Christmas is my favorite season of the year! I love the bright lights and the festive songs that get stuck in my head, and more than anything, I enjoy spending the season having fun with my animals. The dogs (and cats), of course, have their own stockings and wrapped gifts under the tree, and everyone gets a special holiday dinner, but what we all enjoy most is spending quality time together, and in our house that often means performing fun holiday tricks.
My dogs know a whole assortment of such tricks, from spinning in circles like a dreidel to taking a sleigh ride — my little dog Mercury is really comfortable with being on moving objects, so I taught him to climb into a tiny toy wagon and sit while being pulled around the house. We also pretend to be Rockettes: I kick my foot up, and my dog targets that foot with her front foot on the same side, making it look (at least in my imagination) like we’re doing cancan dances at each other.
I do trick training year-round with my dogs because it’s great mental stimulation for them, a way to get them exercise while living in a NYC apartment during the winter, and, most of all, fun! Tricks are also an excellent way to bond with your dog and a fun way to impress and amuse your family and friends.
Not that I would know anything about this (ahem), but teaching your dog a new trick is also a great way to entertain yourself and avoid small talk at awkward holiday gatherings, too. Dog-loving introverts unite!
My youngest dog, a Shepherd/Cattle mix named Charlotte, is my go-to trick dog. She was found as a stray living on the streets, with a litter of puppies, more than four years ago. Charlotte is really smart and loves learning all kinds of new things, but trick training, in particular, has played a huge role in boosting her self-confidence and decreasing her anxiety. I had planned to teach her a new trick for every day of December leading up to Christmas, but unfortunately right after Thanksgiving Charlotte unexpectedly pulled up lame and had to be rushed to the vet.
She already had arthritis in her hips and knees, but front leg lameness was new for us. When we adopted her, we were told she was a year old, which would make her 5 now, though the vet just confirmed our suspicion that she’s likely older than we thought, which could be contributing to the front-end stiffness. Charlotte is on strict orders from the vet to rest and is on medication for the next couple of weeks to see if her body heals on its own. This, of course, eliminated things she loves, like long walks to the park and also some of the more physically demanding tricks I’d planned to incorporate into our holiday fun.
This meant I had to come up with fun, new tricks to teach her that didn’t require any physical strain on her injured joints. And my favorite new trick we learned this holiday season is stuffing a stocking! In the final stages of this trick, the dog picks up items you direct her to (toys or other similarly shaped items) and helps Santa by stuffing them into a stocking. It’s a fun, multi-part trip that will really impress your friends and family this Christmas!
Want to teach the stocking stuffer trick to your dog? Follow along below for step-by step guide.
Does your dog already know how to pick up and drop items on command? If yes, this trick just got much easier for you, and you can skip ahead to the third step.
Step 1: If your dog doesn’t already know how to pick up and hold items on command, start by rewarding her for showing interest in a toy or item of your choice that you want them to stuff into the stocking. Click/praise and treat initially when they just show interest in the item, and then again when they pick it up. Begin adding a verbal cue — “pick up” is what my dogs know.
Step 2: To teach your dog to drop the toy, offer her a trade for a cookie, praise and treat, and say “drop.” Within a few repetitions, your dog will start to understand that she only gets the cookie when you tell her to “drop,” and that letting go of the toy before that doesn’t get her the treat.
Step 3: Introduce the stocking (I went to my local store and got a super-cheap stocking for this trick) by asking your dog to pick up the desired item and bring it to you. Hold the stocking out in front of you, close to the ground. When the dog is standing over it, tell him to drop.
Step 4: As your dog begins to get the hang of the trick, begin giving treats only when she correctly drops the toy into the stocking. Keep training sessions fun and short at this stage so your dog doesn’t get frustrated. If she misses the stocking, try again.
Step 5: Begin including a cue word — I used “stuff it” for Charlotte. At this stage, you can move the location of the stocking, holding it away from you, or you can even hang it from something low enough that your dog can reach it – just be sure it’s securely anchored and won’t fall onto your dog if he gets overly eager with his stuffing. Sometimes dogs will really shove the toy into the stocking to make sure they don’t miss!
What kind of holiday tricks do your dogs know? Tell us in the comments.
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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 her latest novel Lost Boi was released in April. Sassafras is a certified trick dog instructor, and she assists with dog agility classes. Sassafras lives with her partner, two dogs of dramatically different sizes, two bossy cats, and a semi-feral kitten. She is always on the lookout for adventures with her canine pack. Learn more on her website www.SassafrasLowrey.com.