I’ve been writing an awful lot about Shelby recently, but that’s not to say that my other dog doesn’t have his talents. Bev, if you’re reading this, I am not purposely neglecting your grand dog – see? ^.^Because of Smokey’s dog aggression formal lessons were not really in the stars for him (then, now is a different story). While we worked with Sandy on his behavioral quirks, she encouraged us to keep Smokey’s brain active and keep him mentally stimulated through trick training.
If you’ve been in the dog training world for any length of time, you’ve probably learned a lot (primarily, that it’s brutal). You’ve also probably heard this phrase a whole bunch, “Clicker training is a good way to teach tricks, but you can’t teach a dog anything serious with it,” where “serious” probably means anything you’d see at an obedience competition.
I think I have proven that that is not the case, as my dogs know much more than tricks and none of it has come from any other method than clicker training. But, to be fair, clicker training is a wonderful way to teach tricks, and trick training has gotten clicker training a lot of spotlight. Tricks are also a really great way to teach your dog “important” skills and still have fun at the same time. Plus, your dog will become the quick hit of any party if he has a nice repertoire of tricks to entertain your guests with.
I’ve heard it said that trick training is immaterial and possibly demeaning to your dog because, “He’s not a circus pony.” While I agree, he is certainly not a circus pony, I think trick training is not just fun for the owner, it’s fun for the dog too, and it’s far from immaterial. There are plenty of tricks that teach valuable life skills.
For example, Smokey’s Cheez It trick, where he balances a Cheez It (or any other food actually, but he prefers Cheez Its) on his nose, helps proof his “stay”, because as you can imagine, it takes an incredible amount of self-control on Smokey’s part to allow food to linger in such a tempting place. It also helps work on his impulse control, which in turn, makes him less prone to grabbing food (be it off your plate or out of your fingers).
Smokey’s play bow “trick” was actually learned out of necessity. Because Smokey had been in social isolation for so long, he never learned how to properly engage another dog in play (in other words, Smokey was socially awkward around other dogs and would try to instigate play without signaling to other dogs that that was he was ready to play, causing the other dog to become defensive, hence, part of his aggression issue). So we taught him to play bow on cue, that way, when he saw another dog, and his tail began to wag, before he just charged forward and started to play (very rude in the dog world, by the way), we would cue the “play bow” and the situation would ease. Now, since he’s been around more dogs, he understands how the play bow works, and he can use it at his own discretion, leaving “play bow” on cue for a fun party trick.
We taught Smokey “reverse” after he got stuck in between two doors in the back of Joe’s mom’s Durango when we were picking up doors for Joe’s project car. He didn’t know how to back up (also most likely a consequence of living in a very small space for a long time), so we had to pull over and let him out the back.
“Hup up” is a useful trick and not just for agility. It allows Smokey the freedom to jump over things and possibly out of situations that frighten him, giving him more control over his emotions and allowing him to be less dominated by the fear in his life. It’s especially effective when he starts to get panicked during a play session that is getting a little too rough for him. When his eyes start to dart, and he gets a little confused on how to get out of whatever corner he’s backed himself into it, we tell him, “Hup up” and he soars to freedom.
Counting and “speak” are great ways to get a noise you don’t typically like (like excessive barking) on cue. Smokey is incredibly vocal. Teaching him “speak” doesn’t only teach him when to bark, but when not to. He doesn’t get rewarded when he barks, and we haven’t asked for it; therefore, he doesn’t bark when we don’t ask him to. At the same time, he gets a chance to vocalize as much as his heart desires when we ask him to count or do “math” or “speak”. It was also very useful to me the other day when I got locked out of the house and Joe was taking a shower. I went to the window, cued for Smokey to count to five, and Joe immediately came downstairs, because Smokey doesn’t typically bark out of turn unless someone is at the door. In case you hadn’t figured this out – our doorbell is broken. That’s fine though, because we have a doggy doorbell.
“Shake” is a good trick to teach a dog who is averse to having his paws handled. Trimming Smokey’s nails has become immensely easier since he learned that trick (be careful with jumping right from “shake” into trimming nails though, because you may lose your trick and poison your cue if you do this. Remember, baby steps).
As for Smokey’s other tricks? Well, they were just because it’s fun to teach him tricks, and he loves learning them so much!
Free shaping and trick training are great ways to keep a dog mentally stimulated, engaged with you, to work on building confidence in a fearful dog, and to just have fun.
Let me leave you with this.
In Shelby’s last training class, there were two dogs in the class who were particularly shy. They weren’t aggressive, just shy, and their owners were shy too. They also weren’t progressing as quickly as the other dogs in the class, which was probably a consequence of the fact that their owners didn’t work with them that much because teaching traditional obedience can be tedious for some (my dogs, for example, don’t “heel” particularly well, because I think it’s boring to teach. They walk nicely on a leash, but heeling just isn’t my thing). At the end of the class, we were supposed to teach our dogs a trick.
These two dogs stole the show, and their owners grinned and laughed and cracked jokes for the first time. They beamed with pride when their dogs jumped into boxes, jumped out of boxes, rolled over, gave paw and spoke. Instead of just meeting the criteria to pass, they passed with flying colors. And what’s more – their general obedience skills improved as well, which I can only assume is because their owners just started to have more fun with their dogs.
Not only did their skills improve, but their confidence skyrocketed. Both dogs, who had run away from Shelby since day one, were romping with her after class. Six weeks of training just to find out that all they needed were some tricks up their sleeves.