Teaching a dog tricks not only helps to build engagement for training, but it can also bring fresh enthusiasm to your regimen, mentally challenge your dog, and encourage skills that can be used for other tasks or for physical conditioning. Many tricks can build off of a handful of core skills that we can teach to help build more complex behaviors down the road.
Learning how to use a target stick can help a dog to build the ability to lure into new behaviors from a distance and shape positions that are more advanced. These sticks are commercially available, however I simply use about three feet of PVC pipe with colored tape on one end. This is a behavior I like to free shape, meaning I wait for the dog to offer the behavior I am looking for and then mark and reward. I will hold the stick in my right hand, and when the dog (usually out of curiosity in the beginning) sniffs the taped end of the stick, I mark ‘yes’ and then treat them. When the dog is more consistently offering their nose to the end of the stick, I will begin pairing the word “touch” to help them put a cue to the behavior. I will also increase my expectation of how long I expect the dog to maintain their nose on the end and increase the difficulty of them being able to reach the stick (ex. Have it elevated where they need to jump to touch it). This skill can help you to shape behaviors like spinning in circles, weaving, bouncing or even box turns for sports like flyball!
Another very useful skill is teaching your dog to place just their front paws onto a surface. I will use something like a plastic horse feeder (the smallest one) or a touch pad for this. Using a food motivator, I will lure the dog to the object, and help them to begin to climb on to it. Once they have placed their front feet on to the object, I will mark ‘good target’ and reward and then use my release command to have them come off. I like to have some duration on this skill when shaping other behaviors, and I like to generalize to multiple objects.
“I like to have some duration on this skill when shaping other behaviors, and I like to generalize to multiple objects.”
This type of skill can be used to shape pivoting for healing, perching on objects (great for photo ops!), or even switching the light (by using a very small target like post-its on the switch). You can also teach the opposite by teaching them to place their back feet on an object. This is awesome for physical therapy exercises or beginning to teach your dog to do a handstand!
Getting a dog to calmly hold an object can be a useful skill in teaching multiple complex types of retrieving behaviors. I will usually use a PVC pipe for this as well. Taking a small pipe, I will sit with it between my knees, and similarly to how I teach the ‘touch’, I will wait for the dog to show interest, mark, and pay. As they begin to offer this more readily, I will increase my criteria by waiting for them to mouth at it before rewarding them. This is a behavior that is best trained slowly and incrementally so your dog never has an aversion to taking something with their mouth. Once they can hold the pipe, you can begin to generalize to different objects and back chain retrieves!
These are three general behaviors I find I use very frequently when beginning to teach dogs more advanced tricks and even service work. Challenging you and your dog to learn new skills will keep your training fresh and open doors for the chance to teach awesome new parlor tricks!
If you enjoyed this post, you should read How To Stop Your Puppy From Nipping During Playtime here.
What is your pup’s favorite trick? Share below!