How Trick Training Can Help Dogs Develop Confidence and Even Help With Procedures

By Deb M. Eldredge, DVM

Everyone delights in watching a dog do tricks. People clap and cheer while all but the most noise-sensitive dogs grin right back. So why not incorporate tricks into your practice, especially for worried dogs?

If your practice offers puppy classes or any type of training classes, start including tricks. I taught a household pet class years ago in Michigan. Each week we added a new trick, along with behaviors such as stand for brushing, sit, and wait at doors. By the end of the six weeks, every dog could do every trick, although many of them were still not solid on the obedience-type behaviors.

Why Train Tricks?

People think of tricks as fun. They approach teaching tricks with a positive attitude, which flows over to their dogs. The whole family would proudly show off Fido “shaking hands” or rolling over. Much more fun than doing a sit-stay! Tricks are an easy and fun way to get people interacting with their dogs and enjoying training. Luckily, some manners training can be mingled with tricks, such as a sit-stay as part of a “shake.”

Once a dog has learned a trick, performing it can be a confidence builder. I have used this with one of my own dogs. She was nervous attending conformation shows, especially indoor ones with the associated noise and chaos. It was all a bit overwhelming for an 8-month-old pup! However, she loved (and still does, years later) to hit her “Easy” button from Staples. So I brought the button to the shows. Outside the rings I would put it down and let her smack it. She got great praise, petting, and usually an extra-special treat each time she made the button “talk.” People walking by would smile and tell her how clever she was. Positive emotions filled the air. So encourage clients to show off the tricks their dogs know. A nervous dog performing a well-established trick will become more confident.

Tricks As Part Of The Veterinary Exam

Tricks can also be used to help dogs perform and feel comfortable with parts of their physical examinations and some medical procedures. Consider “shake.” To do this trick, the dog must allow you to touch his paw. Touching a paw is the “gateway” to trimming nails and drawing a small blood sample. A dog who is comfortable with having his paws touched or held by a person is easier to deal with in those situations.

“Bang,” or “play dead,” leads to a dog who does a down-stay. That can be helpful for grooming, doing an exam, and possibly doing nails. The same dog who resists the obedience exercise “down-stay” will often do a stunning “death scene” and hold that pose for a minute or more.

Asking for behaviors the dog enjoys performing can also help gauge the dog’s comfort level. A dog who is unable to respond to a well-known cue, might be too stressed to respond. Cognitive functioning can be impaired in stressful situations. Take the lack of response as information and move on rather than continuing to attempt to get the dog to perform (which can increase the dog’s stress level).

A Trick For A Procedure

One of the most amazing useful trick situations I ever saw took place in my own practice. A woman came in with an adolescent male Cocker Spaniel. This dog was nuts! The minute the owner released him he was on the bench, off to the table, hit the counter, then running in a crazed circle, occasionally banking off the walls of the exam room. I watched in amazement, a bit thankful he was not a Great Dane! The dog had come in for our heartworm clinic— appointments set up just to draw blood for the yearly heartworm test.

To my surprise, the owner told me that when I was ready, she would get the dog to stay still. When I had syringe in hand and tube labeled and ready, the woman intercepted the dog as he hit the exam table and told him “Hold it.” He immediately sat, and she placed a small biscuit on his nose. I quickly held off his vein and drew my sample while he remained perfectly still, concentrating on balancing his biscuit. She then released him with “Get it!” He tossed his head back, flipped the biscuit up, caught it, swallowed, and was off again.

If you don’t offer classes through your clinic, check out local dog-training facilities to let your clients know which ones offer positive, fear-free training and fun. There are many excellent trick books and videos available. Consider setting up a lending library so clients can borrow these. If nothing else you will have clients and dogs providing fun trick shows in your waiting room!

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.