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Teaching your dog tricks

All animals learn through consequences. This means they will repeat behaviours that are rewarding and avoid behaviours that are not rewarding. If you want your dog to do tricks for you, you need to make it a rewarding experience for the dog. Unfortunately, animals don’t speak our language so you need to make sure you find a way of helping your dog understand your demands.

Getting started

  • Develop a plan: How will you get the dog to do what you want it to do? Do you need to break it down into steps?
  • Think of cues: How are you going to explain to the dog what you want it to do? Are you going to use your voice or body? What are you going to call the trick? Dogs need to be able to see and hear what you want them to do.
  • Reward your dog: What does your dog like? Does it like toys, food, playing or a pat? Any of these things will make a great reward. Food is usually the easiest when you are just starting.
  • Be patient: Some tricks take time and involve several steps for the dog to learn.
  • Practice makes perfect: Short, frequent sessions will help your dog learn best.
  • Equipment: Make sure you have the tools needed to teach your dog a particular trick. Have you got your clicker or any props you may need ready?

Reward markers

You need to find a way of letting your dog know that it has done the right thing. Using a word such as ‘yes’ helps the dog understand when it has done the right thing. Alternatively, you may wish to use a clicker, which is commonly used with dolphins and other wild animals. You should use the word or clicker at the exact moment when the dog does what you wanted it to do and immediately follow up with a food reward. These things will let the dog know that it has done what you wanted it to do and will encourage it to repeat the trick in future.

Teaching a new behaviour

  • For your dog to learn a new behaviour, it needs to be taught in the right environment. Find a place that is quiet and has no distractions.
  • Start off easy and physically show the dog what you want it to do – this is called ‘luring’ the behaviour.
  • When the dog does what you want it to do, mark the behaviour with a ‘yes’ or a click. Follow this up with a treat. Repeat this step until the dog performs the trick reliably.

What if it’s not working?

  • Do you have the dog’s full attention? Your dog will struggle to learn a new trick if it is focusing on something else.
  • Are you being fair – can it be done? Are you asking too much? You shouldn’t expect your dog to master any tricks, simple or difficult. Start off easy and work your way up.
  • Does the dog understand you? Are you making yourself clear? The dog cannot learn a trick if it doesn’t understand your commands.

Books to read

Grab a copy of the following books for more information and advice on how to train your dog:

The Only Dog Tricks Book You'll Ever Need: Impress Friends, Family-and Other Dogs! By Gerilyn J. Bielakiewicz and Paul S. Bielakiewicz.

Wonderdog! By Dr Katrina Warren.

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