Ep. 2: Tricks Have Value

Feb 11, 2019

Trick Dog Titles are one of the newest options in the dog sport world and have been met with both enthusiasm and a fair amount of grumbling.​

In this episode, we discuss if tricks as a whole have a value and whether they should be welcomed within the dog sport realm (hint: they should).

Dianna L. Santos


Welcome to the All About Dog Sports Podcast. In this podcast we talk about all things dog sports. This includes training tips, a behind the scenes look about what your instructor or trial official may be going through and much more. In this episode, I want to talk about tricks, what is sometimes viewed as the not dog sport, dog sport, and I wanted to talk about why tricks are indeed important, why you shouldn't discount them, and why you may want to get involved. Before we start diving into the podcast itself, lemme just do a very quick introduction of myself. My name is Dianna Santos. I am the Owner and Lead Instructor for Dog Sport University, Scent Work University and Family Dog University. These are three online dog training platforms where we focus on providing high quality instruction with incredible convenience and flexible learning options. With Dog Sport University, we offer a variety of online courses that are split between a variety of different dog sports, such as agility, competition, obedience, canine fitness, dog sports, skills tracking, tri ball, disc, and yes indeed tricks. We also offer webinars, which can be interactive as well as seminars. In addition, we have a regularly updated blog and we also have this podcast. As far as myself, I've been professionally training dogs since 2011. I specialized in working with fearful, reactive and aggressive dogs, but then moved into working specifically with S work. I'm also a trial official and I've worked with a competition organization, so I should know a little bit more about me. Let's dive into the podcast.

So in this episode, I wanted to talk about tricks because there's definitely some thought out there that tricks are not really a dog sport, and I wanted to go down that rabbit hole a little bit to discuss what tricks really are and to see what their value is and that we shouldn't necessarily be poo-pooing tricks as it were, as far as something that people can work towards in or darn titles. So very recently, within the last five, 10 years, tricks have been gaining popularity within the general public of the dog owning public. You've had organizations such as Do More with your dog who started a titling program where you would be able to submit an application showing that your dog was able to perform a certain set of skills, a certain set of tricks, and then be able to earn titles for doing so AKC then joined onto that bandwagon, and you can now earn titles that are recognized by AKC, which is awesome.

But there's been a lot of people who have been less than enthusiastic about the idea of having a Trek title program. They just don't think that it's on the same level as some of these other dog sports. And what I want to do in this podcast was to really kind of get into the weeds about that and challenge that a little bit, but also have a blunt discussion about what it is that we as a community should be looking for in evaluating our different dog sports and understanding who it is that they are geared for, and that you're still able to make your own decision as far as what works best for you and your dog. So just because someone may not think that whatever sport it may be is a good fit for them, doesn't mean it wouldn't be a good fit for somebody else.

So the first big complaint that I've heard from veteran dog, people who have been involved particularly in the dog sport arena, name your sport, doesn't matter, but for a long period of time, particularly when AKC came on the scene was, oh, this is a money grab. These are pointless. Why are you doing this? Tricks aren't important. This is dumb. And I honestly can see where people are coming from. If you don't stop and think for a second what a trick actually is. A lot of people think of tricks as just these very silly, nonsensical, they're kind of pointless behaviors that anybody can do. So why would you have it so that you could earn a title, which to me shouldn't be the metric, but I can understand where people are coming from. Where I think the disconnect right out of the gate is not having a real good understanding of what tricks are.

Tricks are just behaviors just like anything else. And tricks are actually the foundation for almost all training, including dog spa training. So a trick is just asking your dog to do something that normally they wouldn't do probably, and having it on cue, having it on stimulus control and then increasing your criteria until they're able to do a final behavior. Oftentimes with several behaviors chained together, that's all tricks are, and it's nothing more, it's nothing less. But there's definitely a perception that tricks is almost like a throwaway thing that you do with your dog. Oh, well, that's something that we give to those pet people to entertain their dogs for a little bit, but a serious dedicated dog, people, we don't worry about tricks, and I just think that's a very silly way of going about it. Training is training and understanding what it takes to teach a trick and to do it well and to have it where your dog enjoys the trick, understands the trick, wants to do the trick again, and that you're actually able to chain those together to have an even more complicated and elaborate trick.

