Nobody has to teach a dog tricks or go the extra mile to explore new adventures. No one needs to get involved in agility or other activities with their dog. After all, training is time-consuming, sometimes costly, and requires incredible patience and understanding. But if you’ve chosen to go this extra mile, I know that your relationship with your dog is a special one. Your dog is a special gift to you, and you have chosen to give back to him.
As you progress in your training, you’ll find out more about your dog: how he thinks and what he likes. You’ll gain insight into the way your dog learns and better understand how to shape that learning process, from the length of the lessons to the various teaching approaches. You’ll discover how to reward and encourage your dog in fun, engaging, and constructive ways.
In this chapter, I highlight the many benefits of teaching your dog tricks, familiarize you with the basic concepts of trick training, and introduce you to the sport of dog agility. Ready to go? Your dog can hardly wait!
Why teach your dog to do tricks? After all, he’s not joining the circus anytime soon. The answer is simple: Most dogs will jump at the opportunity to perform for fun, praise, treats . . . almost anything! Dogs are active by nature and love to do stuff — just jiggle your car keys or utter the word W-A-L-K if you don’t believe me. Tricks give your dog the chance to release his inner,
audience-starved vaudevillian, expend pent-up energy, and use his innate dog skills — jumping, barking, sock-stealing — in positive ways.
A well-trained dog also serves as an ambassador for us all. Whether you’re just clowning around in your living room or putting on an act at a local fair, the work and time you devote to your dog shines through wherever you take him. Sure, your dog may never star in a commercial or show off his routines at the local Elks Club, but that doesn’t rob you of one undeniable fact: If you love your dog, he’s a star. And the size of your star is not measured by how many people share your pride; it’s measured by you. When I listen to my friends and clients talk about their dogs, I feel the warmth in their hearts, and when I see the dog face-to-face, I already know that dog’s worth.
Classic obedience lessons utilize a lot of leash work. Dogs must be trained to obey and follow, which generally involves a lot of ordering about and corrections for misbehavior. It’s serious stuff. Not so with trick training and other adventures like agility and flyball. These activities depend on an invisible leash — a strong tie that brings you together in a flow of excitement and trust, like a coach guiding an eager athlete.
The first thing you need to explore is your relationship as it exists now. Does your dog look to you for direction, eager to follow you and learn new things? Or does your dog’s schedule look something like this:
Trying lessons without words
Dogs learn in ways that are both simple and complex. Dogs are so eager to earn rewards and attention that it’s amazingly easy to teach them simple things. Get five super-savored treats or a toy your dog loves to play with, and then try the following lessons.
Heeding the four-paw rule: All paws on the floor
Stand upright in front of your dog and wave the treat above his head. If he jumps for it, lift the treat up and look to the sky. If he scratches at you frantically, wear a trench coat and completely ignore your dog. When he pauses, reward him immediately with the treat or toy. Repeat this five times in a row, three times a day. My hunch? In three or four days, your dog will hold still when you offer him treats and toys. Give it a try!
Sitting for a toy or before dinner
Wave your dog’s toy or hold his dinner bowl above his head and wait. Don’t look at or talk to your dog if he jumps or barks at you. Ignore him so he understands that these behaviors will not work with you. No sirree! Be patient with your dog and keep your eyes peeled for success. The moment he sits, reward him immediately. If he stands calmly, position him or maneuver the toy or bowl above his head so that he moves into a sitting position himself. After five repetitions, surprise — he won’t bark or jump —he’ll sit automatically! Good dog. Good person. You make a great team.
Deciding which tricks to teach
When thinking through the tricks in this book, consider your dog and what he’s likely to enjoy learning. Work on routines that complement his natural abilities first. For example, if you have a canine athlete who’s in constant motion on your hands, he’ll likely take to jumping (Chapter Jumping and Dancing for Joy
), dog agility (Part IV), and other movement-based tricks like crawling and playing “Hide and Seek” (Chapters Adding Drama with Clever Tricks
and Minding Manners and Trying Out Some Tricks
, respectively). That said, if he’s the silent type, avoid putting “teach him to bark” (Chapter Barking, Counting, and Singing on Cue
) at the top of your list. Chapter Understanding Your Dog’s Natural Abilities and Limitations
relates breed type, personality, and age factors to selecting tricks and adventures that your dog will enjoy and can accomplish.
As you work through your tricks, start with the simplest routines first to build your dog’s success rate and eagerness to learn new things. For example, teach “Paw” before you work on “High five” and “Wave” (Chapter Engaging Favorites).
Using the sequencing approach
When teaching fun and useful tricks, keep your training sessions short and sweet — no more than five minutes each to start. Because your dog can’t master an entire routine in five minutes, you need to isolate each step and build on your dog’s successes using the sequencing approach. The sequencing approach is fairly simple: Each new routine has steps to follow, and you need to perfect each step before moving on to the next. Mastering small steps helps your dog feel empowered as you progress to more-difficult tasks.
