Train Tricks That Build On A Dog’s Natural Ability

In my last column, I talked about Tegan earning his AKC (American Kennel Club) novice trick dog title.

I said it was thanks to the instructor, string cheese, and patience. I should add that I also used a clicker and a target stick.

That was it. I never had a collar or leash on Tegan for any training, except when at class, as a way to keep him, and other students, safe and in one location. No matter what the trick, Tegan was never poked, prodded, pinched, jerked or restrained. The only time any part of him was held was when I was holding his paw, and I held that paw loosely and briefly. He could pull away anytime.

I used the clicker or my voice to indicate when he had done something correctly. When beginning to teach the crawl, I used the target stick to encourage him to creep forward. Once a dog has been taught to touch a target stick with his nose, the stick becomes an extension of your arm, making it easier to direct your dog.

Years (and years) ago, I would have been using a choke collar and possibly my hands to push or shove my dog into position. A handler I know says people punish dogs “because we can.”

He’s right. You can’t put a collar on a dolphin or whale. You can’t even coerce a cat. Dogs, because of their long association with humans, have way more patience and trust and will tolerate physical punishment where another animal won’t. Just because we can and they will let us doesn’t mean we should and honestly, it’s more fun to try to figure out what works. It just takes time and patience and a supply of cheese.

For instance, many dogs have a left or right preference. When teaching Tegan to spin in a circle, I noticed he was more apt to turn to his right, so, that’s where I began. He’s not fond of props, so all the tricks I did for his trick dog title are prop-free, except for jumping through a hoop, which he doesn’t have to touch. This doesn’t mean he can’t or won’t someday learn a trick involving a prop, but it does mean that I have to think about how to make him want to do that.

Some dogs learn certain things more quickly because they were bred to do a particular job. A retriever may learn to fetch specific items faster than a lap dog, for instance.

Many working breeds may learn to pull a small cart faster than a herding dog. And, each dog is an individual.

The physical build of your dog may also determine what he can or can’t do. “Sitting pretty” with the dog on his haunches and his front feet off the ground may be much harder for long-backed dogs. I won’t ever ask Tegan for that behavior. A really large, heavy dog won’t easily be able to walk on his hind legs. Don’t ask your dog to do something that is hard for them physically, or is dangerous.

Think about what reward you are giving your dog also. Some dogs will accept anything edible. Others may be more selective. Tegan loves cheese, but will also sometimes work for tiny dog biscuits.

If the behavior is something a bit harder, he will refuse the biscuit and let me know that cheese is the only acceptable reward. Some dogs aren’t that food motivated, but will do just about anything for the chance to chase a ball or have a game of tug. Some dogs are happy with a pat. Experiment.

Train tricks that build on something your dog does naturally. Some dogs love to carry something around in their mouths, like a ball or toy. That dog is a good candidate to carry a basket, or to hold the leash of another dog so he appears to be walking the other dog. Tegan frequently lies on his back while playing with a ball or toy. I think teaching him to roll over will be easy.

I’m proud of Tegan for earning his AKC Trick Dog title. I think he enjoyed learning, and I know I had fun teaching him.

If you want to teach your dog some tricks, find a good book, or join a class. Just make sure that neither one advocates poking, prodding, pinching, choking, or hitting.

Training should be fun for both you and your dog and if you’re prodding, pinching, choking, or hitting, one of you isn’t having fun.


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