That's pretty impressive, and it's not something that should be discounted. And I also don't think that those individuals who are actively participating in freestyle dance or rally free would really appreciate anyone saying, oh, well, those are just silly behaviors that the people do. Those are all tricks. I don't think that people who are doing really elaborate handling during their agility runs would appreciate people going, oh, those are just fancy little moves. No, that's training. And a lot of it, if you were to look at it are tricks, and it's just the way it is. So I think that we need to look at this differently as a community and maybe not be quite so cynical while also not having blinders on either. Yes, if an organization is able to provide more opportunities for people to register their dogs and to submit applications to earn titles that they get part of those proceeds fund, then yeah, they're probably going to introduce those programs.

But I also think that there is a desire that is good to get more dog owners actively participating with their dogs and doing things, which is a good thing. And I also happen to think, and this is just a personal opinion, I could be completely off base, but I'm going to give credit where maybe credit isn't due. But if it is, then congratulations that people who've decided to start these things as far as these titling rams are very forward thinking in that helping someone get started in the realm of dog sports who may not even know that dog sports exists with tricks is a really nice way of easing them in. And they may so enjoy doing it. They can then see, oh wow, well, I train my dog to do this, that and the other thing, that other activity over there looks kind of fun.

What do I need to do to do that? And then they get hooked into another dog sport. It's kind of your gateway sport. And again, that's not a bad thing. I think that's a great thing. So I'll just tell you a very quick personal story. One of the places that I used to work is a very large training facility, and the way that it was laid out was actually pretty brilliant when you thought about it as far as you were able to have multiple things going on at the same time. And one of their most primary programs is their, what you would call a pet program being that it is helping people who have dogs or puppies and giving those dogs and puppies the basic skills so that the people aren't ripping their hair out. The dogs aren't a menace to society, they're giving them basic training, but at the same facility.

They're also doing agility and competition, obedience and rally and scent work and all kinds of stuff. And it's all going on at the same time, not in the same room, but it's a very large facility. And these people who are taking the classes with their puppies or adult dogs or dogs they just adopted, or puppies they just adopted or just bought or whatever their situation may be, were introduced to various aspects of those other things that tricks in particular would be weaved into the curriculum in a very smooth way that it wasn't seen as, okay, now we're going to do some useless stuff. They were introduced in a way that the people thought that they were helpful and it was really fun to teach their dog that thing. And they also were able to see, wow, my dog is really smart. They're able to do this behavior where they put their chin first on my hand and then I can transfer that to my knee and then I can transfer it to a little pillow so I can take pictures of them.

This is awesome. It's pretty cool. And that's a real life thing where you can teach your dog to chin target something and you can have it hold for a duration. You can take some really cute pictures, and that's exactly what they would do. That's what the instructors would talk about. But at the same time, at that facility, they would also be doing all these other things. And nine times out of 10, a class that was going through their basic obedience class at some point would see some of these other things. They would see an agility class, whether it was just they were practicing maybe loosely walking, going from one part of the building to the other part of the building. Or maybe they were going to be going in the big room for a special class and the agility class was just finishing up. But at some point they were going to see some of the cooler dog sport stuff as a dog sport people would say.

And they would get intrigued, they would be interested, and then they would ask some questions and then maybe they would sign up for a class. But I don't just think that it was the fact that they were able to see it. I think it was the fact that they thought that it was attainable because they had done all this training with their dogs. And it's not to say that the actual core training that was done in those basic obedience classes wouldn't have done that. It would have, because it gave them a ton of skills, it helped 'em understand body behavior and timing and reward placement and all this other stuff, which is crucial. But it also, with the trick training in particular, it just seemed to put a light bulb moment in their mind that they could teach their dog something more than a sit or a stay.

