dog likes to do) becomes a reward for a good stay-greeting. Training a dog to shake hands on request is a similar ploy to combat an annoying pawing habit.
Dog trick: Bow
Instruct your pup to stand, and move the food lure down to the ground to come to rest a few inches in front of the pup’s front paws. The puppy will lower its forequarters until elbows and sternum touch the ground. With some pups it is necessary to place the other hand underneath (but without touching) the pup’s belly to prevent the hindquarters from collapsing into a down. The playbow posture is a solicitation to play – an ‘atmosphere cue’ which communicates that subsequent behaviors are playful. This is a wonderful trick for children. If a child can successfully entice the dog to bow, the dog is saying it likes the kid and would like to play, and as such, it is unlikely the dog would be frightened or irritated by the child’s antics. Also, “Playbow” is a wonderful instruction to give to your dog when it meets other dogs.
Dog trick: Turn around
Have your puppy stand-stay facing you and move the lure in a horizontal circle over the pup’s head, so the dog turns in a full circle to come and face you once more. Once your pup learns to turn around, you can teach it to “Turn — The Other Way.”
Dog trick: Dance
Instruct your pup to sit and beg, and then raise the lure a couple of head-lengths, so the puppy stands on its hind legs. Once the pup can balance for several seconds, it may be enticed to walk forwards or to circle as above.
Dog trick: Fetch
Retrieval is an excellent way to teach vocabulary. Your dog may be instructed to retrieve many different articles, for example, tennis balls and golf balls (make that dog earn its keep), newspapers, neighbor’s newspapers, slippers, etc. In so doing, the dog learns the name of each item. Discriminated retrieves have many useful applications in the home. For example, stand by your dog’s toy box, and have the dog tidy up the house by retrieving every dog-toy in sight and depositing them in its toy box. Also, dogs are great at finding lost keys, lost baseballs and lost dogs.
Firstly, teach your dog to retrieve exciting objects, such as a tennis ball, chewtoy, bone, or slipper using the “Off” — “Take it” — Thank you” triad. Then, work with less exciting articles. Once the dog reliably retrieves each article by itself, instruct your dog to retrieve one of two articles, then one of three and so on. Give the dog the sun, moon and stars each time it successfully brings back the requested item first try. If it touches, picks up, or brings back the wrong item, just keep repeating the original request until it gets it right, whereupon reward the dog, but this time only moderately. The dog soon learns that incredible rewards are available for retrieving the correct object first try, lesser rewards for eventually getting it right and zip for getting it wrong. Use life rewards. For example, if the dog correctly chooses to bring its leash, it gets to go on a walk, or if it correctly retrieves its tennis ball, you will throw it.
NEVER punish the dog for making the wrong choice. Not only will punishment deter the dog from making further wrong choices, but also it will deter the dog from making any choice at all, i.e., the dog will stop retrieving. If you become frustrated with your dog’s poor performance (i.e., your poor teaching), retrieve the articles yourself, sit down, calm down…and try again tomorrow.
Dog trick: Go to… commands
The “Go to…” commands are another wonderful vocabulary learning tool. The puppy may be trained to go to places, for example, its mat, bed, basket, or crate, to go outside, inside, upstairs or downstairs, to get in the back seat of the car or front seat, to get off the couch and on the couch, etc., or to go to different people. In teaching these exercises, the puppy learns the names of different locations in the home and the names of different family members and friends.
Go to places
Request your pup to “Go to your mat,” show the puppy a food lure, run and put it on the pup’s mat. As soon as the pup reaches its mat, it may pick up the food lure as a reward. At a later stage in training, put the reward on the pup’s mat before telling it to go there. The puppy learns it is highly beneficial to follow the owner’s advice and check out its mat when told, even if the owner has nothing of value on their person. When the pup reaches its mat, ask it to settle down. Periodically, give the pup treats whilst it remains on its mat. Dogs may be trained to go to a variety of locations using this method.
A quicker way to train inside/outside, upstairs/downstairs, on/off the couch and back seat/front seat locations is to take a bunch of dry kibble from the puppy’s dinner bowl, and for example, stand on the threshold of the back door and to randomly alternate the requests “Outside” and “Inside.” After saying “Outside,” throw a piece of kibble outside, and after saying “Inside,” throw a piece of kibble indoors. The pup soon learns to predict the direction of jettisoned kibble from the owner’s instruction and quickly scampers in the appropriate direction.
Place commands are wonderful, particularly in times of stress or confusion, e.g., when a gaggle of infant and adult monsters crowd the front door at Halloween, whenever the dog is in the way or just acting like a plain jerk. With a single command — “Go to your mat,” “Downstairs,” or “Outside,” the dog is under control once more.
Go to people
When two people are training the pup at the same time, it is possible to do yo-yo recalls back and forth. Dad asks the pup to sit and then instructs it (once only) “Rover, Go to Mother.” Mother waits one second and then calls Rover. After doing a little obedience and/or trick routine with the pup, Mother tells it, “Rover, Go to Dad.” Dad waits one second and then, calls the pup and so forth. The puppy quickly learns when one person says “Go to…” the other person calls and gives me a treat. Since the pup is eager to help the owner’s training, it rushes to the other person as soon as the “Go to…,” request is given, i.e., the pup has anticipated the recall and learned the meaning of the “Go to…” request. This time it receives several treats and a hug.
Working with just two people, the puppy may anticipate recalls at inappropriate times and run back and forth between the two owners without any instruction being given. A profitable way around this problem is to practice round-robin recalls with three or more people. As before, one person instructs the pup “Go to Jamie,” and Jamie calls the pup after one second. The puppy cannot just dart off to the other person to get a reward, since there are two or more people to choose from. Instead, the pup has to wait for the full instruction to identify the name of the person. If it goes to the right person, it gets wonderfully rewarded, but if it goes to the wrong person, it is ignored.
“Go to people” commands may be practiced with different people spread out in different rooms of the house or on walks outdoors. It is one of the quickest ways to exercise a dog to exhaustion with minimal expenditure of energy on behalf of the owners. On walks, owners may instruct their German Wirehair, for example, to run back and forth and cover nearly 20 miles while the owners walk barely a mile.
“Go to people” commands have many uses with the family, which now has its very own Search and Rescue dog. If little Johnny is lost on a camping trip, Dad can instruct Rover to “Go to Jamie,” and good old Rove can use his vastly superior olfactory powers to track down the little worm. Alternatively, tie a note to Rover’s collar, and our faithful friend may be used to deliver messages to another person, such as “Time to come inside for dinner,” “Pleeeease bring some coffee upstairs” or “Come up to the television room and change the channel.” Hey, now we’re talking!
Excerpted from How to Teach a New Dog Old Tricks, by Ian Dunbar.
Ian Dunbar is a veterinarian and animal behaviorist, founder of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers, and the author and star of numerous books and videos on dog behavior and training. He lives in Berkeley, California with his wife, trainer Kelly Dunbar, and their three dogs. The Dunbars are contributing editors to DogTime.