Thursday, February 26, 2015

Tricks by any other name

Some food for thought on a brutal winter day while I’m at home, sucking down cold medicine and trying to keep the dogs from stealing my tissues. (Why are dogs so fascinated by tissues?)

Teaching "parlor tricks" has gained a lot of popularity among competition trainers (both obedience and agility) in recent years. When I started obedience training back in the day, tricks were not given a lot of credibility. We taught the obedience exercises and if there was any time left after that, well, if you wanted to teach tricks, no one was going to say you couldn’t but they’d probably turn the lights out on you when they left.

Tricks burst on the scene, at least onto my scene, during Phoenix’s generation. Suddenly, it was all the rage for dogs of every discipline to have a repertoire of tricks totally unrelated to anything they did “in the ring.” 

Until then, I taught my dogs to shake hands (usually as an assist to wiping muddy paws when they came in the house) and that was about it. I had my hands full teaching the skills I needed to reach my goals in the obedience ring.

Until Phoenix. He knows more tricks than any of my previous dogs combined. He will shake, sit up and beg, dance on his hind legs, roll over (both directions), back across a room, scuttle backward in a down, chase his tail (both directions), back up a flight of stairs, retrieve and stack bowls, put four feet in a box, pivot with his feet on an overturned bowl, bounce in the air and snap his teeth on command. Has any of this improved our obedience scores? I don’t know.

The popularity of teaching tricks surged as trainers started incorporating them to teach body awareness,  mostly for agility skills, although they can be helpful for obedience, too. The phrase “relationship building” also became a popular buzzword, and tricks were touted as being a fun way to build your relationship with your dog.

Call me a renegade, but I have a problem with this. I don’t have a problem with teaching tricks – they’re fun and sometimes have useful applications. I have a problem with the implication that “regular” training (i.e., teaching performance skills) is not a good enough way to build your relationship with your dog and you must rely on something else in order to “have fun” and achieve that end.

Granted, tricks are delightfully pressure-free. They come with no expectation of creating a performance that will be judged according to a set of scoreable standards in order to earn titles. You’ll never mail an entry, then freak out when your dog forgets how to do his tricks. You can use lots of cookies for tricks and you can use them forever, who cares? Generally, you don’t need a lot of room to train tricks. You don’t need a building or a field or expensive, heavy, specialized, customized equipment. Tricks are silly. They make us laugh. Who wouldn’t laugh at a huge dog daintily putting his feet in a small box or flipping the lid open and climbing into a suitcase?

But can’t teaching a dog to lie down from a stand or pick up a dumbbell also be viewed as a trick?

I’m guessing our dogs don’t care one way or the other if something is called a trick or an exercise. They DO care about how things are taught and how rewarding they find the experience to be.

I tend to be a lazy trainer. If a behavior doesn’t have an application to obedience skills, I’m probably not going to take the time to teach it. That’s just me. There’s a lot of cute stuff that I could teach my dog but since I don’t have unlimited training time, I gravitate toward things that are going to help him gain the physical and mental skills he needs to succeed in the obedience ring. Sometimes those  are tricks. Sometimes they are traditional "exercises."

With that in mind, what if you decided instead of teaching your dog to do obedience “work,” you would teach him to do obedience “tricks”? Straight fronts or perfect heel position with total engagement might not be as adorably cute as watching a 53 pound malinois put his feet in a tiny little box (seriously, WHY is that so cute?) but it’s gonna make me smile, nonetheless.

Phoenix’s trick repertoire was generally the result of living with a high energy breed who constantly sought mental stimulation and if left to his own devices would go eat the couch. Those of you who have dogs like this know what I’m talking about. I taught him tricks almost in self defense, to fill those empty winter evenings and to keep his mind out of trouble while waiting at trials.

Banner is nothing like Phoenix and I haven’t taught him any tricks yet, except for four-feet-in-a-box. Our 6 months together so far has been spent laying obedience foundation. For the most part, he thinks it’s all grand fun, although he finds the concept of “stay” a bit disappointing. 

I’ve worked hard to make the obedience training time we share together is fun, full of energy and praise and tangible rewards. I wonder if trainers who are struggling with obedience exercises approached them with the same carefree spirit as they would train parlor tricks, if they could shed the boredom and monotony that plagues many obedience partnerships?

Food for thought. And now I’m off to find another dose of cold meds.


  1. Anything that is touted as "relationship building" is quickly ignored by me since the relationship I have with my dogs thru regular training is just fine, thankyouverymuch! It appears to have come from the "purely positive" people who think that all other types of training cannot be fun or interesting for the dog.

  2. I like tricks because a) I like training new things and eventually you run out of obedience behaviors to teach, b) I do freestyle, so everything is potentially a competition behaviour (see a for why I like freestyle), c) tricks like pivoting on a disc our backing up teach coordination and position in a way that is very helpful for obedience, and d) the more things the dog learns, the better he becomes at learning. In addition to obedience fundamentals like heeling, retrieving and a pretty darn good start on scent articles, my six month old puppy knows how to move sideways and backward in left or right heel, paw lifts left and right, to go around an object, backing up away from me, backing up stairs, backing around me either direction while I stand stillwhile I stay still, leg weaves, putting his paws up on my arm or an object, putting his chin in my hand, etc., etc.

  3. I train a lot of tricks with my dog. Like, a lot. Hundreds. We have a blast. Throughout it all, we've also developed some pretty solid obedience exercise behaviours. I approach tricks and obedience in the same manner.

    I admit a large part of the allure of trick training is keeping things varied and low-pressure for me. It's how I function best.

  4. Reminds me of the Sylvia Trkman DVD, "Heeling is Just Another Trick".

  5. Good post. Good points. All the exercises are just tricks, the methods or training is what makes it feel different I guess.

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