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Trick Dog Training 101

On the movie set for the Tim Burton film Big Fish some years ago, as a news photographer, I stood across the street for hours in the cold night waiting for the cameras to roll on the scene where Edward, portrayed by actor Ewan McGregor, would save a dog from a burning house.

McGregor walked through his marks several times while the dog, a St. Bernard, and his handler waited near my position. The handler massaged the dog until it nearly fell asleep. The handler explained how they had trained for months for the scene where Mcgregor would carry the limp, lifeless-looking dog out of the fire. The dog's job was to do absolutely nothing while surrounded by fire, dozens of cast and crew, and while being carried by a stranger.

As the fire, controlled by the props master, erupted in the house with McGregor inside, the actor took the dog, and the scene began. Smoke billowed from the doorway as flames leaped from the structure's windows. McGregor emerged holding the limp St. Bernard and handed the dog off to a movie firefighter after walking off the porch. "Cut!"

When we think of dogs doing tricks, we often envision a dog dancing on its hind legs or jumping through a hoop. Still, doing tricks ultimately involves a dog doing a behavior on cue, the simple magic of communicating with another species. "Tricks," as such, begin with basic obedience training and familiar cues like "sit" or "down."

Tricks can get more complex as the dog's and the handler's communication skills improve. By rewarding the behavior we like, the dog will repeat the behavior more often and on cue. With creativity and patience, the sky is the limit for what can be achieved.

According to the American Kennel Club, trick dog training as we know it now began when casting dogs in early 20th-century movies, such as Rin Tin Tin and Lassie. Rudd Weatherwax, the trainer for the Lassie films, wrote a manual for training tricks in the 1940s based on positive reinforcement and food rewards for correct behaviors, an uncommon method at the time. Kyra Sundance is an exceptional tricks trainer who has produced many books and videos using positive reinforcement methods.

Teaching your dog tricks is one of the best ways to increase the bond you share with your dog while allowing the dog to use its brain and body. Tricks can provide a starting point for activities such as trick dog titles or competitions. More than anything, it provides enjoyment for the owner, the dog, and anyone who watches.

Additionally, dogs get a lot of mental stimulation from learning and trying to understand what behavior is getting them rewards. Combined with some physical exercise, these thinking exercises will leave us with dogs less likely to "look for trouble" or self-reward by doing things we don't like.

Some tricks are more difficult for some dogs than others, but all tricks cause your dog to think about the desired behavior to get rewarded. Some tricks are natural for a dog, such as jumping, while others cause them to work against their nature, such as walking backward. A bored dog will find ways to entertain themselves, and that can result in undesired behavior. Giving your dog some suitable activities will result in a happier dog and a happy owner. Remember, though, that each dog is different! An older dog will not have the same performance abilities as a younger one. Also, a pug would be in a different league of ability than a border collie.

Trick dog titles can be earned for dogs and owners through organizations such as the American Kennel Club. Trick dog titles are an excellent way to motivate you and your dog to continue training. Visit for skill requirements. Awesome Dog Academy can perform the AKC Trick Dog tests if you are interested.

Tricks training can be good for the whole family to get involved with their dog. Enlisting the help of a youngster will help them develop good habits with the family dog and benefit young, energetic kids by doing positive things. Teens are always looking for ways to impress their friends, and dog training is a perfect way to do that.

Both of my dogs, a Morkie and a Border Collie, have earned multiple trick dog titles. As a therapy dog, my Morkie does a variety of tricks to entertain those we see on therapy dog visits. With years of practicing our communication skills, my dog can discover a person's secretly chosen card amongst the deck, even when turned face down. He will appear to read instructions to sit, down, stand, and bark and perform them with no verbal cues. Also, his repertoire includes barking the answers to simple math problems cued only to the correct answers by my breathing and very slight head movement. My young Border Collie can turn a light on and off with her paw, play dead, drop a toy into a box, leg weave, and she is learning to kick a soccer ball into a goal. She is also learning to follow small physical cues such as fingerpointing and eye movements.

We learn to read each other to the point where cues almost appear telepathic, and sometimes, I wonder if they are. Above all else, we have fun, and our bond, our relationship, becomes stronger through such enrichment.

The more complex a trick is, the more patience is required in training. Challenging behaviors, for example, retrieving your slippers, may have to be broken down into many small steps.

At Awesome Dog Academy, we learn basic tricks in the final class of our beginner obedience course. These include shake, army crawls, push-ups, hoop jumping, and some freestyle dog dancing skills. We offer a one-hour seminar teaching skills such as target training, going under the handler, taking a bow, and circling an object a few times a year.

Our next tricks seminar will be held in October, so please watch our social media posts on Facebook and Instagram to sign up.

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