I’ll never understand why people who don’t like dogs or are afraid of them would, in a city like New York where there are so many not-dog-friendly buildings, choose to live in a dog-friendly building, let alone purchase a co-op apartment in a building that welcomed dogs. But they do. Even just out in the neighborhood, I experience more than my fair share of people who run screaming at the site of my dogs — even just 11-pound Mercury can send some folks to the other side of the street, often with a terrified gasp.
Thankfully both dogs are totally uninterested and unconcerned with people and their array of unpredictable behavior –- I’ve long given up my attempt at educating those folks about why screaming/flailing/other loud unpredictable behavior might not alarm either my dogs, but will activate many other dogs, which, presumably, if you are afraid of all dogs, is the last thing you want to happen.
Living in Brooklyn, I’m surrounded by many people who are distrustful and anxious around dogs, like one of the little old ladies who lives on the fifth floor of my building. For the first six months after we adopted Charlotte, this lady would avoid us, or cling to the corner of the elevator on the dreaded occasions we were all crammed into that little box together. Then I started teaching Charlotte tricks as a way to bond and increase her confidence. As always, the little old lady was terrified whenever she saw Charlotte, and one day we ended up in the elevator together. She was clutching her purse as though Mercury might be a pickpocket when I had an idea.
Charlotte was already sitting like a good girl, so I held up my hand and asked for a “high five.” Her paw slapped mine, and out of the corner of my eye I saw the little old lady watching. As we reached the fifth floor I cued Charlotte to “wave goodbye,” and I saw what I thought was almost a smile cross my neighbor’s face. I don’t think she will ever be a dog person, but watching Charlotte do silly tricks had a radical impact on her perspective of my dogs.
I’m a huge fan of trick training, not just because they can have a calming effect on my neighbors, but also because they are fun, and a great way to bond with my dogs. At this point Charlotte knows well over 40 tricks of varying complexity –- simple things like “high five” and “wave,” but also more complicated tricks like opening and closing cabinet doors, hitting a child’s plastic bowling ball into little bowling pins, standing on a step stool to “dunk” a little basketball into a net, and weaving figure eights between my legs. These are a few of my favorites I like to show off to anyone who comes to dinner and to my partner (who has seen every trick approximately half a million times).
We also compete and have earned titles via Do More With Your Dog (DMWYD), where I’m a certified trick dog trainer. DMWYD is the only officially sanctioning organization in the sport of dog tricks, and through DMWYD you can earn various titles from novice through trick dog champion by performing a number of increasingly difficult tricks before a witness –- or, in the advanced titles, by submitting videos directly to DMWYD for review.
Charlotte has earned her intermediate trick dog title, though has at this point mastered enough tricks of varying skill sets to earn her advanced title. Besides the bragging rites about how clever my dogs are and how I love having the title certificates to hang on my wall, trick training serves as an incredible way for me to bond with my dogs, and has had a huge impact on building Charlotte’s self-confidence and focus after she came to us as a rescue who’d been found living on the streets.
Although I’m not evangelical about clickers and don’t use them for everything (I believe that vocal praise can be very effective), I’ve found them to be a very useful tool with trick training. Clickers are a great way to quickly and accurately (so long as your timing is good) mark a specific movement or behavior when teaching something new. Teaching your dog tricks is a great way to spend quality time together and increase the strength of your working relationship and overall bond. There’s a special moment in training where I know she’s not quite sure what I want but is completely engaged in figuring this new puzzle out.
A good example is when I was teaching her the bowling trick and she had figured out I wanted her to swipe the ball with her paw, but she hadn’t figured out she needed to pay attention to where the pins were and that the ball had to go in their direction. At this stage, click/treat only came when the ball collided with the pins. She was concentrating hard trying to figure out this new puzzle when her whole body relaxed, her eyes sparkled and she slipped the ball directly into the pins. STRIKE! That’s my favorite moment in training, when I can see something complicated we’ve been working on suddenly make complete sense to my dog. It’s as though the species divide falls away and we truly are speaking the same language.
Tricks are more than just party tricks, they are excellent for bonding with your dog, increasing a dog’s self confidence, reducing anxiety, and, depending on what you’re working on, can even be a great physical workout building core strength and stretching muscles. Trick training is incredibly adaptable and a way for every dog to be successful regardless of age or physical ability. I strongly recommend Kyra Sundance’s 101 Dog Tricks book if you’re looking for easy-to-follow instructions on how to teach your dogs some impressive moves. There’s also an astounding number of impressive dog trick videos on YouTube — just don’t get so caught up watching super trick dogs that you forget to spend time training your own dog!
Do you do trick training with your dogs? What benefits have you seen? What’s your favorite trick?
About the author: Sassafras Lowrey is a dog-obsessed author based in Brooklyn. She is the winner of the 2013 Berzon Emerging Writer Award from the Lambda Literary Foundation, and the editor of two anthologies and one novel. Sassafras is a Certified Trick Dog Instructor, and she assists with dog agility classes. She lives with her partner, two dogs of dramatically different sizes, and two bossy cats. She is always on the lookout for adventures with her canine pack. Learn more at her website.
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