Teaching a trick? 5 steps make it simple

June 21, 2013 

>Dear Old Trainer: I just got Doc, a 9-week-old Labrador-Golden Retriever mix. I love him already, and he learned house training in just a couple of days. The people in my swim class told me about your column and I want to teach him tricks like the figure-eight you describe. Where do I start?

— Maria, Merced

Answer: When training a dog as young as Doc, keep in mind what Jimmy Stewart — movie star and dog lover — said when asked if his dogs were trained: "The difference between 'trained OK' and 'trained perfectly' doesn't really matter to me. I once did a film with Lassie. When that dog got excited he jumped all over Rudd Weatherwax (Lassie's trainer). If the world's smartest, best-trained dog can jump around to show he's happy, then my little dogs should be allowed to do the same."

That point escapes many dog owners. Dogs learn faster when they are relaxed and having fun. The first rule of training is have fun and make sure Doc does too. And nothing is more fun for Doc than having you love on him.

There is no official starting place when training a new dog, but for best results I advise giving Doc his basic training before you add the tricks. I always begin with "sit." It's easy to teach and is the departure point for other commands, including "stay," "come" and "down."

Here are the five steps to teaching any command:

1. Show Doc what you want him to do.

2. Give the command in your normal speaking voice.

3. Give him 10 seconds to think about it.

4. When he does it right, praise him and love on him.

5. Once he has it down, add a hand signal to the verbal command.

Walk Doc to burn off a little energy before you start. As you say the word "sit," lift his chin with one hand and push down on his hind quarters with the other to show Doc what you want. Pet him and love on him as soon as he sits.

Repeat the sequence several times, then come back and do it later in the day. Hold several short training sessions per day. Doc will learn fast.

When he has it down, add a hand signal. Doc doesn't care what it is, so use something you can remember. I extend my arm, palm down, forefinger extended, and motion toward the ground. If you have a hand signal for every command, you can control Doc without saying a word.

I emailed you instructions on how to extend the training to the sit-stay-come sequence. Once he has that down, add the tricks using the same routine.

Since you like to swim, include that as part of the training. Doc already knows how to swim. Love of water is in his genes. You will have as much fun playing with Doc in the water as you do on dry land.

Remember, no matter what you are teaching your dog, love is the most important part of the training.

Note the new email address for all questions.

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