Teaching Your Pet Tricks

Teaching Your Pet Tricks
By Emily Hoppmann, DVM

Would you like for your cat or dog to do more tricks? It’s always fun to have your dog give a high five or play dead  Below are some helpful tips for you to use to have your pet follow your lead in no time!
First, make a clear plan as to what type of behavior you want to see. If the behavior involves multiple steps, it is best to break the behavior down into smaller pieces. This is a technique known as incremental learning or shaping. Let’s say that you want to teach a dog how to bring you a tissue (behavior) when you sneeze (cue). Your steps might be (1) getting the dog to approach the box, (2) getting him to put a tissue in his mouth, (3) getting him to pull the tissue from the box, (4) getting him to deliver the tissue to you and (5) getting him to release the tissue in your hand. This step-by-step plan represents incremental learning or shaping.
Associations must be formed in your pet’s brain so that he understands exactly what it is you want him to do through the use of a marker or click. When your pet does what you want, you must mark that behavior precisely and immediately. The marker tells the animal, “Yes that was exactly what I wanted you to do!” Markers act much like the shutter of a camera, recording in the animal’s brain that split second in time when he is doing something you want him to do. I find it is easiest to use clicker training, which makes the use a clicking noise as the marker. Clickers can be purchased or you can make your own using anything capable of producing a quick and precise clicking noise, such as a pen, the metal cap from a juice or tea bottle, or even your own tongue. Clickers are great markers because each one’s tone remains the same- no matter the energy or mood of the one clicking.
When teaching a dog how to bring you a tissue, you would mark the successful completion of each step. Once he is easily performing a step, withhold the marker until he goes on to successfully complete the next step. Some dogs will learn the entire behavior in just a few 10 minute sessions, while others may need several weeks – every dog is different as far as how fast they pick up on things and how many steps are within one trick also plays a factor. Don’t get discouraged – this is supposed to be fun for you and your pet!
If you are having difficulty getting your pet to perform a specific step, you can lure your pet into position using a treat or toy. You may also encourage your dog to target an object using sound or motion. Try not to lure or target more than once or twice for each step so that your pet has the opportunity to think through what you’re asking.
Reward your pet with small pieces of his favorite treat after every click – plain Cheerios work really well because they are low in calorie and easy to dispense. (You want to make sure to reward even the clicks you might make by accident.) The positive feelings about those clicks formed through the use of desired rewards means your pet is likely to work hard to figure out how to get you to click again. You can use treat placement to encourage him to focus on a particular object (or objective) to speed up the process. For example, you might put the treat on the tissue when teaching your dog to retrieve it. Much as with luring and targeting, placing treats in certain spots reduces your pet’s need to think, so try to do it sparingly so it keeps his brain working on learning the command.
Keep clicking/treating for each incremental success until your pet has learned to perform the behavior in its entirety. The next step is to embed your cue now that your pet knows the behavior for which you are looking. Once your cue is added, you may have to go back to clicking/treating each step for a session or two. It may seem odd to teach the behavior first and then add the cue, but when you think about it, that makes a lot more sense than using a cue when your pet has no way of understanding its meaning. Cues can be words, gestures, or, in the case of the tissue retrieving dog, even sneezes. You can remove your click when your pet clearly recognizes the cue and willingly performs the behavior.
If your pet is struggling at any stage, reduce expectations (perhaps smaller steps or an easier behavior) and increase motivation (lots of praise and a Cheerio). Remember to stop each session on a high note and, most importantly, have fun with your pet while they’re learning.