Why Dogs Do Tricks



It is inevitable for every dog owner. You bring your puppy home, and you immediately set to work teaching him tricks. It usually starts with "sit." Sit is then followed up with "down," and then often "shake a paw." We take great delight in working with Fido, and our chests puff with pride when he masters his latest feat. It makes us feel like we should get ourselves a cape and a logo-ed t-shirt that reads "Super Trainer." After all, Fido IS the world's smartest dog. Why do dogs do tricks? Many dogs seem to derive great pleasure from learning to do new things. Whether it is attending a training class with you where the trick is improving Fido's manners, training to compete in agility trials, a Rally Obedience class, or finally mastering that "roll over," some dogs seem to come to life when in learning mode. But the truth is, tricks are more than just party games to trot out for our friends when they stop by for a visit. Many of the skills we teach our dogs have very practical uses and contribute to our dogs' ability to safely navigate their lives with us.

The Root of the Behavior

For a dog to live a happy life, it is important that he learn a few basic skills. Fido needs to learn to come when he is called and to not delay in making his way to you. A basic recall command has the potential to save Fido's life. Stay is another important word that Fido must have in his canine vocabulary. Other tricks are optional, but taking the time to work with Fido can be a wonderful bonding opportunity for you both as well as a lot of fun. Dog tricks are the canine equivalent of showing off. If you've ever seen a dog who has a vast repertoire of learned trick behaviors he proudly displays, you know that he is having a ball entertaining you. But at their heart, tricks are simply trained obedience cues. Many of them can be taught then combined to create new and interesting skills. The key is that regardless of whether you are teaching a "high five" or a "front" for competitive obedience, you want to keep all training fun for your dog. When it becomes work, no one wants to do it anymore. Not you, and certainly not Fido.

So, why DO dogs do tricks? Since canine behavior is largely based on logic, we can learn a great deal by observing dogs during training exercises. Our dogs are canine opportunists. They learn very quickly how to manipulate situations and people to get their desired response. It is highly possible that tricks earn Fido the ultimate prize, which is your attention. More than anything else in this world, Fido loves quality time spent with you. It is more valuable to him than a slice of prime rib with gravy on top! If Fido doing a spin or a twist, brings a smile to your face, or even better, a laugh; chances are good that Fido is going to keep offering you more and more behaviors. He knows that it makes you happy, and THAT makes him happy. But it's not just the finished product that brings our dogs great joy. Dogs also enjoy the journey. Training time generally equates to two of Fido's most favorite things in the whole world. As you well know, those two things are treats, and time spent with you. Training is a win-win for Fido! 

Encouraging the Behavior

Training also plays a vital role in enriching our dogs' minds. Mental stimulation is every bit as important as physical stimulation. Training tricks or even basic obedience commands keep your dog's mind engaged, and he loves that! The interesting thing about trick training is that though it initially takes reinforcement through treats or toys to teach the behavior; over time, the trick itself is sufficient reward for the dog. The dog that took a week and half a bag of liver treats to learn to "pray" is now the same dog who gleefully greets you and offers you the behavior without any prompting or any physical reward in sight. Your delight at his cleverness becomes the most powerful reinforcer and a predictor that this behavior is going to happen again...and again...and again. And we love it! Because dogs desire to please the people they love, most of them are ideal candidates for training. However, not all breeds possess the same desire for learning. Certain breeds require unique approaches in order for them to develop the drive to learn. Terriers, for example, are a group of breeds bred and highly prized for their independent spirit. In teaching a Terrier, it is important to realize that you have a dog that was designed to follow his instincts rather than take direction. 

What does this mean for you? Are some dogs untrainable? The answer is a resounding no! All dogs are trainable, but some dogs require different motivations. In working with a breed of dog that is known for independent thinking, strong prey drive, or impulsive behavior, one of the key things you must focus on is learning to let the dog think that the skill they are learning was THEIR idea and not yours. Some dog breeds like to be in control, and others bore very easily. You must learn to be the most fascinating thing in the room. This tool is helpful regardless of the breed of dog you are working with, but is an absolute must if you are working with a terrier whose tendency can be to blow you off to go do something HE would rather be doing instead of performing a 2 minute sit stay because you want to enter him in your kennel club's next obedience event. 

Other Solutions and Considerations

Training a dog is never an impossible feat, but as a trainer, you must have a solid plan, a willingness to forsake it when necessary, and lots of patience. Dog training rarely has consistent, upward linear movement. More often than not, you move up a few paces, then back down twice as many, before soaring upwards and falling back again. Patience will go a long way to help your dog learn and to keep things fun for both of you. If you'd like to get into teaching your dog a trick or two and you're not certain where to start, there are many great resources for you. YouT0ube offers lots of instructional videos and inspiration. If you're not certain just yet what you'd like to teach Fido, check out Just Jesse the Jack. He's a dog trick dynamo! Just watching him will bring a smile to your face and will show you what is possible when training is consistent and fun. Jesse's mom has worked wonders with a breed known more for their stubbornness and short attention span than their willingness to learn. So if your pup isn't quite sure this trick stuff is all it's cracked up to be, there is hope!

Many online retailers also offer books, DVDs, and digital downloads that can help get you started with training your dog. Be sure to select one that focuses on what you are most interested in. If you are wanting to have the next agility star, you will want to focus on training materials that teach the foundation behaviors for the sport. If parlor tricks are your aim, pick up a book that shows some of your favorite commands you'd like Fido to learn. Lastly, some towns offer classes in trick training. Consult with your local dog daycare, veterinarian, or kennel club to learn what is available in your area. 


Are you thinking you would like to do some training with Fido? It can be great fun. Dogs love to do things with their owners, and they take great delight in bringing you joy. Pick up some yummy treats and check out a YouTube video or two, and you are ready to get started on a journey that will yield many great rewards for you and your dog.