Young or old, most dogs love new tricks

  • By Denise Flaim / Newsday
  • Monday, February 20, 2006 9:00pm
  • Life

Animal tricks – stupid or otherwise – were not invented by David Letterman.

Indeed, the Medicis – over-the-top dog people, even by Renaissance standards – supposedly had a dog who not only cleared the dishes, but poured vino without spilling a drop. And arguably for as long as dogs, cats and other creatures have shared our hearths, humans have delighted in any behavior that offers the glimmer of kinship.

But from an animal’s perspective, trick-training can provide challenges in an otherwise ho-hum world.

“Probably the biggest reason dogs misbehave is they don’t get enough exercise or mental stimulation,” said Teresa Hanula of A Dog’s World Dog Training &Pet Care in Fairfax, Va., whose trick-savvy 3-year-old border collie, Leroy, has his own Web site, “A half-hour of training can tire them out more than hour at a dog park. And it helps them learn how to learn.”

Another advantage to trick training is owners get less hung up on obedience, said Gerilyn Bielakiewicz, author of “The Only Dog Tricks Book You’ll Ever Need” ($7.95). “It’s a lot more lighthearted, and people don’t expect their dog to do it, so they’re kinder and more generous with reinforcements – which is how we should be all the time.”

Liz Palika, author of “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Dog Tricks” ($14.95), said weaving, or high-speed zig-zagging through a line of upright poles, is one of the most popular lessons in her trick-training classes.

“People see that on Animal Planet, and it looks so cool when the dog goes zip, zip, zip through.”

Whether your goal is a simple “roll over” or an elaborately choreographed skit, here are some tips to keep in mind:

Build a foundation. “Your dog has to have a good grasp of basic commands because most tricks start with ‘sit’ or ‘stand’ or ‘watch me.’” Palika said, adding that owners often overlook teaching “stand,” in which a dog, well, stands in place.

Accentuate the positive. The popularity of positive techniques such as clicker training is a boon for trick-training. “You can’t make a dog play-bow,” Bielakiewicz reminded. Instead, owners reward behaviors they want, which in turn increases their frequency.

And be ready to capitalize on serendipity.

Have patience. Some dogs are going to be learn more quickly than others, and those that have trouble concentrating need shorter training sessions. Remember that like people, dogs are right- and left-handed, so they tend to favor one side over another.

Even once a dog is well-trained, his peccadilloes will resurface.

Leroy, a seasoned Letterman alum, “tends to be a bit of a ham,” Hanula said. “Once he hears people laugh or clap, he’s like, ‘Thanks for the ride, mom,’ and keeps repeating the trick he just did.”

Don’t be a species-ist.

“Cats are smart creatures that learn tricks just fine, and they’ll work for food,” said veterinarian E’Lise Christensen, a resident at the Animal Behavior Clinic at Cornell University Hospital for Animals in Ithaca, N.Y. “They just work at a different pace than dogs – after two or three minutes, they’re done for a while.”

Christensen has taught her cat to sit, spin and shake, which was the toughest.

“Offering a foot to hold or touch is not a normal behavior for a cat,” she said. But thanks to all the trick-training, “he actually purrs when I clip his nails.”

Be careful what you wish for. Palika refuses to teach tail-chasing in her classes because “there are way too many obsessive-compulsive dogs out there.”

For many herding dogs and terriers, as well as breeds predisposed to neurotic tail-chasing, such as bullterriers, “it can become addictive, and getting them to stop can be very difficult.”

Laser-light toys are another no-no. “Some dogs then begin to look for anything that’s shiny,” Palika explains, “from the glint of the sun off the crystal on your watch or the wind chimes outside.”

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