The benefits of trick training your dog

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Trick training is becoming more and more popular among dog owners, and understandably so, says Carolyn Menteith...

When it comes to training dogs, nothing seems to split people’s opinion quite as much as training dogs to do tricks. Some people think this is somehow demeaning to dogs, while others love it and spend almost all their training time working on new and interesting tricks to show off to pretty much anyone who will watch.

The reality, however, is that when it comes to training, it is all tricks to dogs! They don’t see any difference between an obedience exercise and a trick; everything you train your dog to do is something your dog does because you’ve taught him how to do it, and reinforced it so he does it when you ask.

Teaching our dogs tricks (as long as it is safe, is something the dog enjoys, and we use positive training methods) builds the bond between us, develops our training skills, and, more importantly, our dog’s learning skills. It builds his confidence as a pupil (and often in other areas of life, too) and also in working with us.

Trick training your dog has another huge advantage, however. It is often only the most dedicated owner who gets excited about training the traditional obedience exercises. Yes, we know our dogs should sit and lie down when we ask, and we know that they must be able to come back when we call them, and walk nicely on the lead without dragging us into roads and bushes — but, being honest, that can often be a bit dull.

It is far easier for most people to get excited about training tricks; it’s fun, you have very clear goals (which is important in any dog training), the whole family can enjoy both the training and showing off the tricks, and you can decide what cool things you want to teach. The sky — and your imagination — is the limit.

Our dogs have huge brains. Many of them, historically, are working dogs hardwired to use their intelligence every single day. Their capacity for learning is almost unlimited and all too often owners don’t give them an outlet for this desire and ability to learn.

Tricks give your dog lots more ways to work with you, and earn rewards, providing opportunities for more pleasure and chances to succeed together. This is an important relationship builder for you both.

Dog tricks are limitless. You can choose things that suit your dog’s abilities and preferences. Some dogs like using their paws, others their noses, others their mouths; every dog is different and trick training requires the owner to understand their dog more, discover what they are good at, and what they like doing, and have some fun together exploring what can be done with these skills.

Clicker training, or any kind of marker training, can be extremely useful in training tricks; often you need to be very precise and clear to the dog what you are rewarding. Whatever methods you use however should be reward-based and hands-off (no pushing or pulling your dog into positions or behaviours). Remember this should be fun for both of you.

A lot of so-called tricks form the basis of some of the dog sports — heelwork to music (especially freestyle), agility, flyball, treiball, hoopers, parkour, and more, which can further enhance your training and give you and your dog a whole new activity to enjoy together.

There are even some breeds who wouldn’t exist today if they weren’t experts at learning tricks. At a time when circuses were hugely popular, Standard Poodles were known for being the ultimate tricksters, but for most circuses, they were too big, and so the Miniature Poodle was developed. These small Poodles were smart, funny, and easy to transport around in the restricted conditions of the travelling circus — and loved learning and performing tricks.

Likewise, other breeds such as the Bichon Frise probably only survived their fall in popularity at the end of the 19th century because they found a niche as a circus and fairground performer.

10 top dog tricks – and why they may be useful

Many of the tricks that we start off teaching our dogs may be fun but have other uses.

Shaking hands — good canine manners, but it is also a good way to introduce people to your dog, especially if they are nervous or worried about dogs.

Spin — spins and twists are fun and easy to teach, but they are also a great way to raise your dog’s energy and get him working with you.

Wave — who can resist a dog waving at them?

Play bow — a great trick to help your dog stretch his muscles, especially before strenuous activity.

Retrieve items — having a dog who will bring things to you is handy around the house, but also allows you to play retrieve games out and about.

Open (or close) doors — saves on the heating bills!

Go to your bed — useful for times when someone comes to the door and doesn’t want to be mugged by your dog (your postman will thank you!).

Play dead — your dog being able to roll over and lie on his side will be invaluable when grooming or when at the vet’s.

Say your prayers — sometimes you just need to repent!

Put items in the bin — do I even have to say why this is useful? You just have to remember to check your bin as some dogs may start to make their own decisions about what should be put in there!