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Do Dogs Enjoy Learning Tricks?

We have talked many times about how important mental stimulation is to a dog, but the other day someone asked me if dogs enjoy learning tricks. Not the April Fool kind of tricks, of course, but the kind so many people teach their pets to show how clever and amazing they are. She seemed to think that being made to do things like shake paw, spin, dance in tango lines, or beg is demeaning to the animal.

Fact is, the dog has no idea why you are asking it to perform a particular behavior. It’s all about the challenge and the reward. Also, most dogs love to please their owners. And any time you can spend with your dog to reinforce your bond and keep your pet stimulated is all good. However, I do have a few issues when it comes to tricks:

1. Train your dog first; tricks can come later.

It surprises me how often people love to show how well Buffie can balance a Milk Bone on her nose and then snatch it out of thin air on command. Or how Rex can be prompted to sing along with the Star Spangled Banner. And yet these same dogs are incapable of walking on a leash without straining, of greeting visitors to their home without barking or jumping on them; or of being left in a room with food on the table without hopping up and helping themselves.

Obedience training is the most fundamental set of “tricks” you can teach your dog.  So, focus first on sharing with your pet the basic skills essential to its safety and its successful integration into your social network. Once you have these behaviors nailed down, then it’s okay to consider the fun stuff.

2. Cookies shouldn’t be your only training tool.

Food is a powerful reinforcer for all living creatures. But when you use it as the only tool in a training situation, you’ll be sending your dog the wrong message. Using your dog’s favorite toy is also a primary reinforcer for reward.  And don’t forget, your approval and praise are really important incentives for your dog to behave a certain way as well.

Snacks do have their place in training. With puppies especially, treats can get the dog to focus and recognize what it is you want them to do. But as time goes by, if they come to believe that there will always be a snack associated with the behavior, your dog could develop a food fixation or—far worse—fail to respond appropriately at a time when its safety or yours is at stake.  Another thing to remember with puppies is that you need to introduce training challenges to them gradually; as they are weaned, the exercises can increase in difficulty and the rewards can be modified.

Whether it’s primary obedience skills or some fun and whimsical tricks, come up with an assortment of non-food rewards: a walk, a special toy, a ride in the car, or a well-deserved belly rub.

3. Pick the right place and the right time.

When you do resort to using snacks and food as a training reward, be sure they are dispensed under the proper circumstances. Always conduct your training sessions away from the dinner table or your dog’s dish.

Want to learn the correct way to train your dog? Contact us for information about our at-home programs for puppies, adult dogs and rescues of all ages.

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