Dogs are our best friends and companions, and their ability to form lasting relationships with humans gains them food and the comfort of our homes. Dogs are eager to please humans to earn these rewards, and this also means dogs are willing partners when it comes to training. Although all animals learn in the same way, the social nature of dogs makes them exceptional training partners.
The methods used to teach a dog tricks can be simple or complex depending on the trick you are training and the natural abilities of your dog. A dog who offers a cute behavior that can be turned into a trick - such as walking on his or her hind legs - is the ideal candidate for a method known as capturing. When you train your dog by capturing his or her natural behavior, you simply wait for your dog to offer the trick, let him know the behavior is correct and offer a him reward.
When capturing a behavior, there are two ways to let the dog know you are pleased with the behavior he is offering. Marking the behavior as correct can be accomplished by saying, “yes!” or making a small sound such as a click. Whatever you decide to use, the marker noise should be consistent, and once your dog learns what it means, it will become a useful tool for continuing your dog’s training.
Once your dog is consistently performing the behavior that you are marking and rewarding, you can add the verbal cue. The cue is a word that lets your dog know you’d like him to perform the specific behavior. A word such as “walk” may be an appropriate choice for his captured trick, although you may prefer a more specific cue such as “dance” or “stand up.” You can choose any verbal cue you like, as long as it won’t duplicate or be in conflict with future cues you’d like to teach your dog.
When teaching tricks your dog doesn’t offer naturally, you can use a training method called shaping. With shaping, you will play a game with your dog that helps him to gradually understand what type of trick you would like to see. For example, if you would like to teach your dog to raise his or her paw, you can wait until your dog moves his paw a small amount, then mark and reward it. If he doesn’t offer to move his paw naturally, you can gently touch his foot or encourage him to shift his weight to cause foot movement.
With repetition, the dog will understand that moving his or her paw earns a reward, and he will continue to perform this behavior with more frequency. You can start offering rewards only when the dog lifts his paw high; by rewarding the best examples of the behavior, you can improve your dog’s performance. This is why it is called shaping; you are improving the dog’s behavior by small increments of training criteria. Once the paw lift looks like what you want to see as a finished behavior, you can add your verbal cue.
To teach a dog tricks, the above steps are all you need. However, as you become a proficient dog trainer, you will want to learn about additional aspects of training, including rate of reinforcement, fluency, latency and back-chaining. Teaching your dog tricks is a wonderful way to bond and enjoy a partnership together, and it also provides a foundation for team sports such as musical canine freestyle.