When I first got into dog training I thought dog tricks were dumb. I thought they served no good purpose and were a waste of time. Well, I also had ultimately no knowledge of how dogs learn and why they do the things they do. My opinion has now changed.
The other night during week 2 of our first session of tricks class I had a thought, and also came to a realization. Why do dogs do tricks so reliably but struggle with the common cues that we need them to do on a daily basis? The answer is because humans love to give their dogs rewards when teaching tricks, but often times struggle to give rewards when asking their dogs to do things on a daily basis. It's as if we have the mindset that in order to do a trick, we need to reward the dog, but in order to get our dogs to do the things we want on a daily basis, we shouldn't have to reward them, they should just do it. I'm not sure where this mindset comes from, but it certainly hurts the relationship between the person and dog and creates this power struggle.
A dog does what it does because of the consequences it receives. A dog's brain isn't set up to listen to humans by default because they know we are humans and they are dogs. That isn't how their brains work, and it never will be. Dogs are just like any other animal in regards to learning. It comes down to what kinds of consequences they receive for the behaviors they do.
Teaching your dog tricks is a fantastic relationship builder, and it also really gives you some hands-on insight as to how dogs learn. Get the dog to do this thing, then give a reward. The dog is likely to do that thing again. This style can be transitioned right into the real world. You can look at any behavior you'd like your dog to do as a trick. Does your dog jump on the table while you're eating dinner? A fantastic trick to teach your dog is how to hold a down-stay on a mat during the duration of your meal. To make this work, you just need to teach the trick and then reward the dog. This means that you will be giving your dog small food rewards every couple of minutes to keep him holding his down stay. Here's how to teach the beginning of this trick:
Does your dog jump on guests when they arrive? There's a trick for that as well. Instead of allowing your dog to jump on the guest, teach your dog the trick of sitting to greet people. To make this work, you need to have some high value food rewards and a leash to help control the situation. Here's how to teach the beginning of this trick:
Does your dog pull your arm nearly out of the socket while attempting to go for a walk? There's a trick for that too. The trick is walking with you and receiving rewards. To accomplish this, you need to be consistent and give lots of rewards. It's also important to start off in an area where your dog isn't too distracted. I mean, you wouldn't introduce a brand new trick to your dog out in the front yard, right? Start off inside your home and then take it on the road. Here is a video on how to get started with that:
Does your dog try to bite the leash and play tug while you're attempting to walk? Well, you guessed it! There's a trick for that too. This one actually consists of teaching a few little tricks to your dog and rewarding often, especially in the beginning. Here's how to get started:
Reward your dog and life will be easier. Reward your dog for the real life "tricks" as you would for the other tricks that you do for fun. If you do, there will be no power struggle and your life will be easier and a lot less stressful. Training a dog takes time, patience, consistency, and lots of rewards. It's not necessarily easy, but it will get easier with the work you put in. Remember the more rewards you provide, the more behavior you will receive. Reward that dog.