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How to teach your dog new tricks

Everyone seems to be learning something new these days. It seems like the perfect time to finally learn how to speak Spanish, make pasta from scratch, master the art of calligraphy or get serious about wine tasting.

Give it a month and we’ll be able to tell our Peruvian Malbec from our Moldovan Cabernet Sauvignon at the merest sniff. We’re also quite likely to have taken up the Japanese art of ‘amigurumi’, which involves knitting or crocheting small stuffed creatures. We hear that tiny knitted models of Yoda and Freddie Mercury are especially popular.

High five for dog tricks

Retriever high five

While you’re racing along your own fast-track to self-improvement, don’t forget your pooch. Teaching your dog some new tricks is a great way to pass the time, bond more closely with your four-pawed friend and keep them mentally stimulated.16th century origins of a famous phrase

Before we share our tips, though, here’s something fascinating we discovered about that well-known phrase – “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks”.

It turns out that the original source of these words is a book on animal husbandry written by a man called John Fitzherbert in 1523. Using the Early Modern English of the time, he wrote this advice for shepherds who wanted to train their sheepdogs:

“The dogge must lerne when he is a whelpe, or els it wyl not be; for it is harde to make an old dogge to stoupe.”

A rough translation would be: “The dog must learn when he is a puppy, for it is hard to make an old dog put its nose to the ground to find a scent.” Or, more simply, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”

So what’s the answer?

Although it seems logical that it would be harder to teach a dog that has a few more miles on the clock, it is in fact possible to teach an old dog new tricks.

Older dog lying down

Dogs are innately curious and they never stop learning. Watch a dog of any age when they’re out for a walk and they’re constantly stopping and sniffing, investigating the world. They’re using their senses to learn what’s new in their environment. And whether your dog is a pup or an old-timer, they’re always going to want to hang out with you and make you happy. This means they’ll be delighted to spend time with you learning new tricks, especially if there are treats on offer.

Older dogs might even be better than a puppy at learning tricks as they’re less likely to be distracted. However, it makes sense to take care of your older dog’s joints and make sure that they don’t get tired or over-exert themselves.

The golden rules of training

Whatever trick you decide to teach your dog, there are three golden rules:

  • Be patient. Allow your dog the time to understand what you want them to do, and don’t rush through the different stages of the trick.
  • Keep it short. Spend just a few minutes on each training session so your dog is engaged throughout and doesn’t have a chance to get bored.
  • Stay calm. Above all, don’t tell your dog off if they can’t do the trick straight away. Stay upbeat and make it fun and rewarding for your dog to learn the trick.

The best tricks in our book

Here are some of our favourite tricks to try with your dog.

  1. High five

    Start by getting your dog to sit. Put a particularly delicious treat in your hand and hold it out towards your dog, keeping your fist tightly closed. When your dog lifts their paw to touch your hand, give them the treat and praise them. Next, keep a treat in one hand while holding out the other hand, palm up, to your dog. When your dog gives you their paw, give them the treat. Turn the trick into a high five by gradually lifting your hand up higher. When your dog’s got the hang of this, say your dog’s name followed by the words “High five!” and give them a treat when they get it right.

  2. Jump through a hoop

    This is a great trick for a puppy or a younger, athletic dog. First of all, take a large hoop and place it so it touches the ground. Encourage your dog to walk through the hoop, giving them a treat as a reward once they’re on the other side. Next, do the same thing, but with the hoop raised around 10cm off the ground. Raise the hoop little by little, staying patient, as your pooch gets the hang of jumping higher.

  3. Fetch your lead

    Jack Russell with lead in mouth

    First of all, train your dog to be interested in their lead. You’ll need their lead, a clicker and some treats. Show your dog their lead and if they sniff it or look at it closely, click and treat. Next, reward your dog for touching the lead with their lips. The following step is to reward your dog for touching the lead with their teeth. Then put the lead on the floor, and reward your dog for progressively touching the lead with their teeth and lifting it off the ground. When they know how to do this, put the lead back in its normal place, say “Fetch your lead” and reward your dog with a treat and a walk when they get it right.

  4. Roll over

    This is a three-stage process. First of all, hold a treat close to your dog’s nose then take your hand close to the floor so your dog lies down. Reward your dog with the treat. Next, place another treat on the dog’s nose and move their head so their weight shifts to the side. With a third treat, encourage your dog to roll over to the other side. Now bring all those moves together and, using just one treat as an incentive, encourage your dog to roll over all the way. Once your pup has the hang of it, add a circular ‘roll over’ hand signal and a verbal cue – “Roll over!” - and get ready for some doggy rock and roll.

  5. Cover up with a blanket

    This trick is particularly good for older canine citizens. First, get your dog to lie down on a blanket. Shake a corner of the blanket so it attracts your dog’s attention, and reward with a click and a treat. Next, reward your dog for holding onto the blanket for longer. Get your dog to do the “Roll over” trick, then put the two tricks together. When your dog has a corner of the blanket in their teeth, give the “Roll over” command. Be patient as it may take your dog a while to combine the two. Reward them for their effort at each stage. By the end, your dog will be able to roll themselves up in their blanket for a well-deserved snooze.

Keep it fun

Take it easy and give your dog plenty of breaks. It’s better to spend a few minutes every day teaching tricks, rather than a whole afternoon, for example.

And if your dog’s taking a while to get the hang of a particular trick, don’t give them a hard time. Learning takes patience and perseverance. We’re getting good at wine tasting, but the Spanish, pasta making, calligraphy and Japanese crochet are taking a little longer.

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