D ear Old Trainer: Our Australian shepherd-border collie mix, Waco, is 18 months old. We want to teach him some tricks, but aren’t sure how to do it. As soon as we get to the dog park, he jumps up on a bench and watches the other dogs to get the lay of the land before joining in, so I know he is smart. I just don’t know where to begin.
Dear Daryl: Waco is smart, all right, with genes from two of the smartest breeds on the planet. So smart, in fact, he already selected the first trick he wants you to teach him – to jump on the bench at the dog park when you give the order.
It is a fine example of reverse training – derived from the term reverse engineering – the act of seeing something your dog is already doing and applying a command to it.
All training, no matter which trick you teach, follows the same set of principles:
• Figure out a way to show your dog what you want him to do.
• Be patient. Three weeks is the minimum for a dog to learn a difficult trick. Work on it every day, but keep the lessons short.
• Never get frustrated. Your dog is trying as hard as he can. If he is slow to pick it up, it is your fault, not his.
• Love on him and praise him every time he does something right.
• Make sure both you and your dog are having fun.
Waco always jumps on the bench at the dog park, so he took care of the first principle. He showed you what he wants to do. All you have to teach him is to do it on your command. As soon as you get to the dog park, point to the bench, say, “bench,” then let Waco run to it.
When he jumps on it, pet him and let him know you are proud of him. Do it every time you go to the park. After a few trips, add the second part of the trick. Say “grass” and motion him toward you so he jumps off the bench. Pet him as much for jumping off as for jumping on, then point to the bench and order him back on. Keep up the praise when he jumps back on.
Practice the trick at home or anywhere there is a bench or chair for him to jump on. Show him you are having fun every time he does it. Always use the hand signals along with the verbal commands. When he gets good at it, order him to jump on and off the bench as fast as he can and pet him every time he either jumps on or off. The faster you do it, the more fun he will have.
When he is an expert at the trick, drop me an email and I’ll send you some variations to add to the basic trick.
All dogs should learn a few tricks. Teaching them brings the dog and owner closer, doing them gives a dog confidence and satisfies a fundamental need to please the leader of the pack.