I say a lot more about sequencing and steps throughout the book, but to illustrate quickly, suppose you want to teach your dog how to jump through a hoop. Chaining together the following steps makes this trick a four-step program (you can find more details on hoop-jumping in Chapter Jumping and Dancing for Joy
1. Create a low jump, and then take the jump with your dog as you command “Over.”
Use a broom to create a low jump across a threshold, like a doorway. Prop up the broom with two objects of equal height, like soup cans or, for a small dog, Dixie cups. Let your dog sniff the setup.
Then take him five doggie paces back. Command “Over” as you run toward the setup and take the jump together. Good dog! Repeat this jumping sequence three to five times per session until your dog is eager to run in front of you and take the jump himself. When you’ve perfected this, you’re ready for Step 2.
2. Let your dog explore the hoop, and then have him walk through the hoop at ground level, introducing the command “Through.”
Show your dog the hoop, placing it flat on the ground so that your dog can step around and sniff it.
Holding the hoop at ground level, lure your dog through it with a toy or treat. As he walks through, give the command “Through.”
3. Ask a helper to hold the hoop to the broom and have your dog jump through it, combining the commands you introduce in Steps 1 and 2 by instructing “Over–Through.”
Recruit someone to hold the hoop directly in front of the broom. The bottom of the hoop should be at the same level as the broom.
Take your dog back down the runway, instruct “Over–Through,” run up to the obstacle, and encourage your dog to jump through.
4. Phase out the broom, progress to practicing in other doorways, and then move away from doorways altogether.
Continue to work in the same threshold until once again your dog is eagerly running ahead of you to leap over the broom. Now, remove the broom and encourage “Over–Through.” Good dog! Slowly raise the hoop to the height of your dog’s elbow. Once your dog perfects the jump in this threshold, you can branch out to other thresholds in the house. Got that? Now you’re ready for the big time! Encourage your dog to jump through the hoop wherever it is placed.
Repeat your three- to five-minute training sessions one to four times a day, whatever your day allows. Some days I’m busy and I get only one lesson in. Other days, I have time for two or three. No worries — my dogs are up for anything. Your dog will learn, too, as long as you’re positive and use the sequencing approach.
Sequencing also comes into play as you decide to teach more and more advanced tricks. For instance, your dog may need to understand ideas such as targeting (see Chapter Prepping for Training — Mentally and Physically
) to do tricks like waving or rolling over at various locations in a room or on a stage. Before you blend two concepts like these, make sure your dog is happy with doing the trick and moving away from you.
A technique called back-chaining
involves teaching the last step first. It sounds — well, backwards — and confusing, but it’s especially useful with certain tricks like fetching (Chapter Go Fetch! Finding and Retrieving Tricks
) and in agility (Part IV) because it makes your dog aware of the end goal.
Rewarding good behavior
As you’re working with your dog, think of yourself as equal parts coach, teacher, parent, and friend. Because many of the routines and adventures in this book will be new to your dog, you’ll need to sell him on why he needs to leap over broomsticks, bark to ten, and help you pick up the laundry. If you approach these tasks with the right attitude (mainly fun, fun, fun . . . plus rewards!), he’ll be eager to participate. Consider how you’d like to be treated when learning something new — and remember what my grandmother always said, “You attract a lot more bees with honey than with salt.”
To be an effective teacher, you have to identify what thrills your dog. You can use food, toys, and attention to encourage your dog’s cooperation. For my treat-loving dogs, I schedule training around feeding times. I do a lesson before breakfast, and because they’re hungry, the dogs are even spunkier. I end the lesson on a positive note and reward them with a yummy meal.
The timing of rewards influences your dog’s understanding and works hand-in-paw with incentive training. If you want to teach your Chihuahua how to jump up and “dance” but you reward him after he has landed on the ground, you’ll actually be reinforcing not-jumping. Remember your dog isn’t the only one who needs to learn new techniques: Helping your dog master tricks quickly and without confusion requires you to learn a few tricks, too.
Getting Active with Agility and Other Sports and Hobbies
If parlor tricks aren’t enough to keep your dog down and you’re enthusiastic about exploring other activities, you have many to pick from in Parts IV and V. Most of the events are open to all dogs, regardless of their pedigree, and many invite social interaction and competitions. One of the most popular and publicized sporting events for dogs is agility, a relatively new activity on the scene. Agility was first practiced in England in the 1980s and has attracted enthusiasts around the world like nothing else.
