Tricks are perfect for puppies. They’ll help your puppy learn to pay attention to words, and to you; they’ll demonstrate the joys of cracking a joke and making people laugh; they can reinforce training; make for a better partnership; instill confidence in a new puppy; and give you, the human partner, a chance to show off the new kid. Perhaps best of all, tricks can have underlying meanings your puppy will get, messages that will stand him in good stead for all of his life.
Give Your Paw: Give your paw is the oldest, most classic dog trick there is. In fact, when strangers greet your puppy, some will automatically hold out a hand and expect your puppy to “shake.” Young dogs paw at older dogs to get attention and approval, so teaching this darling little trick puts you in the role of the dog’s mom, his first (and best) teacher. This is a good thing.
You might just hold your hand out to your puppy in a friendly fashion and hope he’ll plop his paw in yours. Some will; if so, praise and play a game. If not, keep trying for a week. Don’t badger your puppy; just offer your hand and go nuts if he responds. What if he doesn’t? Grab some small, delicious treats, making sure your dog is aware you have them, sit in a chair, and pat your legs, telling your dog “Paw.” As he starts to climb or reach up, slip a hand under one of his paws, say “Yay!” and plop a treat into his mouth. This is easy and fun and will make him think shaking hands is the thing to do.
Catch: Dogs are not born knowing how to catch. The easiest way to teach the game is to start with bits of food, kibble, or a small dog biscuit. To start, get your pup’s attention and toss a tidbit, aiming for his mouth. Do not laugh when the tidbit bounces off his head and he has no idea what to do. Just keep trying and let him find and eat all the food he misses. Within a week, your puppy should be doing pretty well, not only catching but also paying good attention to you, listening to your words, and watching your hands. Now you can switch to a small, lightweight ball and you have a game in itself and the beginning of many games and tricks to come.
Bang: Okay, I admit it. I’m a sucker for anything that makes for laughter. More than likely, so is your puppy. Bang! or Play Dead is not only dead-on funny, it reinforces the down cue, one that can save your dog’s life should the leash pull out of your hand. So once your dog is responding to the down cue, switch to a hand signal and practice voice plus hand signal, then hand signal alone for a week. Now, the beauty part: say Bang! followed by the hand signal for down. Through repetition and anticipation, he’ll learn that Bang! means down. Once your dog is down, use a tidbit of food to get him to roll onto his side for the full funny effect. As he gets used to responding to Bang! drop the hand signal for Down and make your hand look like a gun. Now you can point it at him when you say Bang! for a great and funny trick that reinforces a very important cue. Good work!
Read: Now that you and your puppy have worked so hard, here’s the world’s best and easiest trick to add to your repertoire. Write Wag Your Tail on a large piece of cardstock and hold it up to your puppy with the writing facing him. Tell your puppy “Read this. Good boy, read!” in your happiest voice. Three little words and you’ve got the funniest trick on earth with no work at all.
There are many paths to having not just a great relationship with your new pup but a fabulous one. Anything you teach, including tricks, will help him to learn anything else you teach faster and better. As with humans, learning can and should be lifelong, so start early, teach often, and keep it fun.
This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.