When I started doing tricks with my Samoyeds - powerful, magnificent, spirited creatures dripping with animal grace and intelligence - the goal was not to dress them in pink tutus and make them unicycle around a ring or jump through hoops of fire. I stumbled into trick training through basic dog training and to be honest, that’s really all that trick training is. Done right, it can be a mighty fun way to bond with one’s dogs; it gives the human discrete actionable projects through which to improve their training chops, and adds enrichment to the dogs’ lives.

Teaching a dog a trick boils down to teaching it a tiny behavior that you help it perfect over time; then chaining together several such perfected tiny behaviors into a cool-looking final trick that it will perform on cue.

Tricks, for the most part, require very little space or equipment. They’re a perfect indoor activity for an inclement weather day. They’re a perfect portable outdoor activity to do wherever the road takes you and your dog. The process of learning and performing a trick provides mental stimulation to dogs; something that working dogs especially crave. It’s a very inclusive activity - baby puppies, dogs in their golden years, convalescing dogs, deaf dogs, reactive dogs can all be taught tricks and reap positive health and behavioral benefits from this activity. All you need is a dog, a clicker (or a consistent way to mark a behavior e.g. a consistently said ‘Yes’ or tongue click), a reinforcer (most often, this is small pieces of a food that the dog considers high value, but can also be a toy that the dog really loves to play with) some imagination, observation skills, and a healthy sense of humor.

Bags of Tricks

I find it useful to classify trick behaviors into broad categories or ‘bags’. Three bags that I dip into often when installing or activating behaviors in my dogs, are:

  1. Behaviors involving interaction with some object. e.g. approach object, nose touch object, paw object, pick up object, jump over object, get under object, get inside object, go around object, go through object, retrieve object, catch object.
  2. Behaviors involving dog’s body positions and movements e.g. sit, down, stand, bow, stretch, spin, back up, raise rear leg(s), crawl, roll over, raise front paw, open mouth, cross paws, rest chin down.
  3. Behaviors where the object being interacted with is the handler e.g. heel by the side of handler, go around handler, jump into arms of handler, jump over crouched handler, weave through legs of handler, nose touch the palm of handler, watch handler, rest muzzle onto lap of handler.

Practice Makes Perfect

After your dog starts performing an initial ‘raw’ version of a behavior, and before it gets too used to performing it that exact way, you work on moulding and perfecting the behavior. You could work on this part for a long time, and this is a good thing, because it gives your team always something to work on! Perfection involves tightening up the action (helping the dog be more accurate, or get into position faster, or do the action with more attitude), as well as proofing it, i.e. teaching the dog to perform this behavior:

  • under distractions (people watching, kids in the background, other dogs barking or running in the vicinity, car noise, favorite toy close by, new park with gopher holes, squirrels running past your fence!).
  • with duration (so that the dog does not self-release itself from the particular position that it has to assume as part of the behavior)
  • at a distance (so that the dog can perform the behavior at larger distances from the handler and/or at larger distances from the trick prop)

Why Teach Tricks

Okay great, so we have these bags of tricks and ideas on how to perfect the behaviors. But why teach tricks in the first place? Are there any concrete reasons, beyond the vague “this improves my life and my dog’s life”.

  1. Physical Conditioning and Body Awareness Many behaviors from Bag 2 above that involve body movement, balance and weight shifting serve as great forms of physical conditioning. They also help improve the dog’s proprioception, spatial awareness and coordination making them less clumsy and more sure-footed, reducing the risk of injuries when they go about their daily life.
  2. Muscle Memory and Foundations for other Activities Trick training helps the dog build up a repertoire of kinesthetically familiar movements and positions that can serve as foundations for other sports that your dog may participate in. e.g. agility warm-up routines and actual agility behaviors like jumps, climbs and weaves (Bags 1 and 2), moves and positions in Canine Freestyle (Bags 2 and 3), positions to take to convey an alert in scent work (Bag 2), moves in canine parkour (Bag 1), catches or retrieves in obedience, disc dog or flyball (Bag 1), etc.
  3. Entertainment You may be doing therapy work with your dog such as visiting hospitals. Or you may often find yourselves amongst groups of people or young children that you may not want necessarily coddling or smothering your dogs after an initial meet and greet. In these cases, you can choreograph a short sequence of tricks into a performance to entertain your audience from a short distance.
  4. Service Some tricks, like open the fridge and fetch me a beer, fetch my slippers fetch the remote are like service dog tasks, as useful on a tiring day after work as they are fun to watch.
  5. Cooperative Canine Care Tricks like lie down on your side, rest muzzle onto lap, open mouth can be taught to be offered on cue (rather than being forced into) which can make vet visits or grooming actions less stressful for the dog because we’d be giving them more control over those actions.
  6. Redirection and Confidence-Boosting Tricks give you something to do with the dog as a means of distraction, redirection or confidence-boosting if the dog is fixating on or worrying about something it has encountered out in the world.
  7. Transfer the Fun to the Handler Tricks from Bag 3 make the handler a fun ‘object’ to be around and interact with. They help you to get your dog’s focus and engagement when you have no food or toys on you. What handler doesn’t want that!?

