Tricks to Keep Your Pets Busy

by: Jennifer Oldfield

The mild weather we had been enjoying has been replaced by a more typical Saskatchewan winter – outrageously cold!  Although there are certainly dog breeds that love the cold and do well to still be exercised outdoors, many can only handle a few moments outside at a time without risking frostbite to feet and ears.  How then do you get enough exercise for your dog to keep them busy and keep you from going crazy with their energy?  Teach them tricks!  Working the mind can just as well tire your dog out as working them physically, making for a much nicer winter experience for everyone.  You can even do tricks with your cat, especially if they are food motivated.  All the concepts below will be referenced to dogs, but the same applies for cats.


Photo taken from: For Cats Only



How to get Started

You can train tricks in a few different manners;

Luring: This is where you use the treat or reward to guide the dog into the behaviour.  For example using a treat just above your dog’s head and moving it back slightly to get a sit.

Shaping: This is where you reward the dog for performing a behaviour with a little guidance or direction that does not involve the reward. For example teaching your dog to back up by stepping into them when they are between the coffee table and the sofa.

Free Shaping: This is where you wait for the dog to perform a behaviour and reward the actions and behaviours you like.  This method works best with a clicker or other well ingrained reward cue and can be a lot of fun to come up with lots of new behaviours over a short period

Accidental Marking: This is where your dog does something that causes you to react so rewardingly for the dog that they do it again.  A great example of this is my own dog – who does an Eskimo (nose) kiss.  She accidentiy bumped me in the nose when I went to check for something inside her kennel and I rewarded her with her entire dinner.  That is a very big pay off!  After that all I had to do was lean towards her and she would be trying to nose bump my nose.  We paired it to a command and viola an Eskimo kiss on command!

Finny Kiss


clickersThere are different types of clickers available that can be used for training tricks and can work amazingly well if you have good timing.  To start you need to pair the click with a reward.  Simply sit with your dog and regardless of what they are doing – sit, stand, lie down, doesn’t matter – you click and give them a treat, click and give them a treat, repeat, repeat, repeat.  It is a good idea to also pair a word with the click – the word “yes” is the perfect pairing because it can only be a positive word – try saying it mad… it doesn’t work.  So click and at the same time as you click say “yes” and give a treat.  It won’t take long for your dog to understand that click means reward.


  • Never lie to your dog
    • If you click you MUST reward
    • Click ALWAYS has to mean reward
    • Even if you clicked a behaviour you did not mean to, you MUST give a treat and try to be better timed on the next one

If you lie to your dog and sometimes click means reward and sometimes it doesn’t, it will not have the value it should and you will not get the results you may be hoping for.

So what kinds of tricks can you teach?

Anything you can think of.  If you can think it up and you have a very eager dog you can likely teach it to them.

Simple or one step tricks – essentially these involve one action by the dog:

  • bowGive-me-your-paw-dog-trick
  • beg
  • rollover (both directions)
  • shake a paw (both)
  • wave
  • crawl
  • spin & turn
  • play dead
  • lay flat
  • dance
  • retrieve
  • go around something

Complex or compound tricks  –  these require a series of actions in order to complete the whole trick;

  • Put yourself to bed
  • Ah-choo – get a Kleenex
  • Clean up your toys
  • Retrieve items by name
  • Put your toys away

Words of Advice

  1. Keep in mind that all dogs learn at varying rates.  So something you taught one dog to do in 5 minutes might take another dog 5 months for it the dog to get it fully.
  2. Break tricks down into little pieces and reward the pieces, working eventually to the entire action.  An example of this is teaching the rollover.  Don’t try and get the entire roll before rewarding.  Reward your dog for laying down on to their hip, reward them for turning their head towards their shoulder, and so on.
  3. Dogs are “sided”. Much like we have a dominant hand (the one we write with) dogs also have a dominant side.  If you find teaching rollover in one direction extremely difficult try the other direction first, this goes the same for teaching shake a paw and spin & turn.  One side will be taught much more easily and quicker than the other.
  4. Timing of praise and reward are the biggest keys.  The faster you are to click, praise, reward, the faster the dog associates the desired action with the reward.
  5. Dogs only understand praise in the moment – so praising something they did even 5 seconds ago is too late.  They will pair the praise with the action occurring as the initial praise is happening. (“Yes, good dog, what a GOOD dog!” when said all in a row will be associated with the action that occurred on the “Yes” and is especially a strong verbal reward if the action is still occurring).
  6. You can “jackpot” reward when the dog finally gets an action in the right direction of what you are teaching or when they get the whole action.  To “jackpot” with a clicker, you click several times while feeding multiple treats.  If not using a clicker just give your verbal cue “yes” along with other verbal praise and give a bunch of treats.
  7. Keep training sessions short.  Work for 10 minutes, give them a 10 minute break.  When it may seem your dog isn’t getting it, a break can give them the needed time to think about it and in your next session they may very well get it.
  8. Have a big “party” when they finally get what you were teaching.  Tons of praise, petting, and rewards can really ingrain in your dog that the last thing the did is exactly what you were wanting.
  9. Add commands for the tricks after they have learnt the action.  For example don’t say rollover while you are trying to get them to do it.  Instead once they have gotten the action and you are having the celebratory party say “good rollover, what a good rollover“.  Now the next time you get them to do it, while they are rolling over say “good rollover”. Then at the beginning you can say “rollover” and get them to do it.

For information on teaching a few specific tricks – retrieving an item by name, pick up after yourself, & 101 things to do with a box – see the Training Tricks page on our website.

For more information about training your cat some tricks click the cat image at the top of this post.


Previous Post
Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: