How to teach your dog a trick!

I really like to practice tricks with my dogs, Miki struggled for a long time with the rally expert class and especially the “place of honor” exercise (where he had a hard time sitting still) so because of this it has mostly been Coby I have trained tricks with. Coby is a clever dog and he is also crazy about trick training, especially tricks he can do in full speed and tricks with props! It's always cool to train tricks with him. Now Miki and I have started to play with the freestyle sport, and at the same time also got away from the rally expert class and the “place of honor” exercise so I think Miki also should start with tricks again which we will also need in freestyle. Coby will still have to keep on training for the Best Friends Tricks Challenges.

In trick training, I am inspired by Silvia Trkman and her way of training. It was also videos with Silvia and her super talented dogs, who made ​​me interested in teaching tricks to my dogs. I've been so lucky to participate in one of Silvia's camps in Slovenia, where for a week we got to train a lot of tricks and agility, it was really inspiring and I hope I will one day manage to attend another camp with Silvia. Additionally, I have participated in a couple of Silvia's online courses, this I can really recommend, she is an accomplished teacher! I have also been on a trick course with Johanna Allanach, also a really good course, which only had one fault; it was too short. Johanna is also a super talented and inspiring teacher, and I also hope  that in time we can attend many more courses with her.

Today I am going to explain to you how to teach your dog a trick. I have chosen a well known trick which I call "In the box ". It is a trick where the dog must stand with all four paws in a little box / bowl. I think it's a good starter trick! It helps dogs learn to think for themselves and to offer behaviors and it is easy to go to for the handler. The “In the box” trick also helps the dog to get more body awareness as it must be aware of its hind legs and placing them in order to get in the small boxes. The trick can also be transferred to an everyday thing like asking the dog to go in his/her basket or to go on a blanket, which you can teach the dog out of the same principles that you use for learning this trick .

When teaching tricks I use clicker training and shaping, but I might also help the dog at the start with both a little luring, targets and strategic placing of the rewards. So for learning the trick "In the box" one needs lots of treats, a clicker or a marker word and boxes in various sizes. It's a good idea to start with a big box where the sides are not too high. Personally, I like the cardboard boxes many supermarkets get fruit delivered in, you can get them for free, they are of good size and the edges are not very high, so perfect starting boxes! When I start this exercise, I would first teach the dog that it is the box that is exciting and that interaction with the box triggers treats. So in the beginning I click the dog for showing interest in the box. It can be a look towards the box, a sniff of the box, if they touch the box with a paw (if the dog does this I reward with a jackpot which is a big reward, to increase the likelihood that the dog  will offer this again. This all helps to teach the dog that it pays to offer different behaviors. In the beginning when I reward I do so by tossing a treat in the box which in turn helps to increase the value of the box for the dog. Quite quickly the dogs learn that it's interacting with the box that will earn them treats.

Once the dog understands that it must do something with the box to get a click, then I begin to hold back the click and now only click when the dog touches the box with a paw. Once the dog understands this then I again hold back the click and now only click when the dog has at least one paw in the box. In this part of the exercise I begin to reward the dog with a treat in front of the dog's snout and with a little distance so the dog has to stretch to get to the treat and thereby perhaps is going to put a paw more in the box which I then can click it for. But it is important that the treat emerges only after the dog has chosen to put a paw in the box and you should not reward this way (with luring) too many times. The dogs quickly become addicted to the luring and can get locked in the exercise. If the dog came to put an extra paw in the box then I reward with a jackpot and then after that I throw a treat slightly away from the box so the dog has to leave the box to get to the treat and thus has to actively go back to the box to stand in it.

If the dog did not come to put an extra paw in the box then I only throw a treat to get the dog out of the box but this time without a click. When the dog has come to put two or more feet in the box for a couple of times then I hold back the click to get the dog to deliberately set at least two feet in the box then I again reward the first few times with a treat in front of the dog to pull the dog slightly forward so the dog hopefully is going to put one of it’s hind legs in the box. This part of the trick may be difficult for some dogs as they generally are not as aware of their hind legs and that they actually can control them. This is one of the great things about this trick, they become more aware of their hind legs. My experience is that once they have found out how to put one of their back paws in the box then it gets easier with the last one!

If you come to a stop with the two front paws and the dog can not find out how to get a back paw in the box then another option is to reward the dog with a treat a little in front of the box so that it has to reach by going a few steps forward and thereby maybe going to stand with his hind legs in the box, which you can then click. It may be difficult for these dogs to connect the click with the hind legs in the box. Another option is to teach the dog to go through the box and then click each time it's hind legs are in the box. You have to try to see which method is best suited to your own dog.

Once the dog has now figured out that it must have all four paws in the box to get the click, then I only reward for four feet in the box. I also will now only reward by tossing a treat away from the box. This is to get the dog out of the box thus having many repetitions of the exercise. It is also now you can start putting a command on the exercise by saying it just before the dog goes into the box. I use the command "In the box". When the dog shows good understanding of the exercise then the next step is to find a smaller box to train with. When you switch box you have to initially decrease the criteria for the dog. You can start again with clicking for one, two or three feet in the box if the dog doesn’t automatically offer all four paws but you now must move forward faster since the dog should know the exercise. If the dog has a hard time getting all four paws in the smaller box, it might be that you have gone forward too fast. Maybe the dog did not understand the exercise and you must go back to the big box again and reward several times for all four paws in the box. Another reason could also be that you have made too big a jump in the box size and thus made it too difficult for the dog. This can be solved by finding a third box, which is larger than the current box but still smaller than the first box you worked with. Another option is to put the smaller box inside the larger box so that the image of the exercise is more similar to the dog, this may help some dogs to get started with the smaller boxes.

When the dog then knows to put four paws in the smaller box, then you can proceed with getting smaller and smaller boxes. When you start to get down into the small box sizes where it can begin to get difficult for the dog to stand with all four paws in the box and keep balance, then you begin to reward the dog for standing in the box. I do this by clicking the dog several times in the box i.e. a click and a treat for getting in the box with all four paws. So soon after a new click and a treat for standing in the box and a new click and treat for staying there. After a few clicks this way I again throw a treat so the dog must leave the box and again has to go back in the box. When I reward the dog for being in the box then I make sure to give the treat at a suitable height for the dog. It should not be too high as it can make the dog want sit in the box instead, so if you have problems with this you can try giving the treat slightly lower for the dog. They are often more likely to remain standing then.

Remember that trick training should be fun for the dog! Set the criterias so the dog can honor them but at the same time make sure to raise them so you 're not going to get stuck somewhere in the exercise. Also remember to look at your dog and its size and don’t demand the impossible of it. Not all breeds are built to stand in very small boxes.

Have fun training!


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