In a former life I worked as a Humane Educator at an animal shelter. When I told most people my title and where worked, it was assumed that meant I ran the dog training department, when in reality my job was very different. Humane education is about teaching people about applying character values in their relationships with animals. Things like responsibility, compassion, empathy were stressed, as well as the importance of learning about the different needs and behaviors of different species.
The best part about the job was sharing my passion with children and seeing them recognize why pets need to be treated and cared for in respectful ways. And the other best part was that I could bring my dog with me. Having a well behaved animal in my presentations was important because it helped the kids connect with the message. Having empathy for animals wasn’t just theoretical because there was an animal in the room and I was telling the kids how to behave so that my dog didn’t get frightened. The kids could also see that my dogs were happy to be there, and got to experience their affectionate nature.
One of the best parts of our visits to classrooms was showing off the many tricks both Mystic and Whimsy knew. While the kids loved the novelty of having a dog in their classroom, it was wonderful to see their faces light up when I announced “My dog knows tricks!”
The kids were amazed that the dogs could do so many tricks, and always wanted to know the process that went into training dog tricks. Because one of the lessons I wanted the students to get out of my visit was the idea of being kind to pets, it was a great opportunity for me to talk about being patient, using treats, and helping my dog out if they got stuck. These are all important parts of training a dog
Not everyone is going to visit a classroom with their dog, so training dog tricks for that purpose doesn’t apply to most people. But there are a lot of other great reasons to do trick training with your dog!
WHY TEACH YOUR DOG TRICKS?
Improve your training skills
Dog training consists of knowledge and skill. Learning how to train in a way that gets the best results and doesn’t stress your dog takes practice. If you’re working on an important life-skill like wait or stay, you’re more likely to get frustrated if your dog takes a while to learn, because these are important behaviors that you’ll want to use for functional reasons. If you’re like me you may also sometimes inadvertently push the dog too fast, causing stress.
On the other hand, training dog tricks typically has no function other than entertainment or fun. In the larger scheme of things does it really matter if your dog knows shake or not? (My dog Quinn could not understand the concept of shake. I think he didn’t get why I’d want him to do such a thing. After a few training sessions without making progress I gave up because it just wasn’t that important. Two years later I tried a different method and was able to teach him to shake.)
Because you don’t NEED to train a trick you’re more likely to relax about it and enjoy the process. Less stress for you, less stress for the dog and an ability to practice the skill of training which can then be applied to training other needed behaviors.
Bond with your dog
The interaction that happens with training can really enhance the relationship you have with your dog. The dog gets many really yummy treats and are told how fantastic they are, and they start to love their person even more, if that’s possible. From the human side it’s downright exciting to see your dog “get it” and you begin to realize just how brilliant your dog actually is. You start to develop a tremendous amount of pride in your dog’s abilities. When I train with my dogs and watch them learning new things it makes me love them even more, because training is a form of communication.
Dog tricks for mental stimulation
This is a very common statement; that 10 minutes of training dog tricks is a good way to tire your dog out. When I initially heard this I found it hard to believe that it would be just as tiring as a long walk. But don’t underestimate the power of using your brain. It absolutely is true that training can cause your dog to need a good nap.
Additionally, focusing only on providing physical exercise, without working to provide mental stimulation, is insufficient for meeting all of your dog’s needs. Dogs need to exercise their brain just as much as they need to exercise their bodies.
Speaking of exercise, there are tricks you can teach your dog that are not only physically demanding, but which serve to help with your dog’s core muscle development, condition muscles in other parts of the body, and help with balance.
For instance, the trick “Sit Pretty” in which the dog sits on their bottom but lifts their torso up so that the front legs are up off the floor requires really strong core muscles and great balance. When I taught this to my dog I made sure we didn’t do too many repetitions in a row because it would be like making someone who wasn’t in shape do 30 sit-ups. Imagine how sore you’d be the next day!
Teaching your dog to “Back up” or “Crawl” also engages muscles that your dog doesn’t typically use. Having your dog practice tricks like those are a good way to help your dog exercise in a different way.
Learning how to learn
I mentioned that training your dog to do tricks is a great way to develop your training skills. But there are benefits to the dog along those lines as well. Every time your dog learns something they get a little better at figuring out how the training game works. So the next time you start a new behavior the dog is most likely going to “get it” a little faster because they have experience in the process.
Additionally, you and your dog are team members. You’ll learn how best to work with your dog, and your dog will learn your training mannerisms. Hopefully you both become great working partners and training increasingly becomes easier and faster over time.
Dog tricks useful for daily life
Sometimes you start out teaching your dog a trick and it becomes a really useful behavior in day-to-day life. One “trick” I like to teach my dogs is to touch their nose to the palm of my hand. One day my dog was in the way of someone who needed to walk past us. I held my hand to my side and told Whimsy “touch” and was able to get her to move from right in front of my feet to my side and out of the way.
Another trick I taught Whimsy was to pick up and item I pointed at and bring it to me. I use it all the time when I accidentally drop things like a glove or a piece of mail on the floor and I’m too lazy to retrieve it myself.
Tricks used to be considered indulgent fun in the training world where the focus was on more serious behaviors such as heel or stay. But teaching tricks has gotten a lot more respect in recent years as they are used in competitive sports such Freestyle, in which people dance with their dogs to music in a routine comprised of tricks. And for people who aren’t interested in dancing with their dogs you can get trick dog titles.
If you’re new at training dogs there are some really easy to teach dog tricks such as spin. As your dog masters each trick, you’ll find additional dog tricks to learn more advanced skills.
If you’re not sure how to get started there are many dog training schools that offer tricks classes, or check out dog tricks online; there are a ton of great videos with step by step instructions. One of the best is Kikopup’s YouTube channel.
So don’t look at training dog tricks as being a guilty pleasure. Have fun and enjoy spending quality time with your dog.