Why There Are Some Tricks You Shouldn’t Teach Your Dog
There's nothing cuter than a dog doing a trick — and, sometimes, nothing more annoying. Although it may not sound like a big deal for a dog to do a trick without a signal from his pet parent, it can actually be a major issue, depending on the dog and the trick. While a pooch performing a sit or a down out of context likely will not cause any problems, certain tricks, like jumping vertically in the air, spinning in circles, high fives or hugs and kisses, can create issues for you and your dog. Before you teach your dog a trick, it’s important to consider if the behavior will be appropriate should it ever appear out of the context of a training situation.
Here are three real hazards of teaching your dog certain tricks and some strategies for keeping the trick from becoming a nuisance — or, worse, a danger.
Hazard #1: Your Dog's Trick Could Hurt Someone
Recently, a giant Standard Poodle greeted me on the first day of obedience class by sitting up on her hind legs in a begging position and flailing her front paws in the air, wildly attempting to paw my arms. Although this behavior may not be considered unruly in a small dog, this was a Poodle who easily stood shoulder height in a begging position and had saucer-sized paws. What started out as an innocent begging trick had quickly snowballed into a greeting disaster. Adding to the stress was the fact that the Poodle's owners frequently had senior guests over to their house. Their Poodle’s frenzied greeting had gone from a cute trick to a safety issue, as she could easily knock someone flat on the floor.
For the Poodle, as for other canines, this particular trick has become a way to get attention and treats. Although “cues” or “commands” are used to teach a dog when the trick behavior should take place, unless there has been extensive practice with those cues, the behavior will often occur out of context and without the cue being given. This can lead to a dog performing a trick without any signal, on his own initiative, for attention — as in the case of the flailing Poodle.
Hazard #2: Your Dog's Trick Could Scare Someone
While calmer behaviors like a stay on a mat may not be an issue when they are performed without a command from a human, extremely active tricks, or those involving close contact with a human, can escalate into a scary and dangerous situation for people and dogs alike.
Kisses and hugs, for instance, while cute, may be overwhelming to people who are timid around dogs and can be misinterpreted as a threat. A Pit Bull at a shelter was being trained by a young handler to give kisses; the dog was learning to touch the person’s nose with her nose whenever the handler put her face down by the pet. A trainer warned the handler that this particular trick was not appropriate for a Pit Bull in the shelter system, because although it was adorable, especially for such a gentle dog, it could be misinterpreted as a threatening gesture. In the case of the Pit Bull breed, this could easily be blown out of proportion because of breed stereotyping and could prevent a perfectly nice dog from being adopted.
In a similar manner, teaching a “hug” to a larger-breed dog or to a breed stereotyped as aggressive can have similar repercussions. The dog could easily knock someone over while executing the trick, or the trick itself might be perceived as a threat because of mistaken ideas about the breed. Although it may be unfair, certain breeds, like the Pit Bull, are held to a different standard than other breeds, and many people are afraid of them. Larger breeds are also held to a different standard because of their size. For any breed, but especially large breeds and bully breeds, it’s important to consider how other people may view a trick if it appears out of context, particularly tricks that involve close-contact touching between dogs and humans.
Hazard #3: Your Dog's Trick Could Annoy Everyone
A trick doesn't have to be frightening to be a hazard; just being annoying is enough of a problem. For highly excitable or nervous dogs, more active tricks may not be the best option, particularly if the dog is not taught to execute the trick only on command. It’s not uncommon for a smaller dog to be taught to "spin" or to jump in the air; subsequently, whenever the dog becomes agitated or excited, he will perform this behavior, which can be a tripping hazard in the home or a hindrance when walking on leash. Shake and high five likewise can become an excitable behavior a dog performs wildly when he greets someone, which can leave unwelcome claw marks on guests. Teaching a dog to "speak" can also be a trained behavior that becomes a nuisance when the dog starts to bark every time the treats are brought out.
Think about it this way: Your jumping, spinning, high-fiving Jack Russell may not be a scary dog, but he will certainly get on people's nerves.
How to Avoid the Hazards While Teaching Tricks
This is not to say that you can’t ever teach your dog active tricks or those that involve close contact with humans; instead, keep in mind that it is absolutely essential to train your pooch to only do these behaviors on cue. For instance, in puppy class I teach shake to get puppies more accustomed to their paws being touched. But as soon as the behavior is learned, I add the cue and I withhold the reward any time the trick is performed out of context.
It’s also essential to choose a cue that is not likely to be inadvertently used by someone else. If the cue for shake is putting your hand out toward the dog, the pooch is likely to thrust his paws toward anyone who reaches to pet him. Instead, a better way to cue the shake is by using a more distinct and less common body movement or voice cue. In the same manner, teaching a dog to kiss by putting your face toward him or to hug by putting your arms up and out could invite your pooch to do this behavior to someone who is not actually wanting a hug or kiss and who may be startled or frightened when your pet responds by doing his trick. Using a specific cue that is unlikely to occur naturally and teaching your pet only to perform the behavior after that cue is given eliminates the possibility of your pet performing the trick on his own, and it serves as a safeguard to protect him and others from the hazards inherent in the more risky tricks.
Before you consider teaching the oh-so-adorable kiss, hug or beg, be sure to evaluate whether or not the reward is worth the risk. If you decide that it is, practice frequently and keep firm boundaries with your pet; be clear that the trick should only be performed in response to a specific cue. If you are ever in doubt, sticking to the safer tricks like sit, down, stay, heel, play bow and lying on one side may be the safest route to take with your dog.