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“Trick” is a Very Powerful Word!

Jambo poses with his skateboard

Why do I like doing “dog tricks” with my dogs Tessa and Jambo and why do I think everyone should do them with their dogs?

  • Reason no.1: Doing dog tricks is my way of “training” my two dogs, Jambo and Tessa. It’s simple really, I like “training” to be fun and doing dog tricks is definitely a lot of fun.
  • Reason no. 2: Doing dog tricks uses up some of Jambo’s boundless energy.  Jambo is a “full-on” dog who rarely slows down. If left to his own devices some of this energy would be used up doing things I’d rather he didn’t do. In Jambo’s case this would most likely be in the form of stealing things and then chewing them into pieces. Teaching him “tricks” like “drop” and “fetch” has saved many an item from this fate.
  • Reason no.3:  Doing dog tricks is such a fun way of teaching new behaviors. By naming behaviors “tricks” I think there is less “stress” on the dog or person and the whole training scenario is seen in a different light. It’s almost like we’re learning in the playground rather than in the classroom.  It’s a very “informal” way of teaching and I definitely think you learn better if you are having fun and come to your “lessons” with enthusiasm rather than trepidation.
  • Reason no.4:  Doing dog tricks deepens the bond I share with Jambo and Tessa.  We definitely spend a lot of quality time interacting with each other, sometimes all together and sometimes one on one. As the tricks get more complicated you learn to work together in order to work them out. My input is just as important as theirs and any behavior learnt is a result not only of my teaching but of their enthusiastic response to it. The “tricks” we do are a result of the bond we share, the “work” we do together, the reinforcement they receive and our mutual respect and cooperation.
  • Reason no.5:  Doing dog tricks actually means that I improve my own skills.  Most people can teach their dogs to sit or lie down but as the tricks become more difficult you find your skills as a teacher improving.  You have to get your timing right (“mark” the exact behavior you want); you have to give clear instructions (“cues” need to be precise and very clear so as to communicate the behavior you want); you learn the “power” of different reinforcers – how to reward your dog appropriately and thus reinforce the behavior you are teaching, making it more likely to be repeated. Food is the first choice when teaching a new behavior as you can quickly and easily deliver the reward without interrupting the flow of learning. You also need to think about the “value” of different types of food as well as how you deliver it – straight to the mouth; by placing it on the floor; from a bait bag; from a “reward station”; by throwing it in front of the dog, behind the dog… How you deliver the reinforcement can have a big effect not only on the energy of the behavior (whether they carry it out slowly, quickly etc.) but also on how precise that behavior is. You also learn to use other rewards like tug, a ball, a frisbee, praise, play, touch… And then there are environmental rewards e.g. your dog sits politely and gets to greet someone or your dog comes back to you and you let him go and play again. You have to motivate and teach with enthusiasm. If you are not enthusiastic about your lesson why should your dog be? You learn about the importance of the 3 D’s  (distance, duration and distraction), all of which have an impact on what you are teaching. You learn to use different “markers” for example a clicker, a marker word (mine is “yes”), a tongue click, a clap of the hands… even the next “cue” can be used to “mark” the previous behavior. You also learn how to “read” your dog. You learn more about his body language and what he is “saying” to you (whether he is tired, feeling stressed, wants to carry on, is enjoying the learning process etc.). You learn when to increase “criteria” (make it more difficult) and when you need to “regress” (go back a step)…
Doing Dog Tricks isn’t just about waves, bows and kisses

I also think that anyone who has a “powerful” dog has an obligation to make sure that they and their dog are the best ambassadors possible for their breed. This is especially important when we are talking about breeds that are stereotyped in such a way that almost everyone has a preconceived (and mostly negative) view of what these dogs are like and how they behave. How could I possibly ask people not to buy into that stereotype if, for example, as we walked down the street I were struggling to hold on to Tessa  and Jambo, yelling at them to stop pulling or to leave something or perhaps yanking on a prong collar? Doing dog tricks isn’t just about waves, bows and kisses. Doing tricks and using reward based training means, not only that both Tessa and Jambo listen to me, but also that lots of basic behaviors have been so reinforced that when I ask them to do something for me they do it instantly.

Here are a few “novice” tricks: Fetch. Drop it. Leave it. Target work. Come. Down. Sit. Stay. Walk on a loose leash. Do they look familiar?  We call them “tricks” but, as you can see, they are basic “obedience” behaviors.  I think if everybody were to teach these behaviors  as tricks we’d see a lot fewer people shouting at their dogs for being “disobedient”or for not “obeying” a “command”.  Just changing the words “obedience behavior” to “trick” and the word “command” to “cue” changes the way people think about their dogs – they suddenly start teaching them rather than berating them!  They reward them for getting it right rather than punish them for getting it wrong.

Wow, the word “trick” is actually a very powerful word! It literally changes peoples’ attitudes to training their dog and, because they have such fun doing them, they are much more likely to continue with their dog’s education.

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