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Happy March and almost spring! It feels like a good time to have some fun with our pets as the weather is warming up, so this month’s training challenge is:
Teach your pet a new trick
This is one that anyone with a pet of any species can participate in! I’ll likely work on a target with Zorro (the turtle) and some new fitness exercises with Oso. The word “trick” is pretty subjective so I think some of those exercises should be allowed to count.
Why I love trick training
There are a lot of reasons to love trick training. Two of my favorites, though, are that it can be a great relationship builder and a great confidence booster. I find that when I see my clients working on training exercises that are supposed to serve a particular purpose, like teaching “place” with the intention of using it when the doorbell rings or working on Look at That for reactivity, they tend to be a little more tightly wound.
In general, they get more frustrated when their pet doesn’t pick up on the exercise quickly and they’re more quick to get discouraged when it’s not going as planned. With trick training, I usually see them loosen up and be more forgiving of their and their pets’ mistakes. That can go a long way towards relationship building! Everyone just gets to have fun.
It can also be a good confidence booster and a way for our pets to break out of their shells if they’ve had negative experiences with training in the past. I’ve had several clients who’ve started working with me and using a LIMA training philosophy after working within a different training philosophy with their pet. Sometimes, that pet is not too keen on training because training had been scary or painful in the past. With these pets, we’ll often work on them just feeling comfortable in a training scenario. That sometimes involves trick training!
We’ll teach them something that they have no prior experience with and make it super fun: lots of treats and lots of forgiveness for mistakes. When their pet starts understanding that training isn’t always scary or painful, we can then start moving on to other exercises.
Some trick ideas
There are so many possibilities when it comes to trick training and there are a ton of great articles, YouTube videos, and resources out there to give you some ideas. Here are a few of my go-to options:
- Nose to hand target
- Nose to post-it note target, which can then be used to turn off lights, close a door, etc.
- Spin right and spin left
- Back up
- Play dead
- Roll over
- Army crawl
- Put toys away
- Head down
- Head nod “yes”
- Head shake “no”
- Sit pretty
- High five
- High ten
- Figure 8 between legs
And those are just a few options! If your pet is physically capable of performing it, then it can theoretically be taught. Keep in mind that there are some things you may not want to teach, though. For example, it’s a cool trick to teach your dog to open a door, but there may be some doors in your house that you’d prefer them not to know how to open. Think about potential future consequences of what you’re teaching your pet to do.
Additionally, be thinking about the impact that the trick might have on their body. A pet doing a handstand looks amazing, but is not the greatest as far as wear and tear on their body is concerned. Just because we can teach something doesn’t mean we necessarily should.
How to teach tricks
There are three ways that we at Pet Harmony recommend to teach a new behavior (more exist, but these are the most LIMA-friendly options): luring, capturing, and shaping.
Luring means having a treat (or toy, etc.) in your hand and moving that hand in a way that when your pet follows they perform the desired action. For example, to get a pet to sit via luring you’d move the lure hand up over their head and as the head goes up the butt goes down.
Luring is an easy way to teach a lot of things and most pets do well with it. The thing to remember with luring is to fade the lure quickly so you’re not stuck having to have a treat in your hand forever. I generally lure 5 times then perform the same action sans treat in hand (this can act as your hand signal). If the animal does the behavior, great! We’ve moved onto a hand signal. If not, I lure 5 more times and try the hand signal again.
Capturing is waiting for your pet to do the desired action naturally and then rewarding them for doing so. Lying down is an easy one for this. Simply wait for your pet to lie down (which they’ll eventually do) and then treat. A marker is helpful for capturing. The downside is that the pet has to naturally perform the behavior for us to capture it. And, many people would say that another downside is having to employ the patience necessary to capture during training.
Shaping is capturing and rewarding the baby steps, or approximations, towards the end goal behavior. For example, to teach a “head down” behavior you can wait for the head to move down a little bit and reward, then continue rewarding for the head moving down a little bit more and more. A marker is very helpful here. Shaping is the hardest of the three strategies for both the human and the pet to learn. However, it’s usually how you get all of the really cool tricks.
- Choose a trick. If you’re newer to training, choose something that your pet naturally does or something similar to what your pet naturally does. It’s much easier to train a behavior that you know they can already do. If you’re more seasoned, try something a little harder or more involved.
- Develop your plan for how you want to train this trick. Can you lure it or do you need to capture or shape? If you try plan A and it doesn’t work, what’s plan B? Having an idea of how you’re going to train will help you make quicker decisions in the moment. We love Kikopup on YouTube for all things trick training.
- Start training! Make sure to have fun and that your pet is frequently being rewarded. Treats are easiest for this (which we talk about here). Frustration isn’t fun and not being treated frequently enough is frustrating.
- If you’re stuck, go back to the drawing board on how to teach this particular trick. Be sure to make tweaks based on what you’re actually seeing with your eyes, not what you think is going through your pet’s mind or what your ideas may be trying to tell you you’re seeing. Stubborn in this case is really just not understanding, and that’s on the teacher, not the student. If you’re truly stuck, choose a new trick. Again, this is just for fun!
- Send us pics and videos of you working with your pet on Facebook or Instagram @petharmonytraining. We love to see y’all having fun with your pets!