Monday, November 19, 2012

Tricky Dogs

A few days ago, I finished teaching a tricks class for ARLP's Rott n' Pit Ed. I only get an opportunity to teach a tricks class every few years, and I always jump on the chance. Tricks are one of the things I love teaching not only dogs, but people as well.

Tally, Jai's side action, learns to sit up and beg.
Photo by Jen.

I think part of the difference in attitude between tricks and standard obedience classes is simply the language. As humans, we place a lot of value on words, and the word “obedient” itself has connotations of strictness and even force. This could be at least part of the reason people don’t care if their dog performs shakes paws or not, but if their dog won’t sit on command, that’s personal. Neither behavior is difficult to each, but one is a “trick,” and the other is taught as obedience. (Side story: I once heard a vet tell a woman at a busy, crazy event that the woman’s dog was dominant and dangerous because the dog wouldn't sit on command. I think my ears almost started bleeding.)

I believe that one of the biggest mistakes you can make in dog training is taking yourself too seriously. Sure, there are exercises that might save your dog’s life like “come,” but even this cue is taught more solidly if your treat it like a game. Tricks are fun. They’re not work, they’re playing with your dog, and it’s a lot easier to laugh when you’re playing than when you’re working. Even for myself, I started having a lot more fun with my dogs when I stopped referring to them as “training sessions” and started saying that I was “going to go play with the dogs.”

Tricky dog line up, photo by Jen.
Rubi likes it when other dogs skip class because it means she gets to stay out and play longer.

Another perk to teaching tricks is breed related. I work primarily with Rottweilers and pit bulls, and I own mostly reactive dogs. The public is often afraid of these types of dogs. It’s hard, though, to be afraid of dogs with painted nails or pretty clothes or adorable tricks. Tricks are good publicity. For Rubi and Piper, who work with kids through ARLP’s Dog Safety Program, I often use tricks to keep the kids entertained and engaged. During Rubi’s last program, we taught each of the kids how to use a clicker to “teach” Rubi a trick, much to the kids’ delight.

Each of my dogs also has a particular sport that he or she plays, and most of these sports are different. But one thing they all know is a variety of tricks. I use tricks as both a way to build relationships and as a method for teaching dogs problem solving skills. Many of the tricks I teach rely on some amount of shaping – that is, marking and reward smalls steps toward a bigger picture. At each step, the dog has to figure out what they’re being rewarded for. There’s no punishment for guessing wrong, so the dogs are encouraged to try different behaviors to get what they want. This is a huge skill for reactive dogs, who often get stuck repeating the same behavior over and over again (usually the behavior we don’t want). Not to mention the confidence given to shy dogs when they try something new and the world doesn't explode around their ears.
And so it is with dog training as it is with so many other real life activities: how you do it matters at least as much as what you're doing. Tricks open our minds to a place where training is fun, less like work and more like play. If teaching “roll over” can be fun, so can teaching “heel.” It’s all a matter of perspective.

Less stress, more smiles.
Photo by Paige.

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