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The Secret Behind Dog Tricks

How do dogs perform tricks? We are used to seeing shows where dogs perform amazing tricks. Whether it's a dog playing dead, a dog grabbing a tissue when a person sneezes or a dog walking backwards, what you see is mostly the finished product, but there are many things going on behind the scenes before the dog performs the tricks so naturally and fluently in front of an audience. Today, we'll be taking a sneak peak into how dogs are taught to perform tricks and what really goes on behind public view.

A Matter of Prompts

dog tricks

When dogs are taught to perform tricks, there are several different kinds of prompts trainers may rely on. Prompts, as the name implies, are simply aids that help the dog perform the behavior.

Food used as a lure is a common prompt used by trainers to evoke behaviors. Because dogs tend to follow treats with their noses, a food lure is often used to guide the dog into a desired position.

For example, holding a food lure at the level of the dog's nose and lifting it up towards the back of the dog's head will often get a dog to sit. Lower that food lure down from the dog's nose to the middle of his paws and outwards and you may get a dog to lie down. Move the food lure in a large circle, and you'll likely get a dog to spin.

Other forms of prompts include physical prompts such as gentle physical assistance, under the form of guiding a dog with a leash or giving a light touch to get a dog to sit, however, it's best to avoid physical prompting as it can distracting and even disruptive. Another more subtle type of prompt can be slightly leaning forward towards a standing dog to get the dog to take a few steps backwards.

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"A prompt is defined as an antecedent stimulus (something that comes before a behavior, as opposed to consequence, which comes after a behavior) that is likely to elicit (achieve without any training) the desired response. " ~ Jean Donaldson

dog tricks

The Power of Reinforcement

The purpose of training a dog is getting the dog to first perform a desired behavior, and then, having the dog to repeat the behavior. As we use a prompt to get the dog to perform a behavior, how do we tell a dog: "Oh, that's great! Can you please do it again?" The best way is to provide feedback through positive reinforcement training.

To inform the dog he did something good, positive reinforcement trainers will mark the desired response with the click of the clicker or a verbal marker such as "yes!" immediately followed by a treat. Some dogs who are highly motivated by toys, may find the use of a ball instead of treats rewarding enough.

What do we accomplish by marking and rewarding behaviors? It's as if we were telling the dog, "Yes! you got it right, here comes a treat!" For the sake of comparison, it's sort of like a game show's right answer bell going "ding, ding ding!' immediately being followed by money being deposited into your account. Doesn't getting a right answer motivate you to get more right answers in the future so you get more money? You bet!

"Skinner introduced a new term into the Law of Effect - Reinforcement. Behavior which is reinforced tends to be repeated (i.e. strengthened); behavior which is not reinforced tends to die out-or be extinguished (i.e. weakened)." ~Saul Mcleod, Psychology Tutor at The University of Manchester.

Fading the Prompts

dog trick

When you watch a dog perform an impressive trick on television or at an event, you're unlikely to see the trainer still using prompts. After all, it's not very impressive (and it's also very wrong!) if the trainer must show food to get the dog perform the behavior or if she must rely on other types of prompts.

Good trainers will start fading prompts as soon as they can, otherwise the dog will become overly reliant on them. The longer they stick to prompts, the harder it will be to remove them. So prompts are gradually faded.

The trainer who leaned forward towards the standing dog to get him to him to take a few steps backwards, will start leaning less and less. The trainer who used a food lure to get the dog to spin by moving it in a large circle will have a little more work.

First, he must fade the food lure by using an empty hand to make the large circle hand motion. Then, to make the trick even more flashy, he may be making the hand motion smaller and smaller until the dog performs the spinning trick with a mere wave of the hand.

Introducing Flashy Cues

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Once a dog gets pretty good at performing a behavior, a new, flashier cue can be permanently assigned to it. In other words, the behavior can be named and the dog can be taught to perform the trick when the trainer says the cue. The cue doesn't necessarily have to be a word. For example, a dog may have been taught to grab a tissue from a tissue box when the trainer pointed to the tissue box.

To make the trick more impressive, the trainer may wish to have the dog grab the tissue the moment he sneezes. To introduce this new cue and replace the pointing gesture, the trainer would therefore first sneeze, and then point.

After several repetitions, since most dogs love to anticipate, at some point, they'll grab the tissue upon hearing the trainer sneeze even before the trainer points at the tissue box!

"Once you have the behavior you want, practice it until the dog is actively offering exactly that behavior—that perfect behavior—80% of the time, then add the cue." ~Melissa Alexander

Feeding on Variable Schedule

dog training

You may have heard in the past that dogs who are trained with treats are bribed and will go on strike that day the person isn't carrying treats. This may be true, there are several dogs who won't budge until you get that treat out of your pocket, but this doesn't mean that using treats for training is wrong.

It just simply means that the treats are being used incorrectly. A good trainer will make sure to fade those food lures quickly so that the dog doesn't rely on them and think that they're part of the cue.

On top of that, the trainer will also move from a continuous schedule to a variable schedule. This means that while it's fine in the initial stages of training to reward the dog for every single correct response (continuous schedule), once the dog's behavior becomes reliable, treats can be given in an unpredictable, random manner (variable schedule, also known as intermittent schedule).

Since the dog won't know when the next treat will be coming, he's kept on his toes just like people who don't know when they're going to hit the jackpot next when playing the slots at Vegas. From a performance standpoint, it means that the dog can compete in an event without the trainer having to dole out treats too often, while feedback can still be given though under the form of praise which can be rewarding on its own if it's been astutely paired with treats in the past!

"When your pet is learning a new behavior, reward him every time he does the behavior. Once your pet has reliably learned the behavior, you want to switch to intermittent reinforcement, in which you continue with praise, but gradually reduce the number of times he receives a treat for doing the desired behavior." ~The Humane Society of the United States

Practice Makes Perfect


Training a dog to perform a trick requires lots of practice so to attain a high level of fluency and a high response rate. To help dogs generalize the trick, the trainer makes sure to train in different contexts in gradually more and more distracting environments. The trainer may first train the trick in the home, then may practice in the yard, then on walks and then in front of a crowd.

Other challenges are added, such as training the dog to perform the behavior at greater and greater distances (think a dog sitting from across a room) or for longer and longer times (such as a dog holding a five-minute stay) Distraction, distance and duration are known as the 3D's of training and they are part of what's needed for proofing behaviors.

The rest involves getting the dog to perform the tricks with precision and speed. Once the dog performs the behavior fluently and reliably anywhere upon hearing the cue, the behavior is said to have attained stimulus control.

"When a dog performs a behavior on cue quickly, anywhere, and under a wide variety of conditions, the behavior is said to be under stimulus control." ~Pat Miller

Did you know? Using prompts is only one way of training. There are trainers who used other different methods such as capturing, where spontaneous behaviors dogs do on their own are rewarded or shaping where successive approximations of a desired behavior are rewarded taking a step-by-step approach.

idea tip


  • Oh Behave: Dogs from Pavlov to Premack to Pinker, by Jean Donaldson, Dogwise Publishing (April 7, 2008) 
  • Whole Dog Journal, Advanced Dog Training Methods: How to Fade Prompts and Lures by Pat Miller, retrieved from the Web on March 3rd, 2016
  • Clicker Training, by Karen Pryor, Fading the Click? retrieved from the Web on March 3rd, 2016
  • Clicker Training, by Casey LoMonaco, Everything You Wanted to Know About Proofing—But Were Afraid to Ask, retrieved from the Web on March 3rd, 2016
  • Clicker Training, by Casey LoMonaco, Got behaviors? Want proof? retrieved from the Web on March 3rd, 2016

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