Practical Issues > Pets Index > Pet Care

Good dog! Why tricks are worth teaching
Denise Flaim
MARCH 11, 2006
Animal tricks -- stupid or otherwise -- were not invented by David Letterman.

Indeed, the Medicis -- over-the-top dog people, even by Renaissance standards -- supposedly had a dog who not only cleared the dishes, but poured vino without spilling a drop. And arguably for as long as dogs, cats and other creatures have shared our hearths, humans have delighted in any behavior that offers the glimmer of kinship.

But from an animal's perspective, trick training can provide challenges in an otherwise ho-hum world.

"Probably the biggest reason dogs misbehave is they don't get enough exercise or mental stimulation," says Teresa Hanula of A Dog's World Dog Training & Pet Care in Fairfax, Va., whose trick-savvy 3-year-old Border collie, Leroy, has his own Web site, "A half-hour of training can tire them out more than an hour at a dog park. And it helps them learn how to learn."

Another advantage to trick training is owners get less hung up on obedience, says Gerilyn Bielakiewicz, author of "The Only Dog Tricks Book You'll Ever Need" (Adams Media, $7.95). "It's a lot more lighthearted, and people don't expect their dog to do it, so they're kinder and more generous with reinforcements -- which is how we should be all the time."

Liz Palika, author of "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Dog Tricks" (Alpha, $14.95), says weaving, or high-speed zig-zagging through a line of upright poles, is one of the most popular lessons in her trick training classes. "People see that on Animal Planet, and it looks so cool when the dog goes zip, zip, zip through."

Whether your goal is a simple "roll over" or an elaborately choreographed skit, here are some tips to keep in mind:

-- Build a foundation. "Your dog has to have a good grasp of basic commands because most tricks start with 'sit' or 'stand' or 'watch me.' " Palika says, adding that owners often overlook teaching "stand," in which a dog stands in place.

-- Accentuate the positive. The popularity of positive techniques such as clicker training is a boon for trick training. Owners reward behaviors they want, which in turn increases their frequency.

-- Have patience. Some dogs are going to learn more quickly than others, and those that have trouble concentrating need shorter training sessions.

-- Avoid laser-light toys, Palika advises. "Some dogs then begin to look for anything that's shiny," she explains, "from the glint of the sun off the crystal on your watch or the wind chimes outside."

Firepaw news - 3/11/06


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