We have an anxious dog. I don’t know that he’s “smart” or “eager to please” I think he’s just anxious, which makes him super easy and fun to train. Does that sound crazy? Anxious dogs can be EASIER to train? In the right environment, yes. Anxious dogs are begging for you to give them something to do other than spin the wheels inside their brain. This was something I learned the hard way. Eli, our pittie, needed a job to help him with his anxiety. We tried agility and it was fun, but we were limited to just once a week for a lot of the training because we live in the city in a small apartment without a place to store agility equipment. Then we found tricks through a class at Y2K9s Dog Sports Club. The best part about tricks is that you can practice them anywhere and teach a new one every day if you like! So why do I think this worked so well for our anxiety-riddled pit bull? There are several reasons:
1) A strong bond. Teaching tricks builds an incredibly strong bond between you and your dog. Tricks took our frazzled, anxious pit bull, and taught him that when he doesn’t know what to do he should look to us for guidance. It was amazing when we realized this was happening, probably about 3-4 months into our trick training. All of a sudden something would happen that would scare him and he would come running to us instead of going after whatever was scary! He sought us out for information and his default became attention to us.
2) Mental stimulation. As I said in the beginning, anxious dogs are begging for something to do with their brain and teaching tricks gives them that! Then they’re little brain is all tired out and they’ll get a good night (and sometimes a whole day’s) sleep out of it!
3) Physical exercise. There are lots of tricks that are designed to build a dog’s core strength and work on their flexibility and endurance. You can tailor your dog’s tricks to his specific medical needs. This is a great substitute for active dogs who like to get exercise but can’t always because of foul weather, heat, or your schedule.
4) Confidence building. Once you start getting into tricks, you start thinking about free shaping new behaviors and capturing adorable offered behaviors a lot more. Free shaping behaviors especially results in a dog who is excited to interact with novel stimuli in their environment, because they’ve been rewarded for it previously! It might go something like this: Jonathan puts a yoga ball down on the floor a few feet away from Eli. Eli looks at Jonathan. Eli goes over to yoga ball and sniffs it. Click. Treat. Repeat a few times. Eli sniffs and Jonathan doesn’t click or treat. Eli thinks for a minute. Eli tries a new behavior: nudging it with his nose. Click. Treat. Before you know it, Eli can push the yoga ball all the way around the room with his nose. We didn’t ask Eli for anything. He could have put a paw up on the yoga ball and that would have been rewarded. This kind of free shaping can be a lot of fun to do with a box or a chair. Just see what your dog comes up with! Before you know it, they’ll be exploring new environments to find things they can interact with.
5) Teaching alternative behaviors. Trick training gives you a ton of different cues to ask for when you dog is doing something you don’t like, even when they’re showing signs of being anxious. For example, Eli might see another dog he doesn’t like outside on a walk. He might stiffen a bit. I ask him for a touch and place my hand so he has to turn away from the other dog. He does it, we turn and walk away and I ask him for touches all the way. He especially loves the jump up and touch the hand in the air. He might turn back and look at the other dog, but I have no problem getting his attention back on me and he gets to do something that he enjoys, touching my hand with his nose. He enjoys it because he has a strong reward history with it and I usually reward him for doing it. Sometimes I will admit I run out of treats. Eli does it anyway because it feels good for him to do that. Being anxious about another dog on leash doesn’t! If we’re trapped and can’t turn around I will ask him for a sit pretty or a stretch. Giving him something else to do, other than be anxious about some stimulus, has been life altering for him!
The most important thing you learn from trick training is that everything you want your dog to do can be turned into a trick! You learn how to break behaviors down and teach them in little steps for complicated end-games. As an alternative behavior, touch is a fabulous trick. Loose leash walking is another trick that a lot of dogs would benefit from learning. Everything is a trick and teaching your dog anything should always be fun and rewarding for you and your dog!
For more information, check out 101 Dog Tricks by Kyra Sundance. Here are some tricks that Eli knows broken up into categories for manners, valuable skills for them for navigating around the house, and just fun times! A few videos are included to demonstrate what the final trick looks like, but remember to break it down into small steps and build slowly! Be creative and get the whole family involved!
Basic Tricks-teaching manners!
- Hand touch
- Stand-this is so important to have on cue when you started training more complex behaviors
- Loose leash walking
- Stay or wait
- Off -don’t use down for asking a dog to get off the sofa or the bed, use a different cue for each different kind of behavior. If down means lay down, off means get off
- Drop it
- Leave it
Tricks around the house-useful things for your dog to know!
- Crate games
- Back up
- Go to mat-my all time favorite and an incredibly important way to manage a multi-dog household
- Pose-A wait in a standing position with body handling associated with it. The best trick for the vet office! Eli will pose to have his temperature taken and for blood draws.
- Paw with individual cues for each foot-great to nail trimming or feet cleaning. Many people assign numbers to the paws so the cue for the front left is 1, front right is 2, etc
- Relax-a down but with the added requirement of their chin resting on the ground. A great way to install an off-switch in your anxious dog.
Party tricks without props-fun times for you, your dog, and your guests!
- Limp dog-play dead and be picked up. This one is easiest to teach with two people so someone can reward heavily while the other person works on getting your dog to stay in play dead position while being desensitized to being picked up slowly.
- Flip-A somersault. Some dogs may not be able to do this for health or conformation reasons.
- Peek-a-boo and Feet on your feet and walking with you
- Sit pretty-build this one slowly because it requires strong core muscles
- Stretch-nose to hip on each side, great for working on their flexibility
- Play dead
- Limp-hold one paw up in the air and walk. This one is really hard!
- Leg weave-forward and backward
- Hide your eyes
- Chin target
- Paw target
- Gimme a hug
- Wait with a treat on their nose
- Roll over
- Jump through your arms
- Get in
- Side stand-both feet on the same side balanced on an object
- Army crawl
- Sit pretty with a wave
- Snob-stick nose in the air and look away
- High five
- Wipe your paws
- Moonwalk-bow and walk backwards
Party tricks with props!
- Ring toss-a great way to work on self control!
- Go through a tunnel
- Get it-put anything in your hand in his mouth and hold it
- Painting-“get it” for a paint brush and then paint on paper with it
- Roll out a towel-roll treats up inside the towel so they get rewarded regularly as they unroll it
- Push a stroller
- Box work-let’s your dog’s imagination run wild!
- Vacuum-sit pretty with a paw up on the vacuum cleaner
- Music-playing a toy piano with his nose
- Hug-wrap his paw and leg around anything we put in front of him
- Night night-grab a pillow with his mouth, tuck himself in with a blanket and “relax” on the pillow
- Yoga-roll out a yoga mat (like rolling out a towel) and bow on it
- Open-open a toy fridge and get out a soda can
- Color discrimination work with blocks of different colors
- Toy discrimination-different names for different toys
- Basketball with a toddler-size basketball hoop
- Balance a tennis ball on his nose
- Out-loop around something and come right back
- Target-touch an object with his nose
- Back up onto an object-the beginning of working on a handstand
- Skateboard-3 paws on and pushes himself with one back paw
- Bring a tissue
- Root-push an object with his nose
- Go around-put his front paws up on something and spin around with his back paws