While many dogs love the challenge of agility and the time spent with their owners, there are other sporty activities that can be easier to master and require less of a commitment. Read through these sections to find one that may be perfectly tailored to the energy levels and passions of both you and your dog. These include flyball, flying disc, and pulling sports like sledding, skijoring, and derivations of skijoring like scootering and skim-joring. Of course, if rigorous involvement is not your game, there are other ways to socialize and further your dog’s training, from obedience trials to pet therapy and good citizenship certification.
What is agility?
Dog agility is a fun sporting event that challenges teams — one dog and one person — to navigate through a series of obstacles in a race to get the highest score for their performance. Think dog park meets Olympic equestrian event meets Dancing with the Stars. You and your dog perform choreographed moves — over jumps, through tunnels, and over balance boards — as you race together to finish an obstacle course. Wow, huh?
Deciding whether agility is right for you and your dog
Is your dog up for the adventure? While agility is open to all breeds of dogs as well as mixed breeds, it does require a certain get-up-and-go. Often the dogs who excel at this sport are the very ones whose enthusiasm and excitement often land them in the proverbial doghouse at home. Does your dog jump on everything and everyone? Believe it or not, you may be harboring an agility champion. Is your dog barely winded after a 6-mile run? Tirelessness is a cherished trait in agility!
There are some restrictions — age and safety limitations that you must consider before you begin. Personality also factors in — both yours and your dog’s. Agility requires patience, persistence, and an über-positive attitude. But there’s no room for dictators on the agility field — dogs (like people) do not respond well to human frustration or impatience. To take part in this adventurous activity, you need to check your inner despot at the door, put on a smiling face, and encourage your dog through every step of the learning process. To discover more about the sport and whether it may be a good fit for your dog, flip to Chapter Considering Agility Training
Training for agility
If you choose to go forward, you’ll witness a fascinating transformation. At first, you and your dog will feel bewildered by the enormity of the effort. You’ll need to learn all the obstacles and then choreograph a routine that involves up to 16 obstacles in succession. But if you show up day after day, week after week, and work together — often next to people who share the same goals and passion for their dogs as you — you’ll develop a trust and kinship with your dog that only forms from the camaraderie of a shared goal. You’ll learn to manage and communicate with one another until your motions are synchronized and fluid . . . two bodies moving together. Friends for life.
Getting ready for agility requires a lot of training, so you need to become familiar with some basic commands and equipment. Many people sign up for agility classes with their dogs, hire instructors, and/or join agility clubs. Chapter Laying the Foundations for Agility
reviews up-to-date training methods and PRAT
(Positive Reinforcement Agility Training), a well-studied and effective way of introducing your dog to this new sport. PRAT uses the latest tools and props and takes your dog’s species-specific learning capacities to heart, minimizing anxiety and buoying enthusiasm.
Competing and having fun
Mastering each of the agility obstacles takes time and effort, but once your dog is eager and confident and you’ve learned to sequence a pre-designed field, you may find yourself daydreaming about competing and earning titles.
Weekend events that classify teams by size and experience are held across the country. If you decide to jump into competitive agility, you’ll compete against others in your experience bracket. Chapter Competing in Agility: Ready, Set, Go!
introduces you to agility competitions.
If the thought of judges and time clocks overwhelms you, no worries! Many people do agility just for the fun of it and never choose to compete. Whatever you decide, agility is a fun time for everyone involved. You get to share special one-on-one time with your dog, exploring new experiences and hanging out with others who are excited by the very same thing!
Trying dog sports, trials, and backyard games
Agility, though popular, fun, and everywhere, isn’t the only competitive or social dog event on the scene. Frisbee and flyball are two challenging games that pair a dog’s predatory instincts with a focused activity. At a competitive level, you and your dog will be judged against comparative performances and/or against the clock or set standard.
There are other activities that you can enjoy together with or without other people. From organized obedience training to more breed-specific efforts, you can work to hone your dog’s talents and compete against others for titles. Many dog organizations, such as the American Kennel Club (AKC) and United Kennel Club (UKC), offer competitive trials, clearly outlining their specifications and granting awards to dogs who show excellence in their performance. Earned titles at every level represent the determined effort you and your dog underwent to perform tasks that, while no longer necessary for our survival, represent skills that did in fact aid in our evolution. Breed-specific events include lure coursing for Sighthounds, scent trails for Scenthounds, hunting and field trials for Retrievers, earthdog trials for Terriers, and herding trials for herding breeds. Competitions judge how a dog’s breed-specific inclinations have been fine-tuned through training and how well they can perform their “duties” under stress.
Finally, there are activities and certifications that are open to all dogs and often sponsored by various groups and clubs. These events include pet therapy, where dogs earn certification to work in therapeutic environments (such as nursing homes, libraries, or hospitals), and canine freestyle, where a dog and handler perform a choreographed dance to music. Hard to envision? Search YouTube — you’ll be impressed!
Who knew? So much for you and your dog to explore together!
by Sarah Hodgson