Why Useless Dog Tricks – Aren’t!

Lots of people who bring their dogs to me say the same thing, “I don’t want to teach my dog useless tricks”.  However, these tricks are not as useless as they might at first seem and have many benefits especially in a rehabilitation situation.  Of course, it is up to the individual what they do with their dog, but tricks serve a far greater purpose than people might think on the face of it.

Firstly, most of our dogs were born to do a job and not as family pets!  This is something most people completely forget and rarely take into consideration when choosing a dog.  For those who live in town, who are busy with work or who perhaps have an exceptionally high energy dog, tricks work with the dog’s mind and this can be as tiring (if not more so) than physically running around.  Of course, tricks and games should not replace the walk, but for times when there is bad weather, you aren’t feeling 100% yourself or you are just unable to get out for that walk or go for as long as you like (for whatever reason) a good session of tricks and games can take place instead and often inside your own home.  Better still, these tricks should be added on to the dog’s repertoire, should be done in addition to the walk or even during it.  Dog’s were meant to do jobs and without them, they get bored and when they are bored, they make up their own tricks – and they are not usually ones of which an owner might approve!  Border Collies for example are rarely satisfied by the walk alone, they were after all, bred to work sheep for many hours each day.  They can physically keep going for 8 hours and still have energy left over.  Mental stimulation for these dogs is essential for their emotional wellbeing and tricks can offer some of that.

A second great reason for teaching a dog tricks is that one day it may also be too old to walk far or it may get sick or have an injury that means it has to rest more.  What do you do if you are laid up?  Games, puzzles, read, watch TV?  Think of tricks in terms of a dog’s in home entertainment for these times.  Teach him tricks and the dog will then have activities it can perform.  Dogs love to please and love to work – and to a dog, tricks are just that.  

In Norman Doidge’s book “The Brain that Changes Itself” he says:  

“Mental training or life in an enriched environment increases brain weight by 5% in animals and up to 9% where training is used to directly stimulate them.  Trained, stimulated neurons develop 25% more branches and increase their size, the number of connections per neuron and their blood supply.  All changes are possible later in life also, but they are slower.  In humans, post-mortems show that education increases the number of branches in neurons.”  

Tricks develop the mind and create a stimulating environment.  Dogs that learn tricks when they are young learn other things faster when they are older or in dog classes.  They are also less likely to be fearful.  They deal with new situations far better and tricks can be used to divert the attention and focus the mind in difficult or challenging situations – such as the vet, which leads me on to my next point – focusing the mind. 

Focusing the mind is where tricks really come into their own, especially for someone who owns a dog who might be afraid, for example fearful aggressive, or have other problems or issues such as a lack of socialisation to things.  Often in these situations, a dog may be too fearful or worried to eat and so treats are out.  I have needed and used this method so many times as I often have fearful dogs for training.  Interestingly the fearful dog is often willing to learn a trick or two and do something physical to please even if he is quite worried about other things.  Teaching things like give a paw, high five, sit up/raise paws and touch a target with the nose for “ask” (among other things) make it possible to get the fearful dog’s mind active and not focused on the fear.  It is also an incredible way to raise a dog’s self esteem and confidence – invaluable when rehabilitating a dog with “learned helplessness”.  In this way, using these techniques, we can work closer and closer to whatever it is that worries the dog and get him or her used to it.  There is more to the process than this of course, but the main way of working and fundamental to this discussion, is by using tricks.

Finally, by teaching tricks like “touch an upturned washing up tub with both paws”, then sitting on it and doing sits, downs or turn arounds and even kick it etc we can build a whole gymnastic for the dog – just like humans using step aerobics.  This is fabulous for strengthening hips and building co-ordination, great for dogs getting over an injury (of course used in conjunction with a physio’s advice) and for hip strengthening, particularly good for breeds predisposed to hip dysplasia.  By building muscle early on and keeping the dog supple, we are able to delay the onset of these problems or reduce the severity in some cases.  One lady I know uses these exercises for her dog during his recovery process after having stem cell therapy for his hip dysplasia, she continues to use them with him to keep him supple and strong and has since taught them to all her other dogs.  The dog in question is doing so well he is back in work again, but as she said, it would have been great to have taught him all this earlier on in his life rather than have to teach it when it was more urgently needed.  

If we prepare our dogs with many skills, it is much easier and quicker to help them if we one day find ourselves in a position where we need to call on these “useless tricks” to perform very valuable therapy!  As one trainer I greatly admire once said – I teach it whether they need it or not.  And it has been some of the most valuable advice I have ever received.