When training your dog, it’s easy to get focused on obedience – heel, sit, stay, down, etc. – and just drill it into your dog day after day, session after session.
However, most professional trainers have found that breaking free from your “routine” and teaching your dog a new trick each week can actually help your dog be more successful in all areas of training.
Exercises the Mind
What if, when you were young, your parents decided to just teach you five words? They kept you isolated, and those were the only five words you ever learned.
We know from cases of feral children that those growing up with little or no language have an extremely difficult time learning language later. Some never do.
Or, perhaps a better example, would be to ask you to perform an advanced mathematical equation. Unless you have PhD in Math, you probably won’t even know where to begin. Without the stepping stones for doing advanced math, you will never figure it out.
The same applies to your dog. The more you teach him, the more he will learn. And the more foundation stuff he does, the more advanced maneuvers he will be able to conquer.
You need to exercise your dog’s brain so he gets smarter, rather than letting his brain sit there – repeating the same cues over and over but never growing.
Luckily, unlike children and language acquisition, you can teach your older dog, but it definitely is harder at first than teaching a puppy. They may start slow, but once they get the knack, you will be surprised at how quickly they learn.
Don’t know what tricks to teach? Maybe you will just play the “what will you offer game.” This game is GREAT for getting your dog to think on their own, while getting rewarded for staying engaged with you and stretching those brain muscles.
A Mental Break
Imagine if you went to school and were only given one subject to learn – math. Unless you are a really big math-lover, you would quickly become bored, frustrated (if the lessons are too hard for you), and you may even just stop doing it.
Many owners experience that “moment” when their dog has had enough and they stop responding to cues or even walk away from them. This is a clear signal – they have had enough.
Sometimes, you may be working on something that was challenging, and the dog’s brain is exhausted. Other times, you may be drilling a behavior she has “down-pat,” over and over again until she finally says “enough is enough.”
Either way, if you break up the tedious behaviors with fun, fairly easy (so lots of rewards are happening) tricks, your dog will stay engaged with you longer.
Keeps You Positive
It’s not just stretching your dog’s brain muscles or giving them a mental break, it’s also a brain-stretching and/or mental break for you as well.
Training can become just as frustrating for you if your dog is not getting it, or boring if you have done heel work for an hour straight.
Tricks are fun and engaging to teach as well as learn. You can train your dog tricks others tell you about, or make-up your own. Tricks allows for creativity in your training since there are no rules or “right way” a trick should look. This can be a nice change of pace from the strict rules in performance or obedience training.
And, since you don’t have to worry about precision or the trick looking “just right,” you can simply have fun and work on building your relationship with your dog, rather than worrying if he is in exactly the right position.
Since tricks don’t have to be perfect, they are a great way to try out new training techniques that you pick up online and from seminars, friends, etc.
For example, if you have never used shaping before, you probably don’t want to test it out on your obedience “front” (dog sits perfectly straight in front of handler) and risk messing it up. However, you don’t have to worry if you “mess up” a sit pretty, shake, roll over, etc. These are the perfect tricks to practicing shaping.
Strengthens Your Bond
As I have touched on in this article, teaching tricks can strengthen the bond between you and your dog. When you are free-shaping or teaching your dog something with less rules, they get rewarded more often, making you and the training more appealing.
In addition, your positive attitude affects your dog – a happy trainer is a happy dog! Those mental breaks add up to a more positive relationship with your dog and you will find that when you return to the “harder stuff,” your dog is a more willing partner. Just like people, they need a break to have fun, and tricks allows you to do that while still teaching your dog something.
For example, many people teach their dogs to weave in and out of their legs, jump through their arms, walk backward through their legs, etc. All of these tricks warm-up your dog’s muscles (important for sport events) and make your dog interact closely with you, which means they are focused on you. This gets them ready for the real work.
So go out there and teach your dog a new trick!
About the Author
Based in Wilsonville, Ore., animal lover Kristina N. Lotz is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer – Knowledge Assessed (CPDT-KA) and works as a full time trainer. She is the founder of, A Fairytail House, a unique all-positive all-sport dog training facility that helps rescue dogs in her area and provides free seminars and training classes for the community. In her spare time, she trains and competes in herding, agility, obedience, rally, and conformation with her Shetland Sheepdogs. She smartly married a Veterinary Technician, who helps keep the fur kids happy and healthy, and provides a quick resource for articles.