I started teaching Rosalie tricks almost as soon as we brought her home. Some people may ask why? What is the point? And I answer:
Because it is heaps of fun!
Yes, it also builds confidence and teaches dogs to problem-solve and improves their attention and focus. But trick training is also a great way to stimulate your dog mentally and can meet enrichment needs if you can’t go walking regularly. But when you get right down to it, it’s one of the best ways to have fun with your dog.
How to teach your dog tricks: What you need
I find clicker training to be the best way to teach your dog new tricks. I’m not going to go into how clicker training works, but please take a look at Karen Pryor’s website for more information. She revolutionised the dog training industry when she introduced the clicker as a way to exactly mark the behaviour you’re looking for. Clicker training can be used to train virtually every species, from salamanders to budding gymnasts.
So get yourself a clicker and treats. If you’re training at home, you can use your dog’s kibble (pellets) as a training reward. You’ll need higher value treats, however, if you want to take your training to a distracting environment, like the park or training class. I started off using high value treats with Rosalie from the start. Fortunately, she is so food motivated that she will work for kibble in most circumstances. Her favourite is Eukanuba Schnauzer pellets; they magically get her attention when she gets distracted during training.
You might have to experiment to see what floats your dog’s boat. I’ve worked with a dog who only responded to peanut butter toast and I’ve heard tell of a Rottweiler who worked for apple.
Think about how many treats you’ll need and then double it. The better you pay behaviour, the quicker your dog will learn.
You also need a quiet place with few distractions. This could be your lounge (with all the furniture pushed back), your garage, or your garden. You don’t need acres of space to begin with, just enough room for you and your dog to comfortably turn around in both directions.
How to teach your dog tricks: Start with the basics
Set yourself and your dog up for success by starting with basic dog tricks. The most basic trick that I absolutely love to teach is a hand target. It’s a great way to introduce your dog to learning and it demands very little from you. All you need is your hand and some treats. The idea is for your dog to touch your hand with their nose. It has practical applications (you can use it for recall), but I like it because once your dog twigs, their faces light up and they can’t wait to play the game.
The hand target can be used to teach several other tricks, including how to spin in a circle next to you, go around your body, go between your legs, and it can even help your dog learn how to weave.
Even blind dogs can learn to target your hand. You can introduce them to the concept with something that makes a gentle noise, like a tinkling cat toy on the end of a wooden skewer. Rosalie didn’t like the tinkle so close to her face, so she learnt the good old fashioned way.
I like to teach a paw target next. A basic paw target can be used as the foundation for a lot of cute dog tricks, for example, high five, shake, wave, and how to cross their paws.
The step up from simple dog tricks
With the foundations laid, you can move to more advanced tricks. Weave is a fun trick to learn and once you’ve trained the basic figure-8, you can walk forward and backward, travel left and right, change direction mid-sequence, and invent your own moves.
Once you’ve got a couple of weaves under your belt, you can enter dog sports, like progress tests, which are a good launching pad for dog dancing (musical freestyle).
Add in some twists and spins and you can try your hand at Rally-FrEe, which combines trick training with obedience (heel work and sits and downs). The great thing about Rally is that you don’t have to choreograph a routine or wear a costume. You get a preset course which you can practice before you film your final entry.
All three of these dog sports have levels that go all the way from beginner to advanced and championship. And, importantly for those of us with special needs dogs, there are handy dandy and alternate categories that are simpler and which have lower qualifying scores.
YouTube is your best friend if you’re stuck for dog trick ideas or need someone to go through the tricks step-by-step. You can learn useful dog tricks which have great practical applications and can improve your dog’s life skills and manners. And you can learn some truly amazing dog tricks, including how to work more than one dog at the same time.
All of the tricks can be taught to blind and deaf dogs. You might need to tweak the methods somewhat, but there is no reason your pup can’t bring home a championship trophy or two.
Here are few of my favourite YouTube channels for dog trick videos:
And here is Rosalie’s most recent Rally-FrEe entry. It’s not perfect, but it is good (if I say so myself), especially considering the noisy building in the background and the fact that there are no treats.
Sandy is a qualified dog trainer and behaviourist with a soft spot for special needs dogs.