The Old Trainer: Tricks are easy, as long as dog is willing

May 25, 2013 

DEAR OLD TRAINER: Frisco, our mixed breed, is smart and has learned sit, stay, come and the basic commands fast. I saw a dog at the park doing a figure eight between the owner's legs as he walked to his car. They both had a great time doing it. How do I teach that to Frisco?

— Max, Merced

Answer: Teaching a dog to do tricks is easy if the dog wants to do them. My six dogs are perfect at obeying commands, but only two want to learn tricks. And only Joker, my youngest, likes to do the figure-eight trick.

A dog that wants to do tricks lets you know. He comes running the instant you call and wants to interact with you. He picks up sticks and wants you to throw them, comes to you with ears up and tail wagging to see if you'll play, concentrates on you during the walk instead of other dogs and interesting smells.

If Frisco has that type personality, he will learn any trick, but keep these principles in mind as you work with him.

Teaching a trick is fun. Don't yell and scream like a Little League coach. Laugh even when things go wrong. Enjoy the process.

Don't set an arbitrary time limit to learn the trick. Who cares how long it takes?

Be patient. Your dog is trying. If he is slow to pick it up, it is your fault, not his.

To teach the figure-eight, call Frisco to your right side. Move your left foot 2 feet ahead of your right. Hold your left hand on the outside of, and behind, your left leg. Wiggle your hand so Frisco will come to it, and say "leg." As he comes under your leg, move your hand forward and lead him to a spot in front of you. He will pick it up fast.

When he does, love on him and tell him how smart he is. He has learned the main part. The rest is just refining the trick.

Work on just that part for several days. Pet him every time he does it right. Then, while he is in front of your left leg, move your right leg forward, motion him under that leg with the right hand, and say "leg." Now he has done the entire trick, so love on him some more.

Do it in slow motion, over and over. Make it a continuous figure eight as you slowly take one step after another. Use your hands to guide him. If he makes a mistake, laugh and start over. Don't scold him. Remember rule three.

Practice every day, but keep the lessons short. As he gets better, walk faster and be less obvious with your hands. Say "leg" each time he comes around one leg and starts under the other. End the trick after 15 steps or so and love on him.

I emphasize the praising and loving part because Frisco is doing it to make you happy. Let him know it does, and he will learn the next one even faster.

Jack Haskins writes as The Old Trainer. A trainer for more than 30 years, he has rescued, trained, and placed more than 2,000 dogs. Send questions to

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