One of my loves is trick training. Who doesn’t love a great dog trick? It just lights up the whole day.
I’m not sure why people see a strict divide between “tricks” and “obedience.” The dog likely makes no such distinction. It’s responding to cues either way. In fact, in many ways tricks are harder – they are often more technically difficult to teach, they may involve more steps, and they are frequently more physically difficult for the dog. Think of “roll over” vs “down” and “sit pretty/paws up” vs “”sit.”
So why do dogs sometimes ignore a simple request for “sit” out in public but, if asked, will enthusiastically go through a whole litany of tricks?
For most dogs, the difference is in how they were trained. Many owners set out to train regular obedience in a much different way than they would train tricks. Obedience, the thought is, must be formal, stiff and done for no reward. After all, obedience is important! Tricks on the other hand, “don’t matter.” So owners tend to be more pleasant and enjoyable (to the dog), have more fun and use more rewards. This usually causes the dog to like doing tricks more, and the trick behaviors will become more reliable than the actual obedience behaviors!
For the handler, trick-training has its own set of rewards. Like I said, many tricks are more technically challenging to train than most basic obedience behaviors. So your training brain will get a work-out! Lure-training is a common method for trick training, and you will get quite good at this method if you use it on a variety of tricks. Shaping is another, more advanced method of training that is also frequently used for tricks. Spending some time with trick training is a great way for you to develop your training skills, your mechanics and coordination for low-pressure stakes. After all, you don’t want to mess up your come when called because of poor training skills. But if you mess up your “roll over/play dead,” that’s not as important.
Tricks can introduce a variety of important concepts to dogs, and can even help with behavior problems. Dogs who are shy or nervous of new objects or various types of objects (flapping tarps) can often make great strides to overcoming their fears by learning (slowly and with a lot of support, of course) tricks involving this type of equipment – jump through a hula hoop, wrap yourself up in a blanket, etc. Dogs who have handling sensitivity can be taught tricks involving you as a prop (shake hands, do Figure 8’s through your legs.) Because they are generally kept fun and light, dogs will often transfer these positive associations to the situations they find themselves in while involved with tricks. Again though, the success of this depends on your ability to keep trick training “fun and light!”
The American Kennel Club has even approved an official “trick title” which your dog can now earn right alongside obedience, Canine Good Citizen, agility and conformation. How nice to be formally recognized! There’s both the regular version (where you just train a series of tricks in any order and then demonstrate them to an evaluator) and the “performance” version, where you tell a story with your series of tricks. Sounds like fun to me!