And it's not that a sitter stay or bad they're not. But sometimes when you talk to people about what dog sports are, who again, do not know anything about dog sports, they just have a dog, they kind of get this glassed overlook and say, I have no idea how you're doing any of that. I can't get my dog to not beg. I can't get my dog to not pull on leash. So it just seems like it's a light year away. It's so unattainable. But when they've walked through already in a very smooth way where it wasn't like, okay, now guys we're going to be working on tricks. It just was already worked in. It was baked in. Basically, they saw that they could train their dog some really interesting behaviors that were cute, they were useful, they were nice, they were different. You know what, maybe I could do that agility thing.

Maybe I could do that rally thing. Maybe I do that competition obedience thing or what have you. So the reason why I bring this up is for any instructors out there who think that tricks is just, I'm never going to be able to fill a class. It's about tricks or people aren't interested in it, or I want to be able to focus on other things. Maybe you don't have a course that's specific to tricks. If you think you're really going to have a difficulty filling it at first, maybe just weave it in to the other things that you're doing already. And then when the people say, Hey, could we do some more of that fun stuff, the pause and the spins and the things like that, then you could do a tricks class. But it's also our responsibility to educate our clients about the value of these things. And you can't do that if you think that tricks are a waste of time.

So I think it's important for us as professionals to see the actual value in tricks. And again, tricks make up everything. Every single behavior is truly a trick. Having your dog sit and stay for any length of time is a trick. Your dog doesn't naturally just sit and stay. Most dogs don't sit still. For my dog, if he's watching a squirrel, he may stand and stay very occasionally. He will sit and stay. He may down and stay. But even that, he's not focused on me. He's focused on the squirrel waiting for them to make a stupid decision so he can go chase them. The point being is that tricks should not be like this bastard child of dog training. They're very valuable. They're very good. Think of anything that a service dog does. Those are tricks. Having a dog go to a refrigerator, pull a towel to open the door, retrieve a beverage, close the door, bring the beverage to the person who's sitting on the couch without piercing the bottle or the can or whatever the case may be, those are all individual trick behaviors.

They're just chained together to look at something that's really cool and useful. But those are tricks. So I hope that just as a community, we can kind of get away from this whole notion that tricks are useless and ugh, I don't want to spend my time doing that. Why not? You probably are teaching tricks now. Anyway, have a little fun with it. That being said, I am also of the opinion that we should be opening everything up to as many people as possible. I think that's absolutely true. And there may be people who are brand new to dog training and they don't have really any concept of it as far as how to go about it. They just kind of fell into it. Maybe they heard through the grapevine, they saw something online, they're like, oh, I'm going to try to get my baby trick title with my, that's great.

I think that's a good thing. However, I also agree that we should have criteria and that we should have a standard of training so that when people are earning titles that they mean something. Now having something like for rally, you have beginner novice, I think that's wonderful. I think it's great to have something where really, truly baby people can go in. The judge will give them some more information at the beginning, try to settle their nerves, answer their questions. I think that's wonderful. But there's still a criteria of things that you have to do. So I agree that some of the grumbling that I've heard where luing could be possible for the novice level, I kind of agree with that. I think that, yeah, you shouldn't have to lure a behavior to get a title that just your dog should be able to do it at that point.

So maybe there'll be some adjustments in the future. But I also can see why they would want to do that in the beginning. Because again, you may just have someone who's brand new, doesn't mean that the novice titles are useless. Of course not. You still obviously have to do this in front of an evaluator. More often than not, you're going to be doing this in an unfamiliar location. So that's difficult all within itself, and that could have been part of the reason why it was designed the way that it was. But that also means that now there's going to be a little bit more difficulty as far as if you were relying on luring for a long period of time to try to get a behavior, and then you go to the next level where you're not allowed to do that anymore. If you're doing this on your own, how do you fix that chasm?

