Managing Your Dog's Behaviour with Trick Training Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Managing Your Dog's Behaviour with Trick Training

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Dogs are not generally born with bad habits – they are simply born with behaviour bred into them by humans by virtue of their breed, then some learned behaviour – most of which is taught by humans, with a bit of personality thrown into the mix.

However, lots of dogs are considered to have bad habits, to be badly behaved, or are just plain annoying to their owners. This is generally not their fault. While there are some dogs who appear to be 'born bad' this is very, very rarely the case.

A Small Piece of Background to Dogs' Behaviour

Humans decided which characteristics were desirable in dogs, and selectively bred them until the traits they wanted were exaggerated enough for their liking.

Most dog breeds aren't that old in the grand scheme of things - many have only been around for 200 years or so, and all were bred to do a specific job. That job may have been to guard people or property, to herd livestock, to hunt and/or fetch game or even to be a companion lap dog, doubling up as a living hot water bottle!

Now that many countries have moved on, there are fewer 'vacancies' for these dogs' specialised skills, and there are breeds that have been allowed to die out now that they are no longer required. Other breeds are being considered 'endangered' as they are bred less and less and their numbers dwindle. The dogs that no longer have work, still have the urge to work, and it is often this urge that gets them into trouble now they are required to do nothing more than be a family pet.

Another factor is that the majority of pets are also left under-exercised, and worse, under-stimulated.

Why Tricks are Useful and Why They Work

Tricks are useful because they can not only deflect your dog's 'bad' behaviour into more acceptable behaviour (because any old obedience training could do the same thing) but because the right tricks for the right dog will use the behaviour the dog finds rewarding in the trick itself. Tricks can also have the dual purpose of being useful when an owner needs to inspect various parts of the dog, or take it to a vet for examination, or even so that clipping claws becomes a pleasure rather than a fight to the grim death.

They also have the added attraction that they make your dog, and so by default, you, look clever. Yeah, your dog could be in the movies, or at the very least, advertising some sort of hygiene product on TV, but you just don't wanna, you know?

Are Tricks Easy to Teach?

The trick to trick training is to use behaviour that the dog already exhibits and to make that the basis of your trick - then it's really easy as the dog is already doing it. You're just going to slightly tweak the way that they do it.

Some dogs love to jump up at people as part of their greeting when they've been separated. Most people bend over to the dog when this happens, to either say hello back, or to try to push the dog off, but everyone says something, or makes a noise of some sort. Teaching the dog that jumping up is unrewarding is possible, simply turn your back and say nothing every single time. However, while this works wonders if your dog only ever does it to you, dogs who like doing this will do it to everyone, and every time a stranger bends over, the behaviour is reinforced and the dog continues. And in the end, is it really fair to the dog to forbid it to exhibit its natural instinct? Especially when it is possible to turn that really annoying leaping around making you spill your tea every time you come into a room into a controlled reaction that they still enjoy but will leave your tea in its mug where it belongs.

Try teaching your dog to jump over your cocked leg (if you're reasonably agile of course). Bend one of your legs and stick your foot out behind you. You could either hold your lower leg parallel to the floor, or just rest your toes on the floor a bit behind you. The dog jumps over it a few times, you're both happy. Or you could try teaching him to 'dance' i.e to jump up and down in the air without actually touching you. This is more tiring for him, because he has to control his leaps more than when he's jumping at a solid object. Of course, tiredness doesn't always stop a dog when his natural urges are telling him to do something but it may help for later when your cup of tea has made way for a nice glass of wine and you want to sit on the sofa while he's in his basket fast asleep (finally!).

Actually Teaching the Trick

Take some time to observe your dog, at different times and in different circumstances. Really pay attention, and you might just see it doing something annoying with depressing monotony. Try to think of a situation where that behaviour might be helpful, useful, or just plain funny. Maybe your dog won't let you walk properly, because he's always in the way, getting tangled up in your legs, and putting his fat feet where you want to put yours and generally tripping everyone up. Try teaching him to weave in and out of your legs as you walk (a popular move in 'Heelwork to Music'.). You may think that it doesn't have any practical benefits, but it can be used at any time that you need your dog’s attention completely on you because if they aren’t paying attention, they get walked into.

When you've decided on your 'trick', you then have to break it down into lots of little 'tricks'. You won't be able to teach your dog to walk through your legs in step with you all at once - you need to teach him to walk under your leg as you take one step forward. Once he's got that, he needs to be taught to get out of the way while you take another step forward. Once he's got that, teach him to walk under the other leg. All this won't happen in five minutes - you may need to teach each step in different training sessions until he's perfect, and then slowly begin to put them all together, and practice, practice, practise!

You may need to break each step down even further into steps that you don't really want. For instance if you want your dog to stand on his back legs, and the most you can get is him to lift his front paws up in a sit, then reward that. Once the dog is perfect, then withhold the treat for that action, but keep encouraging him to do it. Your dog will try harder to get his reward, and may lift his bum up off the floor a bit. Then begin to reward that action. Eventually you will be able to stop rewarding that, and wait for his next move forward into the step that you do want.

When training, use food as a reward (or even a toy if your dog is more motivated towards toys) if you need or want to, but try not to use it as a 'lure' if possible. Dogs taught to follow food to show them where to go do find it harder to later 'perform' without food. It is possible to teach the dog to follow a non-food lure (using food as a reward for following the lure), and then use that. Laser pointers or small torches are a couple of examples of items you can use, although your hand would be the best lure as most people carry at least one at all times.

Showing Off

Do use your tricks at every opportunity. Your dog likes to be busy, even the 'lap dog' breeds, and so show yourselves off. There are people out there who aren't keen on dogs, and a lot of children are scared of them. Seeing a dog praying, playing dead, rolling over, bowing or waving are all much more reassuring than seeing a dog approaching, no matter how calmly that dog is behaving.

Tricks You can Teach

Suggested below are some tricks that can be taught, and what else they may be useful for.

  • Shaking paws - useful for checking their paws for injury, or to allow you to rub all that mud off before they get on your precious shag pile.

  • Rollover - useful if you need to check underneath them for any reason.

  • 'Bang' - the dogs flops over onto his side at the sight of your gun-shaped hand signal. This can be really useful if the dog is about to get himself into trouble of any kind, because he should stop what he's doing and lay down. Sensitive children watching may burst into tears.

  • Bowing - most dogs stretch in the 'bow' position when they get up from a sleep. Teach them to do it on command, and you've got a dog you can easily 'warm up' before training sessions, agility courses, or even that long walk to the shops.

  • Stay with me - teach your dog to lie down, sit, or stand (depending on the size of your dog) in front of you. This is useful when you are out and about, or when answering the door. Ne'erdowells will think twice about messing with you when there is a dog standing between you. It's particularly effective if your dog looks at the other person. Especially if he drools as well.

Do have fun when training tricks to your dog, and keep sessions productive. When either of you are bored or tired, stop and try again later. It's better to have lots of short sessions, than one long one where the dog becomes distracted and you get all shouty. End each session on a high, where the dog wins his treat so that it remains fun for the both of you.


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