Teaching a trick is

the least important part of teaching tricks



I get many questions a propos tricks – how I teach that or another trick, where I get ideas, why I teach them etc., so here is a little bit on tricks:


When teaching tricks, teaching a trick is the least important part of it. The reason why I started teaching tricks was because I wanted to teach puppy La that working with me is fun. With puppy Lo, I had so many problems because of all her fears and phobias that I spent all the time and all her meals for getting her used to different things, people, animals, noises etc. – you name it, puppy Lo was afraid of it for sure! And then I got La, my perfect puppy. No fears, no phobias, just hyperactive ball of fur with the cutest face in the world. I never imagined before that training dogs can be so easy, being used to first Aiken and then Lo... I taught her everything that I could think of in a couple of minutes… Her unstoppable enthusiasm for working was forcing me to get creative, to think of more and more tricks… By age of 6 months, half of Europe knew her for her tricks. And her enthusiasm, of course, that one just can’t go by unnoticed. She got me addicted too.



By now, I teach my dogs everything they need to know via tricks: tricks train them to think, to use their body and mind. Tricks teach them that there is no difference between working and playing and gives them the right attitude. Teaching tricks teaches them that they’re the smartest dogs in the world, that there are no mistakes and no failure, that trying things is good. Tricks give them confidence in their thinking abilities and moves. Tricks build a bond between me and them and creates a deeper understanding for them how I think and for me how they think. Tricks make them feel important, smart, confident, needed and bonded with me.


Yes, as you probably figured out by now: I think tricks are very important, I think tricks are the most important part of human-dog relationship and the most important part of agility, I think that by now, I teach everything there is to know about agility via tricks.


Teaching tricks is easy, the hardest part of the job is to get an idea WHAT to teach, that's why I keep posting videos. HOW is mostly easy: just click&treat anything you like and shape it from there. Yes, I'm mostly (but not exclusively) using shaping. That pretty much answers all the questions on how I teach that or another trick. But since I keep getting demands for more exact explanation on  how I trained that or another trick, here is an explanation of some of the tricks people most often ask about:


- Heeling


 I first teach an exact position as described in this video, starting with shaping a dog to circle the bowl, meaning clicking any movement or even weight shift of hind legs when she is on a bowl. It goes very fast with dogs that already know they have hind legs and had been clicked for using them before - for others, it takes somewhat longer, but as soon as they get that you're clicking hind legs movements, it's very easy to shape some steps and then more and more from there - until she comes all the way to your leg..  



Good understanding of the position and high head are the must if you want to train high trot too. If so, when walking, just slow down. If a dog understands the position well enough to immediately adjust, the easiest for them to slow down is to go up (instead of forward as that would take them out of the position) with front legs for a step or two. I simply clicked that and then shaped even higher legs from there and then eventually added more steps (that's the easy part). Here is the final result: Heeling Video.



- Backward weaving


A dog should already know to walk backwards on command and should be able to flip from front to heel position and from front to right-heel position (as shown in a video above). When you master that, the trick as such is easy: just put everything together. I start in front position, standing pretty close to a wall or a couch and ask a dog for heel position and then right away to back up. He can’t back up straight because of a wall, so he will back up more towards you and you can help him with right leg to back in between your legs back to front position. Now ask for a flip to right-heel position, again for back, help him with left leg to come back to front position between your legs and voila you just got your first backward figure 8. You will need three or four sessions more to master it, but yes, it’s a pretty easy trick if a dog can back up and flip to your left&right side. If not – go to work! We do that trick in puppy class.




- Handstand


I used two different methods with La and Bu&Bi – La’s style of standing on front feet is more impressive since her hind feet are stretched up in the air, but the training process was much longer and she doesn’t have a very good balance that way, so I tried differently with Bu since she would have had even bigger problems with balancing, considering that she is bigger and heavier.


With La, I first taught her to target my hand with her hind leg. This was quite of a project, but then we progressed fairly quickly, putting a target higher and higher – until it got physically very hard for her. Then we needed to take it slowly, build some more muscle and get some more balance. Still, she can’t hold the position for too long, but this was never my goal anyway.




