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With help, dogs won’t miss a trick
Dear Dr. Spiegel, Each week I learn something new from your enjoyable columns. Thank you. Can you help me locate a source for teaching my dog tricks - things like roll over, play dead, sit up and beg, speak? We've used Milo Pearsall's obedience training book for years, successfully training our Doberman and our Pug. So, we need no help in obedience training. We now have a marvelous mutt from the SPCA. Schautzie is wonderfully intelligent and eager to please, a natural for tricks. She has already mastered the basic obedience commands and needs only for knowledgeable trick trainers. We'd appreciate any leads and sources you can give. Thanks. Sincerely B.G., North East, MD
Dear B.G., In a computer assisted search of the literature, I've found just two books on dog tricks. One is aptly titled Dog Tricks by Haggerty and Benjamin (publisher - Howell Books). The other is Dog Tricks: Teaching Your Dog to Be Useful, Fun, and Entertaining also by Haggerty (publ. - Doubleday). This one, however, is out of print. While I have been unable to obtain a copy for review, I'll share with you the basic principles involved in teaching dogs to perform. You can quickly see what tricks your dog will learn most readily by taking out something she loves (tidbits of human food, or an exciting toy), but keep it out of reach or behind your back. Now watch what she does. Dogs will often go through a whole repertoire of behaviors in attempts to get the treat/toy. She may jump up, bark, run around in circles, paw at you, sit, etc. These are things that she naturally does on her own without pulling or prompting. All you need to do is assign words, or commands, to them and as soon as she does what you ask, reinforce the behavior with immediate praise and giving her the treat/toy. For instance, say "Speak" (you can use a hand signal as well if you like, touching fingers to lips, but you don't need to). Now give her an opportunity to respond appropriately. Ignore all other behaviors. Repeat the command at 15 second intervals and be patient. As soon as she barks, say "Good Speak" and give her the reward. Then repeat five or six times to fortify the lesson. Practice it periodically to keep it fresh. For the initial lesson reward (e.g., with food) every time. But thereafter only reward her randomly so she doesn't know when she'll be getting the reward. Learning is much stronger with random reinforcement. Tricks that involve movement on the dog's part can easily be accomplished by moving your hand which contains a treat slowly from in front of the dog's nose to where you want the dog to go. If you want her to "Dance," give her this command then raise your hand slowly above her nose so that she must stand on her hind legs to get it. If she can only stay up for a second, give her the treat while she is still standing, but then have her stand and/or turn (by moving your hand) for progressively longer periods of time before rewarding her. This is clearly a trick that will be easier for small dogs who have a much lower center of gravity when standing. Dogs will very often catch you off guard by doing amusing things when you don't expect them. Be prepared that if all of a sudden your dog roll's over, you should say "Roll Over, Good," thus "tagging" the behavior with that phrase. It is unlikely that it will learn it right away, but the more the phrase is associated with the behavior, the stronger and more rapid the learning will be. Rolling over, a tough one, can be aided with a rub of the dog's belly and a treat in hand guiding the head to lead the body the rest of the way over. The key is patience, patience, patience. Get the video camera out, have a blast, and I'll see ya' on Letterman.