Tricks For Treats

I am a big believer in nurturing a dog’s mind as well as his body.  Having lived with border collies for the past two decades, I have seen the value and even the necessity of giving a canine mind something more to think about than just eating, peeing and laying around the house.   All dogs need and love to have something fun to wrap their minds around regardless of their breed.  We in the Midwest often have weather that is not conducive to being outdoors for long periods of time.  Although I am a HUGE proponent of long walks for every dog, I am aware that when it is pouring outside, or the sidewalks are covered in ice or snow, this is not always practical.  So our dogs stay cooped up with nothing to do.  Some dogs become destructive from boredom.   Others may become more aggressive.   How can we still meet their needs when the weather turns bad or when we have other things that force themselves on our time?

Many people are surprised to learn that mental exercise can wear a dog out as much or more than physical exercise can.   Over the years I have taught each of my dogs a wide variety of tricks.  These tricks stretch both their minds and bodies.  Each dog that I’ve had has learned a different set of these tricks.  “Trick time” is a special time of bonding and fun.  My dogs love this time more than any other that we spend together.

So we’ve decided that we want to get started.   How do we figure out what tricks we want to teach our specific dogs?  There are books on this very subject.  A web search will give you some ideas of what books are available on trick training.  After all, a trick first starts with an idea.


What I do when coming up with a trick idea is look at some of the natural behaviors that my dogs already have a tendency towards doing.  For example, my Sheltie loved to run in circles (many Shelties do this as a lingering behavior from their herding heritage).   He also loved to jump. He was a major “boing” dog.  So I taught him to jump over my extended arm while I was sitting on the floor.   After he learned that, I then extended my other arm out 180 degrees from my first one.  He would circle me and jump each arm as he came to it, going around and around.  Later I took the same concept and stood up.  I bent over and made a circle or “hoop” with my two arms.  My Sheltie would circle me and jump through my hoop arms.  I later could walk and spin around and my Sheltie would move with me and jump through the “hoop” in a wide variety of patterns.  This was such fun for him and was based on tendencies that he already had.

Many dogs love to give you a paw.  You can teach the dog to give you this paw and create a “wave” out of it.  Or you can teach the dog to give you both the right and left paw as you ask for it.  Before long you have a dog that will “march” in place for you or play “Patty Cake” with you.   My border collies best like tricks that involve high action.   So they have been taught to back up fast and stop on command, come forward fast and stop on command, and twirl around in place (I call this “Tornado Dog”).   They weave through my legs as I walk, which is a spin-off of Agility weave poles.   They must listen to commands that come at them fast.  They must think fast and move fast.  Treats and toys come at them fast.  A lot of high octane breeds LOVE this kind of fun.  When you are finished with a fun trick session like this, the dog is mentally and physically exhausted.  You have created magic.


Naturally, these training sessions are nothing but FUN.  A dog can’t make a mistake.  This is a time to laugh with them.  This is a time to play with them.  We encourage behaviors that we are after by offering food rewards and praise after the dog completes the task as we desire it.  Toys are great in this kind of play.  A toy oriented dog can have a ball or favorite toy tossed to him as soon as the trick is completed to your satisfaction.  It is important to remember that your dog will learn tricks in small pieces.  So reward the small pieces as you see them successfully completed.  Then ask for a bit more and reward that behavior.  Tricks are built like houses…first a foundation is laid, then the structural framework is roughed in, then the plumbing is installed, then electrical, then drywall…you get the idea.


Each of my dogs know dozens of tricks.  This has been not only a fun bonding experience for us, but also a very useful tool when they get cabin fever and need something to do.  I highly recommend this for any owner who wants to nourish both the mind and body of their four legged friend.