How do you go over that gap? How do you get it so that your dog does the behavior without the luring anymore? So I think that, again, a lot of these programs are new, and I can understand why certain decisions were made. I may have made a different decision myself, and there may be adjustments made in the future, but just because something isn't perfect doesn't mean that it's garbage either. I think encouraging people to do things with their dogs is good, and something like tricks is a good thing to encourage people to do. I mean, of all the things out there that you would want to encourage people with dogs to do, do you want to encourage them bringing their dogs to a beach in mass off leash, no supervision, no idea about dog behavior and hoping for the best, or would you prefer to encourage people training and building a relationship with their dogs doing tricks?

I'm going to pick option B. I think that's a better idea. So I just, again, I think as a community, we need to look at these things a little bit more as a whole and trying to see what our overall goals are. And that may be different from person to person that may be different from profession to profession. They may be different from where your position is as far as instructors to clients, to handlers to owners, and all the different sectors that are within the community as a whole. But I personally think that tricks are extraordinarily valuable and it can help you revitalize a relationship with a dog. So let's say as an example, because I've seen this with a client of mine years and years and years ago, came to me to work on something else. Wasn't tricks. It was a behavior modification issue where she was extraordinarily frustrated.

The client dog had done all kinds of dog sports, I mean tons and tons and tons and high level too, and she was frustrated. Now the dog was to the point where the competition obedience range was just dragging around. It didn't have any kind of engagement anymore. Agility. The dog was going off course rally the same kind of thing. They weren't meshing anymore, and the human client was none too happy because years of work and training and time and money and everything else and everything seemed to just fall apart. And addition to the dog disengaging, other dog was starting to snark at other the dogs, and it was just things were kind of unraveling. So she was sent to me to see, well, maybe we could work on that piece because I worked with reactive dogs. So I did a quick evaluation and I didn't really think the dog was all that reactive.

I mean, they had some things that it would do, but it just wasn't presenting like a normal reactive dog. It didn't seem to really care either way. It just seemed kind of blah. It just seemed as though the dog was just under so much pressure that it had just basically burnt out. I mean, for lack of a better word to describe it. Just the relationship between the two of them was so afraid that everything the dog was due was deemed as wrong. The dog was either wasn't fast enough or was too fast. The dog was not focused enough or was too focused on something else. There was nothing that was right. So the dog more often, not just opted to not do anything, which isn't very helpful, particularly for these active types of things like obedience and agility and things like that. So we started doing some behavior mod stuff and it helped a little bit, but honestly, the big piece that was really lacking was the relationship.

It had broken down. The owner was very, very upset. She wanted to do all these different things. She really liked competing and they were sidelined. They had been sidelined for months before they had even seen me. And she wanted this to be, this was going to be the fix. She had already worked with a bunch of other very, very good people and great trainers who were able to fix things here and there, but the problems kept coming. So this was almost deemed as a last hope kind of thing. Well, maybe this is the problem. I mean, they had already ruled out medical stuff. Again, this was a very laundry.

So I asked her, I'm like, do you mind if we just take a step back and let's just try to work on some fun stuff? And she was not too happy. And she said basically that I was wasting her time. I said, if you don't mind humoring me. I'm like, we're just going. We're going to be doing the behavior mod stuff still, but I want to give her something that's not quite so difficult and something that the two of you don't have to struggle with. It's basically something that's a little lower pressure is the goal of what we're doing. She wasn't sold on it, but she was willing to try basically anything at this point. So I gave her two or three tricks to work on very, very simple basic things. I think one of them she had already done years prior. I'm like, just work on these things.

Do these few things for the behavior mod stuff, and I want your sessions to be short. I want them to be fun. I want them to be engaging. I want you to act. I want you to smile. I want you to really live it up. And she was, again, thought this was all just a complete and total waste of time. I gave her two weeks to work on this. You can email me if you have any questions, yada, yada, yada. Don't hear anything. So usually no news is good news. We have our follow-up meeting, and the dog looks completely different. The tail is up, her eyes are bright and she's happy to see me. I'm like, oh, well look at that. And the owner sees me and she, she's holding herself a little bit differently. It's not like it was night and day. She was cautiously optimistic.