Let’s Teach a Couple of Tricks!

There is a lot of depth involved in teaching even a simple trick like the ones below. We are skimming the surface in these examples, and glossing over many crucial details. For those who seriously want to try a trick or two with their dogs, or for those looking to improve their existing skills, I highly encourage you refer to the Resources and Continuing Goals section below for recommendations on where you can get much more thorough advice.

Technique Used: Luring
With the dog standing, hold a treat at its nose. Let it sniff it but not have it. Slowly move your hand towards one of its ears in an arc encouraging the dog to follow the treat with its nose. Continue moving your hand to complete a 360-degree circle bringing it back where you started. If the dog followed your hand, it just completed a spin! Yay! Give it the treat it was following. Over time, you can work on fading the lure first by moving your empty hand (without a treat in it) in the same circular motion, marking ‘yes’ or clicking with your clicker when the dog completes the spin following your empty hand, then give it a treat from your pocket. Later, the hand signal can be made more subtle, try a smaller circle, or a tiny spin of your index finger. Now try to attach a verbal cue.
Demo Video

Technique Used: Shaping
Set down a big cardboard box, not too deep. Have several high-value pea-sized treats in your pocket. Bring your dog over to the box. At first, reward any sort of interaction that the dog offers with the box, approaching box, sniffing it, touching it, pawing it by marking with a ‘yes’ or a clicker click when the dog does the action of interaction, then rewarding with a treat. Think about what sub-steps are involved when a dog gets into a box and after a few iterations, start reinforcing only those actions that help it enter the box (so you may still mark and reward for approaching, or pawing, or weight shifting onto box) but withhold treats for other actions that don’t help it enter the box (like chewing the box). The dog will start offering more of those actions that earn it the rewards, which is exactly what you want. During one of the weight shifts, it may accidentally put an entire paw inside the box. Yay! Mark that and throw a big party, shower with treats, now up the ante and only start rewarding actions that involve a limb or more in the box. Through successive approximations you shape the dog into doing what you want it to do. This technique turns dogs from passive creatures to operant, thinking beings who are trying to problem solve and offer behaviors to make their environment shower them with treats.
Demo Video

Tips and Safety

  • Short and Sweet Short frequent sessions lead to more success. Two or three 5-minute sessions a day can get you far.
  • Slow Down To Go Fast Break things down into baby steps. Don’t be a lumper.
  • Proof and Perfect Practice your tricks in different places, around different distractions, on different surfaces. Test your boundaries, fade your lures, work on precision, speed, flair, longer chains.
  • Engage in Deliberate Practice Quality over quantity. Record some training sessions to learn what you can improve about your own timing and mechanics. Observe your dog in the recordings to catch anything you missed about him/her in real time. Use what you observed to inform your next practice session.
  • Respect the Dog Be empathetic. Make sure what you are asking the dog to do is safe from the dog’s perspective, and that the dog is physically and emotionally capable of performing the activity. Refusal could occur due to sickness, discomfort, lack of familiarity, lack of confidence or an association the dog has made between the trick prop or trick activity and something negative.
    Try to root cause the roadblocks you hit objectively rather than labelling your dog as dumb, stubborn, or worse, coercing it into the activity. The problem could lie with you (e.g. you’re not being clear with what you’re asking it to do, or you asked for too many spins in a row and the dog’s feeling a little giddy!), or it could be a valid fear on the dog’s end that should be addressed (through desensitization, counterconditioning, and other progressive proven techniques).

Resources and Continuing Goals

  • AKC Trick Dog As of 2017, your dog can earn Trick Dog titles (Novice - TKN, Intermediate - TKI, Advanced - TKA, Performer - TKP) through AKC’s Trick Dog program which is open to all dogs (purebred or mixed breed). That AKC link also provides links to video examples of how to train some tricks on their list of approved tricks.
  • DMWYD Trick and Stunt Dog Do More With Your Dog, one of the original Trick Dog Training programs, has a wealth of information on trick training as well as a titling program of their own.
  • YouTube, Facebook, Reddit Watch, learn and get inspired by YouTube videos on dog trick training. One of my favorite channels is Kikopup. Join Facebook groups or Reddit subs focused on these topics and learn, troubleshoot and celebrate successes with others following similar trick training journeys with their dogs.
  • Attend a Tricks class Search for a local dog training club or school offering trick dog classes as a way to practice and perform the tricks in new locations and amongst distractions and learn from local experts.
  • Study the techniques Dig in deeper and learn and practice the different techniques that can be used in trick training - Luring, Capturing, Shaping, and even the mind-blowing technique of Do-As-I-Do aka Mimicry where you provide a framework within which the dog learns to imitate you! Some dogs have clear preferences for how they like to learn, some tricks are easier taught using one technique over another, so the more tools you have in your training toolbox the the more success you will have.