There are basically two ways of training tricks/behaviors: Capturing the behavior and shaping the behavior. The benefit of capturing a behavior is that you may be able to quickly capture a desired trick/behavior that might be difficult to shape or elicit on your own. The disadvantage of capturing a behavior is that if the animal refuses the behavior, you do not have any steps in place to remind or guide the animal into the desired behavior. The benefits of shaping a trick/behavior is that you can shape it with several steps that will help guide the animal in the future if they need help AND you can ensure that the behavior is shaped with the same criterion for every step of the behavior.
I always try to remind my clients before they start shaping or training tricks/behaviors, to really watch their dogs at home to see what the dog does naturally in their own environment and on their own time. Do they sleep flat on their backs with their legs splayed apart? Do they do a very long down ward dog or bow in the morning? Do they walk on their hind legs often to get attention? Do they rub their faces with their paws after eating? Once you have spent the time to really understand your dog’s natural tendencies, then you can truly appreciate how to start shaping behaviors/tasks that are comfortable and easy for your dog to learn.
Now that you have an idea of what your dog does on his own time, you will want to study how your dog moves naturally. Choose tasks that fit the dog’s physical ability. For instance, for some larger dogs like a golden or a newfy that has a very loose style of sitting and very relaxed hips, it will not be comfortable learning to “sit pretty” or “beg”. However, that same golden or a newfy might be brilliant at rolling over, playing dead or crawling.
Shaping a trick requires some forethought. Try and break the trick down into smaller steps that you can slowly shape and reward each small movement towards that completed step. You should use a marker word like “yes” or “ok” or a sound like from a clicker to quickly mark the instant that the dog completes that step and give very small treats that the dog can eat quickly. Think of it like taking a picture; each time you mark the step or movement you are taking a snap shot of that precise movement. Timing is very important. As the dog gets rewarded for moving in the required manner, he will want to repeat the step over and over and you can raise the criterion of the step to shape it well. Roll over, for example, may have 4 steps that need to be shaped and rewarded to ensure that the finished product is not sloppy or all over the place.
Sometimes the best way to start shaping a behavior is to teach your dog to “touch” and “target”. For me, touch means my hand or target pole and target means “go to” the target. Once the dog is consistently touching or targeting, you can move the target around, have them hold or stay on the target for longer periods of time and shape behaviors simply by using the dog’s movement towards the target or hand and reward steps along the way. Lures are also great ways of starting the touch behavior. If your dog can follow your lure, then you can shape their body or specific body parts to move in many ways. Once your dog knows how to use his paw for shake or his nose for touch, you can open up your mind, think outside the box and get creative to see how you can adapt the behavior into something else. Most tricks are built off of the basic obedience commands like sit, down, stand, finish as well as paw, touch, and hand signals. (ie: sit pretty/beg; roll over/play dead; shake/high 5/wave/left paw/right paw; spin/dance; head rest; bows)
Another small tip would be to separate certain tricks as you teach them or introduce them so that your dog does not get confused. For instance, sometimes if you are teaching shake and you have done a lot of “down” beforehand, the dog might take you reaching downward toward his paw as a signal to go “down”. Likewise, if you are working on shake and high five with different paws, it helps to really master one paw first before moving to the other paw so your dog doesn’t just start throwing his paws up at you haphazardly or start jumping.
Keep your dog training sessions quick and lively and have fun. As humans we sometimes expect too much from our students and move too quickly through the steps. Be open to back tracking to the easier steps to help build confidence that the dog is still on the right track and if you find yourself getting frustrated, just stop and breathe and hug your dog. Then pick it back up a few hours later.
Stay relaxed, focused and have fun!