High-five. Fetch. Jump through a hoop. Spin, twirl, and take a bow. There is no doubt that tricks are fun to train, and even more fun to show off to friends and family. Check out this video from one of our Tricks and Tasks Classes where dogs learned to choose one item among many, tell their person when a bell rings, back up, crawl, and cover up at bedtime!
But tricks are so much more than just a good time! Here are five things tricks can do for you, your dog, and your training.
- Tricks build relationships.
When we sit on the floor and teach our pups to chase after a toy and bring it back, we are training a fun and useful trick. Perhaps more importantly, we are also engaging in one of the prime human-dog bonding behaviors—play! When we have fun with our dogs, our bond grows.
Certain tricks can also help you and your dog feel more comfortable with each other. Tricks where dogs interact with our bodies, such as leg weaves, help them learn to watch for our feet (especially good for smaller dogs) and to tolerate space invading things people do to dogs such as stepping over them.
- Tricks help humans learn to be better trainers.
For the human half of the team, tricks help people learn important training skills with less stress. Excellent training means good timing, understanding reinforcement (rewards), and learning how to communicate with our dogs. It also means understanding how our dogs learn best. To be effective with your dog takes practice and tricks are a great way to get that practice. You can learn from your mistakes, and then apply what you’ve learned to other behaviors that may be more critical in day-to-day life. It’s easy to be forgiving of errors when you are teaching a just-for-fun trick, such as rollover or play possum.
Training with tricks also gives you the opportunity to try different techniques. Because some tricks are easier to shape, some to lure with a treat or toy, and some to use gentle prompts, training tricks can help us experiment with a variety of ways to jump start behaviors.
- Tricks are a great way to help your dog learn the training game.
Training is essentially a game we play with our dogs. The end result of the game is to help them learn to respond to certain cues. Like any game, training has its own set of rules. Some of those rules are fairly obvious: The dog needs to pay attention; the person needs to keep the dog’s attention; a click or yes means a treat is coming. But some are a little more subtle: when we are shaping you get to try out different things; when we are playing the lure and reward game, your nose should follow the treat.
Plus each of us has our own communication style and meta-signals, as well as our own tolerances for mistakes and frustration. Training tricks can be especially helpful for a dog to learn the individual handler’s signals and style, and what is expected when playing the game.
- Tricks can signal “time to relax and have fun.”
For dogs, trick training is often enjoyable and even relaxing. Just the act of doing tricks can shift a dog’s emotional state. They become their own signal for “it’s time to relax and have fun.” You can use the emotions created by tricks in a variety of situations. For example, if you have a dog that is nervous about vet visits, you can practice tricks while you wait in the office as a way to help your dog remain calm and happy.
Very specific tricks can also be a helpful way to encourage a specific mental state. Take a dog that is uncomfortable with other dogs, for example. If the dog knows a play bow, you can ask the dog to do that trick in the presence of other dogs, say at a dog class (where everyone is on leash and at a safe distance). Your dog may relax a little more because he is doing a trick. Other dogs may view the play bow as a friendly gesture and may respond accordingly. As the other dogs respond in a friendly manner, your dog may relax even more! This is similar to a smile begets a smile in humans.
- Tricks can be used to build important skills.
Tricks can be the foundation for other behaviors. For example, once your dog knows that hand targeting (bumping his nose into your hand) is fun and earns rewards, you can use that trick to prompt other behaviors such as return to heel and to stand from a down.
Tricks can help a dog learn to accept things they are not always happy about. Paw tricks like shake can help dogs become accustomed to paw handling. This may help a dog accept checking between toes for foxtails or even nail clipping.
Some tricks have their own very practical applications. For example retrieves can be channeled into a dog fetching the newspaper in the morning or bringing your slippers in the evening.
Tricks can also be an outlet for the exuberant dog. High energy or over-excited dogs are often required to be calm and contain themselves. Tricks, such as skipping, spinning, and jumping can give active dogs an energy release and a structured way to be a little wild and expressive, without getting themselves into trouble.
Trick training offers both the dog and handler a lot more than just fun. Of course, entertainment value alone is enough for tricks–they really are just a great way to spend time, have fun and play with your dog!
If you are inspired, check out my website to learn when our next Tricks and Tasks class is scheduled.