How to Teach Tricks

So you have a new dog and you want to teach them some commands. Or maybe you recently adopted an older dog and need to work on training. Or maybe you've had your dog for a while but haven't put in the time to really work on commands and now you're ready to get to work. No matter the reason, every dog benefits from learning new behaviours, bonding with their person, and learning the power of positive reinforcement!

 
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Ruby's favourite thing is to work for treats - specifically hotdog pieces! She has learned so many tricks and commands because of how badly she wants that hotdog. That's how I taught her to be such a patient model when I photograph her, how to run to me and get in the "heel" position, how to back away from me, play dead, spin, sit pretty, weave through my legs, etc. So getting some yummy treats (or you can use toys as a reward if that's more motivational for your pup) and working on tricks is a great way to get them thinking and learning. For every trick or command you will want to start small/basic with the tricks and build on them once you've repeated them enough to get reliable results. If your pup is getting confused or frustrated and isn't understanding, try dissecting the trick a little and see if you can teach a simpler version of it first. It's no fun for your pup if they can't understand what you want and they can't earn that treat you're holding. Just think how frustrating it would be for you if you couldn't understand the language someone was speaking and couldn't get what you wanted. Set them up for success by ensuring that they can understand what you want from them.

Since they can't speak English, we need to learn to speak (and think) Dog instead. Learn how to read your dog's body language to understand their moods and when they're happy or frustrated or nervous. Learning to think like them means that we need to see things from their perspective and understand the stepping stones that might be required to build up to a trick or command. It may seem like an easy trick to us, but your dog has no idea what you're asking, so you need to break down the trick into steps and start at the very beginning. You also want to get the dog to do the movement themselves instead of you using your hands on them.

 
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For example, to teach "sit", you don't want to just push their bum down (even gently) because they didn't do the work. They didn't get to feel their muscles move and put their bum on the floor, and they didn't get the benefit of the thinking process that gets them there. What you want to do instead is lure them into the position with the treat so that they end up doing what you wanted (even though they didn't know it at first). So you want to hold the treat in front of them and then move it upwards and back over their head towards their tail. If they follow the treat with their nose, they'll end up leaning backwards and sitting. It may not happen on the first try - they might try other ways to get the treat, like turning sideways, or pawing at it. But just say "nope" and start over.

The moment they do the correct behaviour, you want to "mark" it. This can be done verbally with a "yes!" or a "good!", or you can use a clicker instead. You want them to know exactly which thing they did was the good one. So if you're teaching "sit"... the moment their bum touches the floor, mark it and then treat. Through repetition they will recognize that moment as being the goal, and they'll be able to get there quicker.

Still using the example of "sit", you want to use the lure technique for a while at the beginning but don't use the word "sit" yet. Just lure, mark the good behaviour, and treat. Once the behaviour is consistent and they start sitting right away when you move the treat up, then you can start giving the behaviour a name. So you want to say the name while luring, then mark the right moment, and treat. This period may last several days or training sessions (you also want to keep each session short and sweet - don't overdo it, and always end with success). Continue the luring and using the command name for a while and then try just the command name without the lure. If they don't get it yet, continue with the previous phase until they make the connection and you don't need to lure them anymore.

Once you can phase out the luring, you want to also avoid bribing. When your pup knows the command name, you don't need to dangle a treat as a bribe. Teach them that they should do the command even if they can't see a treat waiting... and as soon as they do it, the treat appears! Because eventually, you want the command to be reliable enough that they'll do it for praise if you don't have treats handy. Their reward can be a pat on the head sometimes, once they're very consistent with the command.

 
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Other things that you can build on are duration and new locations. Dogs aren't very good at generalizing, or understanding that something in one specific scenario is the same even if it happens in a different scenario. For example, let's say your dog knows how to follow the "sit" command when you're in your living room and standing facing each other. But if you were to go outside for a walk and ask them to do the same thing on the sidewalk, or when you're standing side by side... they might act totally confused. They don't seem to understand that it's the same thing as before because it all looks so different. So once you get consistent success with a command, you want to start practicing it in other places so that they understand "sit" can happen anywhere.

You can also work on duration, as I mentioned. So asking for a "sit", marking the behaviour the moment it happens, but then waiting 1-2 seconds before giving the treat. Then tomorrow maybe you wait 3 seconds before giving the treat. The marker is still happening at the right time to confirm they did it correctly (very important), but they have to be a tiny bit patient for the reward. You can build this into a longer stay, or you can practice moving around or walking away, etc. But remember, if your dog gets frustrated, you may have rushed and done too much too soon. Back up a step and go back to where they were having success. Then move forward in tiny steps when they're ready.


I hope this was helpful in getting started, and learning how to think more like a dog when training them!