By Larry Kay
Dog tricks may look like magic, but many tricks are easy to learn when you master a few building blocks. Dog tricks will unleash a dog’s personality and confidence. A paw shake helps a dog become sociable and builds your bond.
The Target Is a Training Tool. Beginners and pro movie dog trainers alike use the target to teach many amazing tricks. Once your dog can put her paw on a target, she’ll be ready to learn more tricks. You can place the target on other objects, such as on your hand for a paw shake, on a bell or buzzer that your dog rings when it’s potty time, or on a door to push it closed. You can also train your dog to touch a target with her nose, chin, shoulder, or back foot. Let’s start with paw touches to learn four dog tricks.
Get a Target. Use a soft plastic disc, such as a lid from a yogurt container. I also use a buzzer (pictured here). On movie sets we sometimes attach a target to the end of a padded stick.
Step 1. Build interest in the target. When you show enthusiasm toward the target, you’ll build your dog’s curiosity. Put a few high-value treats on the target. Each time she shows interest in the target, say “yes!” (or click if your dog knows clicker training). Eventually, when your dog touches the target with her paw, immediately put more treats on it; we call that a “jackpot.” Stay positive and patient as she learns that pawing the target is rewarding.
Step 2. Teach the target’s meaning. Once your dog paws the target consistently, delay saying “yes” (or clicking) one second so that your dog learns to touch it more deliberately. Use fewer treats and give rewards more selectively for her deliberate paw touches. After every few successes, move the target a few inches to improve her paw-eye coordination.
Step 3. Add the cues. Say “Target” each time your dog paws it. As you get into a rhythm of successful paw touches, say “Target” earlier. Eventually, you’ll say “Target” to begin each paw touch, which means you now have a verbal cue for this trick. To add a hand signal, point at the target as you say the cue.
Step 4. Generalize it. Each time, move the target a few inches to a new spot. This tells your dog that no matter where the target is, whenever she hears your cue it’s time to paw it.
Step 5. Send your dog to the target. Have your dog sit and stay as you place the target a few feet away from her. Then cue (point and say “Target”) to send her to touch it. Increase the distance a few inches at a time.
Congratulations! Your dog has now learned to paw a target. Now you can put the target on a variety of objects.
Paw Shake. Put the target in your hand and cue your dog to touch it. Say “Yes!” and then reward each paw touch. When she targets your hand consistently, it’s time to phase out the target disc by quickly pulling it out of the way (grab it with your other hand), so that her paw lands in your hand. Say the cue “Shake” each time your dog paws your hand. Once she understands the cue, phase out the target and just offer your hand.
Ring the Bell. Tape the target to a strand of jingle bells. Much like teaching the Paw Shake, you’ll shape her efforts to paw at the bells when you cue “Ring the Bell.” Eventually, you’ll remove the target altogether. If your dog seems afraid of the jingling, wrap the bells with a cloth and acclimate her slowly to it as you train this trick.
Close the Door. Tape the target onto a closed door. As your dog paws the target consistently, open the door a bit wider and raise the height of the target. It may take her time to get comfortable with the swinging door, so open it one inch at a time. Eventually, you’ll remove the target. Safety tip: Place the target away from the door’s edge so that your dog doesn’t pinch her paw when it swings shut.
Photographs by Mark Rogers from The Big Book of Tricks for the Best Dog Ever: A Step-by-Step Guide to 118 Amazing Tricks and Stunts by Larry Kay and Chris Perondi (Workman Publishing). © 2019.
Larry Kay is also an award-winning dog filmmaker and best-selling coauthor of Training the Best Dog Ever. Larry has two million Facebook fans and celebrates our bond at PositivelyWoof.com.