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Old Dog, New Tricks

Over the holiday season I have a few client dogs stay with me that I have raised and trained since puppyhood. This is my core crew, a select few who have impeccable manners and can go anywhere/get along with nearly anyone. They are this way because in the past, when they were wee puppies, I trained them … a lot.

Now the youngest of that crew is 3 years old; the oldest is 6. Even though they all behave beautifully, when they visit, they inevitably ask me for some training time. No, not the owners; the dogs. Yes, the dogs themselves.

How do I know they are asking? Oh, there are so many ways they let me know that they want to train. They line up every time I pull out the special training toys I use for rewards or if I am cutting up cheese into tiny training morsels. They sit at various training stations set up in the yard and in the house. They offer behaviors I haven’t asked for and butt in if I am training another dog. They do this, presumably because they enjoy training with me. I always make sure that training time is clear and fun for the dog. I let them be themselves. I don’t quash their creativity or spirit. We go with the flow, and our sessions are more like parties most days rather than military drills.

Many people believe that training must be serious business in order to be effective, but I have found that if your dog loves to learn from you, you’ll get so much further so much faster and will create a lifelong training junkie in the process. Training as a team, you and your dog, is also a really lovely bonding exercise. It is money in the bank of your long-term relationship. A new trick is a new spark, making everything exciting and new again. Yes, I am still talking dogs, but, hey, this does work in all sorts of relationships.

So, even though all the dogs in my care have the basics and then some down pat, we trained. For fun. Learning provides fabulous enrichment for a dog’s brain, and especially in the winter months when outdoor activities may not be as plentiful,working a dog’s brain is an excellent way to wear a dog out.

One of my regular pups learned how to bow, sit pretty, and army crawl. Last year he learned how to execute a phenomenally dramatic bang, you’re dead. I am telling you, it’s Academy Award material.

Another client became bilingual. I taught her all of her cues in French (she already knew English). My own Mars, a wild child who very much takes after his name, is learning how to be a cafe/pub dog over the holidays. (This is most definitely a work in progress, lol, I will surely write about it once my red Martian becomes the perfect pub dog.)

So, with winter in full swing and a new year upon us, I ask, have you trained your dog lately? I mean, really trained your dog to do something new? I highly recommend you do it. But don’t look at is as another chore, a drudgery. Training should be one of the many ways you play and connect with your dog. Be creative. The sky is the limit. Tricks are an awesome addition to any dog training and exercise routine because everyone always smiles while training tricks. There is way less pressure to teach Fido to, say, lift a back leg on cue and pretend to urinate on an unsuspecting family member (you didn’t hear that from me) than there is to train your dog not to pull on leash. More importantly, when training is lighthearted and silly, the dogs pick up on the happy vibe, and they love it!

So, as much as I am not a fan of resolutions, I am going to suggestion one. How about committing to teaching your dog one new trick a month in 2019? Please give it a try. You won’t be sorry. You may even find that some tricks, such as fetch my keys, are super useful, too.

As for me, I’ll be the woman sighted all over the Bay Area pleading with my large, red, furry Belgian shepherd to sit pretty and wave at the passers by of my local coffee shops and cafes. Perhaps we’ll run into each other, and we can do a trick-and-treat show-and-tell.

Kelly Gorman Dunbar is director of the Center for Applied Animal Behavior, where she recruits and trains for SIRIUS Puppy & Training,, the family business.

Main article photo by: fotorince/istock