She had seen the change herself, and this had helped her kind of take all the pressure off. That was almost like superstitious behavior pressure that had been built into the other things that she was training. When we do this, we must do it this way, that kind of thing. So by doing these new trick things that were very simplistic, that were broken down to little tiny baby pieces, they weren't doing anything complicated yet. She was able to look at it from a different perspective that didn't have all that superstitious negative stuff attached to it. So she walked me through what they were doing, and we made a couple of small adjustments. And then her question was, okay, now what do we do next? Thinking that we always have to progress, of course. And I said, well, I'd like you guys to do this and then chain these behaviors three different ways. And then I want you to do a little show for me in two weeks where we're going to do a little presentation. And she's like, oh, that freestyle stuff. I'm like, not like freestyle. I want you to do this where it's going to be basically you're going to do three behaviors. We're going to take a little break, and then you're going to do another three behaviors. Take a little break and you going to do another three behaviors in whatever order you like.

And we're going to do this around. We had a little stuffed dog that were going to be a distractor, and then we were going to be doing the same little sequence at another part of her yard that has a lot of foot traffic. And she was like, okay, I guess, whatever. So again, two weeks to practice. No phone call, no email. Think all is good, show up at her house. I meet the dog. The dog is happy as a clamp. She looks so much better. Tails up. Eyes are bright. She's really engaged. They do their first little training behavior. Had a little bit of a bobble because the owner started getting stuck in her head and it was a hold your breath moment for me, which wasn't the right response at all. I should have just kept breathing, but I was like, oh God, how is she going to deal with this?

And she took a deep breath and she just did it again and it was fine. It was brilliant. The dog stayed with it. But you could see in that two to five second range, the dog was like, oh God, here comes the pressure. And it didn't come. And she said, oh, well, that's fun. And they kept doing it. They did their little party, they did. Their second sequence was beautiful. They did another little party. The third sequence was gorgeous. And again, all this is near the stuffed dog that I'm walking around. Dog could care less because again, I don't think the dog was reactive. We then went and did the same thing in the front part of her yard where there was a lot more foot traffic than I thought there was going to be. So we moved to a different area, try not to set this dog up to fail, and they did beautifully.

It was absolutely gorgeous. That was at a time where I wasn't videotaping a lot because I wasn't that smart back then. It was amazing the two of them just going around. And again, I'm not the expert in what the types of sports that they were doing up to that point. I'm not the go-to person for competition, obedience or rally or even agility. But the two of them, you could see the relationship had improved tremendously. Where there was at one point during, I believe it was their third section of three behaviors, there was a kid who's going down the sidewalk on their tricycle or something, but it was very squeaky and the dog happened to look at it really quickly, and the owner acknowledged it. Not in a mean way, not in a mad way. She just acknowledged it. And the dog said, oh, okay, we're together.

And they finished their sequence, and again, we're talking super easy behaviors here. We finish up. We we're doing our wrap up in the home, and I said, so how do you think things going? And she said, she's completely different. This is the dog that I remember working with years ago when we first started. I'm like, okay. I'm like, so why don't you do this? Why don't you take the sequences that we put together? Have you been back to class? That was the other thing. She had completely removed herself from the various classes that she was taking because things weren't going well, yada, yada, yada. I'm like, why don't you go back to class and maybe start off before you do an actual class exercise, do one of your sequences and then do an exercise, do a party, and then see how it goes. And she said, I don't know what the people are going to think, meaning the other students and the instructor.

And I'm like, well, I'm pretty sure that my colleague isn't going to mind, and maybe the other students will see how nicely it works. I'm like, it's worth a try. So you could start seeing all that again, negative superstitious behavior for the handler start bubbling up. And as soon as she started stressing about it, the dog's tail went down. Her eyes kind of glazed over and just her whole body just kind of just sulk. And I noticed it, but before I could say anything she did. And she said, oh my God, look at her. I said, yeah. She said, why is that happening? I was like, that's because you're stressing out. The owner is now beating herself up. I'm like, don't beat yourself up. It's completely understandable. This is just how connected the two of you are. Just take a deep breath. It's just a class.