With Bu&Bi, I started with 2on2off position – not something I actually use for contacts as you probably figured out from our videos, but something I teach just like any other shaping game: clicking a dog first to climb on an object, then when he is leaving an object with hind feet still on it and when he understands a position, clicking when she goes in the position directly, hind feet first (see puppy class video).


After a dog gets it, it gets easy, just make an object higher and higher until you change it for a wall – you shouldn’t have any problems from the point that a dog understands how to go into the position directly to the point that you start to wean off the wall. Then, it takes time as a dog needs to get strength and balance to be able to hold a position without a help of a wall, so don’t be too much in a hurry. In order to slowly fade out the wall, use objects that offer less and less support: thinner and thinner trees, soft fences etc.



- Standing on left/right/diagonal two legs


I got the idea for this trick after I saw a video of a Whippet, living a normal life after loosing both left legs. I started it with Bu as she knew the names of all four feet and then just called first "one" and then immediately "three", clicking the moment "three" left the floor if "one" was still in the air. It was quite a long process though, so I used another method with La and Bi and it went really fast that way. Basically, I trained it the same way as handstand, only that the starting position was 2lefts on-2rights off. You can either shape it or first shape 4on and then make an object so small or inclined that you get 2on2off instead and just click that. Then, you're making an object higher and higher or more and more inclined so that a dog is not standing on it anymore, but just leaning against it and then you start clicking before she leans against it so to eventually get rid of an object. Again, it's an easy process, but it takes some practice for a dog to be able to hold the position for some time (but not even nearly as much as with a handstand).



For diagonal feet, the process is even easier, one hind feet is on an object/leaning against the wall (something that I teach together with normal 2on2off training) and I ask for diagonal front foot and click when it's in the air, quickly prolonging the duration. Then, I start clicking as soon as both feet go up, before the hind foot leans against the wall in order to fade the wall.



- all four feet in a bowl




That's an easy one. Just start with a bigger box and shape the puppy to go into it. Then gradually make it harder by using smaller and smaller objects.


- vaults


The idea for that one was actually La's. She tried to jump in my lap once, but since she got me by surprise and I couldn't catch her, she just pushed off from me. I just rewarded it and had a new trick within three or four repetitions. My BCs weren't that talented for that trick, so I had to make it easier for them by sitting on a couch, asking them to jump in my lap and then lured them away from me with a toy, as shown towards the end (4:30) of this  video. Then you just sit on higher and higher places, then just lean against the wall and eventually stand straight. It's a really easy one and lots of fun for all dogs that love to jump.



For the rest of the tricks, I guess you can figure it out on your own how I trained it, it's no rocket science, just some time and lots of fun.


How much time it took me to teach them all those tricks? Less as it looks like and less and less for every next trick. Those dogs are trained to think and wow, they sure do think! La however does a little less thinking, but so much action that it’s always easy to get whatever you want from her. She puts 110% into everything she does from day one. Bu is the opposite, she does more thinking and less action, she is my thinking dog. And Bi... Well, she is slower to start off as Bu, but once she gets the idea, you can't make her fail anymore, she generalizes a behaviour immediately and has no problems no matter how much harder the conditions get, it's amazing.


How many tricks my dogs can do? Just as much as I’ve had ideas. When I have no better idea, I will play shaping games with them, decide on which chair I want them to jump or what drawer I want them to touch… Anything, just to make them feel important, smart and needed. I think it's very important for young dogs as they learn to use their body and mind that way. It's also great for cross training of competing dogs, it keeps all the muscle active and prevents injuries. And it's especially great for old dogs, as tricks keep them mentally and physically active and that's what keeps them young and healthy.


I do some tricks with all four of my dogs, young and old, almost daily - or even twice a day if the weather doesn't allow any other fun activities. That's another great thing about tricks: you don't need any special equipment or space, a tiny living room is enough for 1001 different tricks!



Yeap, there is really no excuse for not teaching your dog tricks! Just try it and I guarantee you'll both have lots of fun - and eventually get addicted... I thought I'll slowly ran out of ideas and do less and less tricks training. But in fact, I have more and more ideas and teach more and more tricks to all my dogs now. I even started a real tricks class this summer as my puppy students insisted in wanting to keep coming for classes even after graduating from puppy school with flying colours - and yes, I promise we'll do the video!


For more ideas on tricks training, check videos.