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How tricks can help build a stronger relationship with your dog and improve learning skills

Agility athlete Eli Beate Sæther from Norway was introduced to trick training when one of her dogs got injured. She has trained tricks with her world-class agility dogs ever since. 

– I believe that is an essential reason why we have succeeded in the sport.

In addition to build a stronger relationship and cooperation between dog and handler, trick training will also teach your dog how to learn new things and help build motivation to work. 

She got inspired to train tricks after seeing this video by Silvia Trkman.

Eli Beate started with easy tricks like sit and lie down, then gradually advanced to handstand on the wall and other exercises that also help improve balance, strength and coordination.

Work for the meal

She is using food to reward the dog when it is doing something right. Eli Beate recommends you use your dog’s meals as a reward when training. This will prevent it from gaining unnecessary weight, and your dog will probably be more eager about working for the food as well – even if it is not sausages.

- Some dogs are not interested in food, simply because they are already full. The reward must have value to them.

You can also use a toy to reward your dog, but food is usually more convenient and efficient for training most tricks.

Make the rules together

Eli Beate is always open for her dog’s ideas when training tricks. 

- I think that helps get their motivation up. It’s like having a child. You are not always telling them what to do or how to play - you play with them. When you are a dog and a handler, you are a team. It is important to respect the other team member. 

Eli Beate Leke

Listen to what your dog wants and how she wants it, then work your way around it to reach your goal. You have to make the rules together.

- These little things create a strong connection. It is like you develop your own language with the dog.

Break it down to pieces

Both when training agility and tricks, Eli Beate is breaking each skill into little pieces. A common mistake people do is to set the bar too high.

Mark the moment 

You can use a clicker to mark the exact moment where your dog is doing something right. Timing is crucial! You start by rewarding a slight weight shift in the right direction, then gradually increase the challenge. This is called shaping. 

You can also reward the dog with verbal praise, of course. 

If your dog is doing something perfectly, you can reward it with a jackpot. That means a big celebration with many treats, verbal praise and whatever your dog likes the most.

Add a verbal cue

When the dog has an understanding of the task, Eli Beate starts adding the command. 

Slow is smooth, smooth is fast

Some might feel like their dog is not doing the trick fast enough. Usually, speed will come with experience and understanding.

- It was the same for me when learning agility. For those starting their agility career with a fast dog, it can be tough to learn the crosses and movements in the right way because everything is happening at high speed. Then, you never learn it well enough. If you have a slow dog, you’ll learn every piece of the movement very well. This makes it easier to make the same move with a fast dog later. I’m very grateful that my first agility dog was quite slow. That made it a lot easier for me when I got a fast dog.

If you do have a fast dog, it can be smart to train a bit without your dog. 

Also, keep in mind that some dogs need more time to learn and understand than others! If progression stops, go one step back and break the task into even smaller steps.

If you want to learn more about Eli Beate’s training philosophy and how she is working with her dog, you can listen to this episode of our podcast, «Unleashed.»

Weave through your legs

If you need inspiration for cool tricks to teach your dog, you can get a lot of ideas on YouTube. 

Steve Walsh, an instructor at McCann Dogs, has created several step-by-step guides, for example on teaching your dog to weave through your legs.

This is a trick you can easily do in a small space with just a few little things. 

- The first thing we’re going to need is some great treats, because like anything else, I need to use a currency that my dog understands and a motivator that he likes.

First, you can grab some treats and make sure your dog is comfortable following the food in your hand. 

- I say “yes” and reward to let him know when he’s doing something great. 

You can also use a clicker to mark that moment. 

The whole process is shown in this video:

- Once I’m comfortable with him following food, I’m going to split that food, so I have some in both hands. I’m just going to lure him to one side of my body. In this case, he’s on my right side. I’m going to step forward with the foot on the other side of my body and I’m going to lure his little head towards my legs. Then I’m going to switch my hands in between my legs. 

Repeat the first step until your dog is comfortable moving back and forth through your legs. Then you can add your command. Steve is using «through.»

- I give the command, then lure him. He hears the command, and then he gets the stimulus of the lure, then I reward him.

The next step is to take away the lure. This process might take time. It is no problem to go one step back to help your dog if needed. Once your dog figures out that he should through your legs without a lure, reward him with a jackpot! 

The last step is to increase the difficulty by gradually stand more upright. When your dog has no problem with that, you also remove the treats in your hands.

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