If it would be easier instead of going into the class, maybe you can do a private with the instructor, maybe even just a half hour. Don't make anything long. Maybe just even working in the space with her, maybe even just renting the space would be a good step. First step for the both of you. So we were talking about she was feeling a little bit better. The dog started feeling a little bit better. Long story short, that's what they did in order to recoup. It took a while. I'm not going to say this happened overnight. It probably took them a couple of months to get back to where they were. And she realized just how stressed she was and just how much pressure that was being put on the dog. And then it was layer upon layer upon layer and upon layer. And what doing the tricks did was it was approaching the problem from a different perspective.

The owner didn't see the tricks with the same weight as all the other things that she was working on. Even those things are really just tricks. But she saw them as, we can do this. And it's not that it doesn't matter, but there's not the same weight behind it. So it's not as much pressure on me to get it perfect, which means I'm not putting as much pressure on my dog. Well, some moral of the story. This person was able to do tricks with her dog to help repair her relationship with her dog. I cannot say anything better than that. I mean, if that doesn't add value for tricks, I don't know what does. It was something that they would do to help take the pressure off of both of them, and it would help remind her why she was doing all this stuff in the first place.

Super competitive person. She loved competing. She liked winning. She wanted to progress, but she understood that she just had to be realistic and understand where her dog was coming in with all of this. So the reason why I wanted to share this story is that tricks should not be seen as this throwaway thing. Tricks are very valuable, tricks are very helpful, and they can also not only help build a good relationship with your dog, they can also help repair a relationship with a dog. Because it's not that it can't be done, but it's not very easy to teach tricks in a yucky way. They have an association of having fun with your dog. It's more lighthearted, and you will be impressed even if you are an experienced dog owner, an experienced trainer, when a dog does a complicated trick or when they successfully do a chain of tricks together. Even with my boy, he's experienced. I'm experienced. We're working on different things. He does. I'm like, look at you, you're amazing. And it's genuine. It's not just saying it, I really mean it. I'm like, you're amazing. He's like, I know.

So I'm hoping that people can have a better appreciation for the value that tricks have, that tricks r and d, something that's useful, and it's something that they should be doing. It's something that they should be looking into. If you wanted to do it for titles, you can, which I think is a good thing. I think having criteria for titles is also helpful. So I would prefer if maybe the novice level for a KC luring wasn't permitted to earn a title, but I can understand why that is as well. I don't think it's a deal breaker. And if you are working on your own that you would just want to understand how it is, you can go from that to now. Your dog is no longer needing to be lured, but tricks are wonderful. Tricks are good. So if you are out and about, and someone who doesn't know anything about dog sports, generally speaking, and they happen to say, oh, I heard that.

Maybe I could do some trick title thing. Don't immediately tell them, oh, that's such a waste of time. Oh, that's just people trying to take your money. Maybe cultivate that interest a little bit and allow them to have that journey with their dog where they can experience what it's like to teach their dog a variety of really cool and interesting behaviors that they otherwise may never have done. And remember what it was like when you first started in dog training, when you started having that connection with this completely different species. And the two of you had that understanding that's what got you hooked in the first place. So allow that person to have that journey too. And their journey may very well start with tricks. And actually that may be a good thing, and it could also lead them to doing other dog sports as well.

So hope you guys found this podcast helpful. Again, I'd just like to, every now and again post about different things that are going on within the community and different things that I hear about a variety of different topics, and then just try to talk about them a little bit. I am not some guru sitting from on high. These are just my opinions on things and what I've noticed as an instructor. But for tricks in particular, I think that they have a lot of value and we should be more than happy to promote them. So I hope you found this podcast helpful. Happy training. We forward to seeing you soon.