The power of the trick: The tricks that treat

Dog trainer helped TODAY’s , and now she's offering a virtual training class for you and your canine companion. In this two-part lesson, Garber gives tips on how to use tricks to help your dog.

When I was first starting out as a dog trainer, I had no respect for dog tricks. As far as I was concerned, tricks training was just fluff, mankind’s way of manipulating dogs to be even more adorable than they already were — as if that were necessary! 

These days, I include tricks as part of any training protocol I suggest to clients. For starters, for large-breed dogs, and particularly for “scary” breeds like pits and Rots and sheps, tricks are a great way to make people more comfortable in their presence. Who can be scared of a dog who waves goodbye or plays dead on command? Even just a few tricks in your dog’s repertoire can help put people at ease.

Further, tricks can affect an emotional shift in a dog through physical means. Should your dog get anxious or upset by something, a trick can be the perfect way to get his mind off it and onto something much more fun!

Perhaps most importantly, from the behavior modification standpoint, some tricks are a wonderful way of affecting change in problematic behavior. Also, as if you needed more convincing, they can be a great source of exercise, both mentally and physically for your dog.

In this first installment — part one of a two part series — I'll touch on tricks you might employ for behavior modification; the second will sketch out a fitness routine.

Hand targeting

For starters, let's discuss hand targeting. Hand targeting is one of the most important behaviors you can teach your dog. It helps him gain ease with human hands around the head/face, it is a fun behavior from the dog’s perspective which makes it a good default behavior in times of stress/distraction and, most importantly, it makes for a very powerful recall!

- “Touch”: Start by putting your flat hand (palm forward) casually to the side of your dog's nose. Mark the very moment that he touches his nose to your hand with a “yes!” and give him a treat. Gradually you will notice him touching your hand purposefully. Then start holding it farther from him, making him move to the hand. Make this a fun game! When he’s consistently touching his nose when he sees the flat hand, say the verbal command “touch” first, then hold out your hand. 

“Touch” means that he should come and touch your hand. From afar, this will become "Fido, touch!" "Fido" is to get his attention, "touch" tells him what to do, and he'll look for your flat hand to touch. Then you've got your recall. Keep this exercise exuberant in nature.

Other than "touch," the following two variations of hand targeting are the most useful in affecting a more playful state of mind in an upset dog:

- “Jump”: Hold your leg out in front of you (at a height appropriate for your dog) and hold your open palm above your leg. As he moves toward it, arc your hand over your leg and away from him. This will lead him spatially over your leg. If you’d like, you can precede the hand prompt with the verbal cue “jump!” once the behavior is coming fairly fluently. At some point, the sight of your leg will become your pup’s cue for jumping and you will no longer need to lead with the hand signal.

- “Tippy toes” or “Shamu”: Hold your open palm steadily above your pooch’s head, at a height that he can touch by standing on his hind legs. If you’d like, you can precede the hand prompt with the verbal cue “tippy toes!” once the behavior starts to occur fluently.

It also seems to be the flavor of the month in some training circles to force a dog down on his side and hold him there when he’s committed an offense. Not only is it a great way for the handler to get bitten (from a defensive or an aggressive dog) but it’s also a sure-fire way to damage the relationship between dog and handler. What if you could cue your dog to go down on his side (sounds like play dead, doesn’t it?) so that he can calm down and regain his composure? And, yes, it’s also a pretty cute trick!

Digital Vision
Mature man shaking dog's paw, side view, close-up

- “Bang!”: Once in a “down” position, notice which hip your dog is leaning on. Lure his nose around the opposite shoulder so that he’s lying flat. Mark with a “yes!” Once he’s doing this fairly easily, hold your hand like a gun and point to the floor until his head is resting on the floor, marking with a “yes” when it touches. When this happens with frequency, make your pup keep his head resting on the floor by continuing to cue his head down and saying a calm “good” as a reward marker with him in this position, but withholding the treat until you give the release word “ok,” which indicates that his head can come up and receive the treat. Introduce the verbal command when you’re getting fairly reliable behavior of the head hitting the ground. Also, as your dog gains fluency, start him from a standing position.

Just a note: Don’t ever ask your dog to do this when there’s impending danger, like in a dog run where another dog can jump on top of him, or he’ll lose his trust in you.

- “Shake”: Shake is more than just a trick. It helps your pooch get more comfortable with people touching his paws. With him in a sit, have a treat in your hand just in front of his nose, either in your closed fist or pinched in your fingers so that your dog can’t get to it. The hope is that, in his frustration, he will bat at the treat hand. If this happens, mark it with a happy “yes,” grab the paw with the other hand, and open the treat hand to reveal the treat. If the frustration method isn’t working, try holding the pinched treat above your dog’s head and off to one side. By rocking him to the side, often he will pick up the opposite paw to reach. Mark it with a happy “yes,” grab the paw with your other hand, and open the treat hand to reveal the treat. After he is consistently offering a paw, say the verbal command “shake” or “give paw” in front of it. 

An additional note: By using the rocking method, you can train a “left paw” and “right paw” behavior.

- “High 5”: Just change the position of your hand so that it’s ready to receive a “high 5” when your dog does the “shake” behavior.

- “Wave”: Give the cue for “shake” but instead of keeping your hand stationary to receive the pooch's paw, move it horizontally in front of him. This will cause him to lift his paw a little longer and perhaps even make another swipe to meet your hand. Especially reinforce the extra jabs in the air.

Fun and games

Beyond being a terrific game for scent-driven dogs, “go find it!” can be a fun rainy day activity to burn a little mental energy. It’s also a great way of distracting your dog past something or someone that might otherwise scare him, simply by giving the cue and then tossing a little path of treats each step past the scary thing.

- “Go find it!”: This is a game of sniffing out a fragrant piece of food. To install the command, we want “go find it!” to indicate that there is food somewhere out there for the hunting. Start easy by saying “go find it!” and tossing a piece of kibble. Make it easy to find. When this is comfortable, take a fragrant piece of food, put your dog in a sit- or down-stay in one room (or have someone hold him) and plant the food somewhere in plain sight. Release him and instruct him to start hunting by saying “ok, go find it!” 

As he gains fluency, make the treat increasingly well hidden — under furniture, in his crate, inside a toy on the floor, and wherever else, just be creative! You can hide a couple of treats at one time; when your pup’s found the first, repeat the command “go find it” to indicate that there’s still another out there somewhere. 

Just a note: Don’t hide the tidbits in places where you don’t want him hunting, like on a table top, which would encourage counter surfing. Also, if your pooch breaks the stay, put him back in it. What he’ll learn is that breaking the stay delays the game.

There’s one last, unspoken benefit to tricks training. It’s fun for your dog! It’s time you and he spend together training, but while we humans tend to get pretty serious when it comes to a dog’s sitting when told, we just don’t have the same rigor when Fido blows off a “wave” or “shamu”! All one can do is giggle and make some lame excuse to an amused audience — and practice a little more back home.

So get tricky! Have some fun with it and check back for a second installment on some tricks that have both cuteness factor and fitness benefits next Friday!

is a dog trainer and behavior specialist. She is the owner of Training.