Tricks and Treats. Is trick training a good idea?
It’s not unusual for me to get my clients working with their dogs to train ‘tricks’, games and scent work. This is especially the case for those who present with some quite challenging and complex behavioural issues. People can sometimes be a little surprised when I suggest it. I’ve no doubt there have been a few thoughts such as “how is training my dog to do a little twirl going to stop him growling at other dogs?” or “He’s got separation distress, not sure teaching him to wave is going to fix it” However, mostly people go along with it after an explanation. And you know I love an explanation!
For now, let’s think about tricks. There are loads of benefits to trick training, and it goes far beyond ‘showing off’ for your friends.
For people whose dogs have really challenging behaviour it can feel like every interaction with the dog revolves around managing scenarios or at least minimising risks. Carefully training around what causes the behaviour, whilst avoiding things reaching tipping point and causing the dog to ‘kick off’. Being planned and prepared to protect the dog and themselves from all sorts of eventualities. Teaching the dog a few simple tricks gives those owners chance to engage and interact with their dogs in a fun activity together. It doesn’t matter one jot if it takes a few weeks to achieve a ‘spin’ or the dog is a little wonky when he takes a bow, as long as owner and dog have fun together. And there is a sense of pride in finally reaching the point when the dog can perform the trick when you ask for it, without needing any prompts or help, even though it is ‘meaningless’.
Sneakily, I have an ulterior motive for the humans, because while they are busy having fun and building a better connection with their dog, they are also fine-tuning their skills of observing the dog and improving their timing for things such as reward delivery, both of which are obviously going to enhance their training when it comes to the problem behaviours.
The dogs come off pretty well too. Learning tricks is excellent mental stimulation. It can help build concentration and focus on the human. It can also build confidence in a timid dog. For example, learning to put front paws up on different objects with different textures also teaches behavioural flexibility (aka bravery). It’s so important to add some ‘feel good’ activities into the lives of dogs who find everyday life emotionally exhausting for whatever reason.
There are also physical benefits, such as improved muscle tone or stamina, as many tricks require movements or postures not previously used by the dog. And for those dogs who exhibit unwanted or inappropriate behaviours – there is a theory that the more well-rehearsed behaviours they have in their repertoire, the less likely they are to make ‘poor behavioural choices’ when faced with challenging situations.
I think the biggest pay-off for all concerned in trick training is that is helps to establish a clear communication system between dogs and their people which is much less reliant on the verbiage we humans like to spout, and uses actions and contexts to establish the meaning – and as every dog would tell you, that makes much more sense to them!
As you can see, I’m pretty sold on the idea of trick training as part of a comprehensive and holistic approach to helping clients and their dogs. So, I was a little surprised when one gentleman told me he would prefer not to train his dog to perform tricks, as he thought it ‘demeaning’. Now if I had advised him to dress the dog up in a bumble bee costume, or a pair of silly reindeer antlers – I could understand. (Absolute pet hate of mine and most dogs hate it too.) But in my opinion, this view of trick training as demeaning is really a very human-centric one, because it focusses on the purpose or value of the behaviour for humans.
Firstly, let’s change the word ‘trick’ to ‘behaviour’ to remove the suggestion of silliness. Now I can’t ever know for sure, but I’d place money on the fact that dogs feel exactly the same way about performing a behaviour they have been trained to do for work, such as indicating when they have found a specific scent; for sport, such as jumping over a hurdle; or for fun, like waving to the camera. What matters to the dog is the potential consequence e.g. a game, some nice food, social connection.
Some people might argue that the difference is that in trick training, we are asking the dog to perform a behaviour he wouldn’t naturally do, unlike jobs he might be bred for such as scent detection, herding or retrieving. However, the vast majority of people teach their puppies to sit, despite it being a totally unnatural behaviour to most dogs, and I’ve never heard this described as demeaning. Probably because the purpose is for the benefit of the humans, more than the dog.
Now let’s look at a ‘fun’ behaviour such as fetching a named toy from a basket, and it’s not much of a leap to train a dog to take clothes out of the washing machine to support a disabled owner; or from the dog touching an object with his nose, to using it to close a door. Admittedly, if training tricks was only for human entertainment, and of no benefit to the dog, I would probably agree it could be considered demeaning. Hopefully you can see there is so much for the dog and owner to gain. However, you’ve got to admit, it’s pretty cute watching a dog cross his paws when asked 😉
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