Downeast Dog News

Tricks….The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

By | Mar 31, 2017
Photo by: Drew Logan Puppies can learn to stay and offer attention to the humans.. even in groups! Here some puppies of PupStart practice a group perching exercise. How beautiful is that!

Tricks….The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

What is a “trick” when it comes to dog training? I have searched unsuccessfully for an official definition, so here’s my attempt at one:

“A dog trick is an intentionally-trained, cued dog behavior not typically included in basic skills.”

We often think that anything beyond “the basics” of sit, down, come, and heel falls into the “trick” category as well as any behavior that does not have an obvious function. The problem is that “the basics” is purely subjective. While pushing a button might be considered a trick for a pet dog to do, it’s an essential skill for many service dogs. Teaching a dog to turn around 180 degrees so his hind end is facing you might seem like a silly trick, but it sure is handy when you want to clean off those muddy hind paws.

I like to encourage dog owners to expand their concept of “the basics.” One of the things that has continued to inspire me in dog training is how creative we can be and how creative our dogs can be, too. In fact, I think I’d be hard pressed to learn of a trick that doesn’t, in some way, serve a function even if that function is exercise for the dog.

There are a few “tricks” I think every dog should learn:

1. Bow. It’s a great full-body stretch, a friendly, play invitation and a beautiful pose. If you want to test your dog’s range of motion, his flexibility, teach him to bow on cue.

2. Perch (front paws on a raised object). It helps a dog be still, is great if you need to take a photo of your dog, and has a multitude of other uses including handling, learning about heel position, and much more.

3. Target (dog touches nose to your hand or to an object). You can invite your dog to go just about anywhere if he has learned to enthusiastically follow and touch your hand. Recall, getting onto, into, off of, out of, through…. you name it! Targeting is the “staple ingredient” in many behavior “recipes.”

BAD tricks:

1. Paw. Teaching a dog to raise a paw on cue can be terrific and adorable as long as the cue is truly understood. The cue is typically a hand reaching for the dog. Think of all the times you want to reach for your dog and NOT have him bat you with his paw: when you want to put his collar on, his leash, brush him, give him a treat, pat him, etc. Dogs quickly learn that offering a paw is fun! It very quickly turns into a grab, smack, hit, or worse every time you reach for him (“ugly” is when he rakes some small child with his long nails). Please do not teach your dog and definitely don’t teach your puppy to “give paw” unless you can do it without using your hands (there’s a challenge for you).

2. Hug or jump on me. Humans are not good at helping dogs understand when this is appropriate, desired behavior and when it’s not. The dogs who get a lot of “hug time” will often be happy to spread the joy to others who are not as welcoming of or ready for it.

3. Auto-sit. (“if I see a treat coming, I sit!” “If all else fails, I sit!”). This might seem like a wonderful habit to have, but it can get in the way of many behaviors, such as walking on leash. If every time your dog thinks he might get a treat, he stops and sits, you will not get very far. The dog brain and body are capable of so much more than sit.

If the behavior is great fun for the dog and the cue for it can be misconstrued, the dog may offer it up all the time, even when it’s not wanted. We always have to think forward to be sure the behaviors we are working on will fit well into the dogs’ lives and our lives. With a bit of consideration and a creative mind, we can let our dogs learn all sorts of stuff... and you'd be amazed at how practical even the most "frivolous" of tricks might be!


Cued behaviors rely on good “stimulus control”:

A behavior is said to be under stimulus control when we can accurately predict a desirable outcome to our cue. We can truly say this has happened when four conditions have been fulfilled

1. The dog always performs the behavior when you give your cue

2. The dog does not perform a different behavior in response to that cue

3. The dog does not perform the behavior in the absence of the cue

4. The dog does not perform the behavior in response to a different cue


To teach bow: find an object that is high enough for your dog to get his head and shoulders under but low enough that he cannot crawl under. A chair, stool or similar object should suffice. Put a few little treats under this object and while your dog is reaching for them, help keep him under by offering him little bites of a big piece of cheese hidden in your hand. Reward as long as he’s reaching under but not if his butt hits the floor. If his butt hits the floor, start all over. If your timing is good, you will be helping him learn that the stretch or bow pays but down doesn’t. By adjusting the position of your lure, you should be able to elicit the beginnings of a bow. Be sure not to draw the treat towards you - this will probably make him lie down. Instead, hold the treat stationary or even move it towards his elbows.

To teach perch:

Find a stable, non-slippery object large enough for your dog’s front feet and several inches high (a small but stable step stool works nicely). Put it against a wall and stand beside it. With a big, soft yummy treat in your hand, lure your dog towards the perch and reward him for making any effort whatsoever towards stepping on it. Don’t tap the object but instead keep that food very close to your dog’s nose and guide him towards it, rewarding with little tastes along the way. Once he has both feet on it (this might take a while - be patient)!, feed him lots of food, one morsel after another, then release him to get off. Gradually build on the length of time he’s on it.

To teach targeting:

Pretend to hold a treat in your hand with your fingers pressed together. Have a treat in your other hand ready to throw. Present your “target hand” close to your dog’s nose and draw it away from him. As soon as he moves towards it, even if it’s just a reach in the direction of your hand, toss the treat from your other hand. Repeat, gradually requiring him to move a big more in order to get the treat tossed. You are tossing the treat rather that delivering it directly to him so that you are “resetting” him to do it again.

Happy Training!