Just a Trick?

Zani's useful "Trick"
Zani’s useful “Trick”

“Crossing over” is a phrase dog trainers use to refer to the act of giving up training that uses aversives and changing over to training that uses principally positive reinforcement: becoming a Humane Hierarchy trainer, a force-free trainer, or a clicker trainer. (We have lots of phrases to describe ourselves.) Folks who have made this change (and those who never trained traditionally) will attest that this is more than just a different set of skills. It is a change of world view, and it runs counter to the emphasis on and acceptance of punishment in our culture. For many of us, it is not an easy thing to do. Social and technical support are both very important.

My friend Marge Rogers is a crossover trainer who crossed over with no local mentor, although she would credit her wonderful dog Chase, as well as books and internet resources. She wanted to change the way she trained and she needed to do it on her own.  She came from a competitive obedience background. She decided, brilliantly, to throw off everything she knew, put her obedience goals temporarily on hold, and train her dogs to do tricks.

Why Tricks?

Here’s what she told me:

  1. Teaching tricks improves mechanical skills like observation and timing.
  2. Teaching tricks helps trainers learn to create training plans and break down behavior (cognitive skills).
  3. It helps develop critical thinking skills. (How different are the skills for teaching dust the coffee table or blow bubbles in water than teaching drop on recall?)
  4. There is no pressure for the handler. Or the dog.
  5. Trick training encourages creative thinking and problem solving.
  6. Trick training give immediate feedback for the handler (via the dog’s behavior).
  7. There is no handler baggage.
  8. And the best reason for teaching tricks – you’re not burdened by the curse of knowledge for stuff you’ve never trained before.  No old habits to unlearn. In short: it’s the perfect way to become a better trainer.

P.S. You can make your own chicken camp.

The Result of Chicken Camp
The Result of Chicken Camp

Marge is referring to Bob Bailey’s well known chicken camps where trainers learn to hone their mechanical skills. This picture is the outcome of one of her personal “chicken camps,” where she taught her Rhodesian Ridgeback Pride a high leg lift to emulate taking a pee (he normally squatted to pee, by the way). She shaped that leg lift all the way up from a twitch.

Marge’s trick skills resulted in her fame as the “Ridgeback lady” on YouTube, who featured her Rhodesian Ridgebacks in videos such as these:

By the way, Ridgebacks have a reputation among traditional trainers as being an untrainable breed.


Many was the time that Marge exhorted me to train tricks. I generally declined, saying that it’s all tricks (true, but perhaps evading her point a little bit), and that I had my hands full with polite pet behaviors and agility (also tricks!)

So a funny thing happened. Recently I broke down and trained my dogs a couple of tricks. It was supposed to be just for the heck of it, but two of the tricks immediately became very useful.

Marge says, “That figures!”

1) Sit Pretty. I’ve been teaching little Zani to “sit pretty.” We went slowly, so she could build up her abdominal muscles, but she really took to it. What’s a more classic “trick” that sitting up? Adorable but useless, right? But no sooner did we have a few seconds’ duration than it came in incredibly handy.

I’m teaching all my dogs to sit or stand on the bathroom scale by themselves. I thought I would have to manipulate the dogs’ feet a little bit so that I could see the readout. But Zani solved that problem by offering her “useless” trick.

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If I were Marge, though, I’d probably teach the dogs to curl their tails around as well, so they didn’t brace any of their weight on them if they were on the floor. That’s a little more than I have the patience for, though. I’ll just elevate the scale if I need to.

2) Leg weaves. I don’t remember why I decided to do this, but I taught Clara how to weave through my legs. Let me be frank: I think that is one of the silliest behaviors ever. Even when the most accomplished freestylers do it, it’s mostly a “yawn” from me.

But as soon as I taught Clara the rudiments, I discovered something. It’s fun! No wonder people do it. Clara and I both enjoyed it, although I’m sure we looked even dorkier than average. And no, I’m not sharing a video!

Two photos of a tan dog with a  black muzzle and tail pressing up against a woman's feet and legs. The woman is sitting in a chair and the dog is walking under her legs in one photo, and backed up and pressing into her feet in anther
Clara enjoying pressing against my feet and legs

The added benefit of this one is a little harder to describe, but no less real. Clara is a very “touchy” dog. She likes to lean against me, touch me, cuddle, and be as close as she can. So she loved the leg weaves. She got to be right “inside” my personal space. And darned if she didn’t make up a new game: she comes and weaves her way through my legs when I am sitting down, just for fun. Kind of like a very large, pushy cat. She clearly likes the sensation.

I couldn’t get a shot of the actual weaving when I was sitting down, but here she is walking under my leg and pressing against my foot. See how she is pushing toward me in both photos?

So Clara and I have not only discovered a new way to play one-on-one that needs no  toy or prop.  With a little finesse, I could even use it as a reinforcer. But right now, it’s just another way to have fun with my dog.

So thanks Marge, for urging me to train pure “tricks,” but they keep turning out to be useful! Or was that part of what you were trying to show me all along….?

Coming Up:

  • Punishment is not a Feeling
  • Why Counterconditioning Didn’t “Work”
  • How Skilled are You at Ignoring? (Extinction Part 2)
  • What if Respondent Learning Didn’t Work?

Eileenanddogs on YouTube



34 thoughts on “Just a Trick?

  1. Love it! I don’t know why, but leg weaves are a total yawn for me, too, at this point. We’ll see what happens. I really like, ‘Sit pretty’, though (here we call it, ‘Be the bunny’).

      1. I call the trick ‘squirrel’. Spin counter-clockwise is ‘apple’, back-up between my legs is ‘aim’ and crate is ‘cave’. I think I could name some new tricks by fruits and vegetables because I cannot think more names that would describe the trick but be different to others.

  2. Great post! Trick training can indeed be fun for all. Just skimming youtube for trick ideas can give you a lot of inspiration. I especially enjoy the youtube videos from Tab289 or Kikopup. Both have a lot of fun with their dogs and showcase many different tricks and solid training protocols.

    One interesting side note: Bailey’s chicken camps are called chicken camps because participants are training chickens, not dogs. Dogs are generally smart, forgiving, interested in human approval, and anticipate what we want before we ask. Chickens are generally none of these things! So when you train a chicken, the human HAS to get the mechanics of marking and reward delivery right, or the chicken just won’t produce the desired behaviour. Dogs make us all look like better trainers than we are, which is good for both dog and person, but not so good for sharpening our mechanics.

    The Karen Pryor Academy also requires its students to work with at least one species other than a dog for the same reason Bailey’s chicken camps use chickens. You’ll find it much easier to become a better teacher when your student isn’t so forgiving. 🙂

    There’s a good DVD where Bailey demonstrates many of the techniques used in chicken camp and explains why chickens work so well for this purpose:


    I definitely think someone working at home can set up a mini “chicken camp” and reap many benefits in improving trainer skills. Just don’t use a dog as the learner! A cat, a goldfish, a guinea pig, any type of bird, a rabbit, all good.

    Of course you can always work on mechanics even if you only work with dogs, it’s just that the dog’s nature will disguise a lot of the human’s errors, making it harder for the trainer to improve.

    Robin J.

    1. Robin, thanks for filling in the other readers about chicken camp; my bad that some people might not even know what I was talking about.

      Marge knows, and I know, about the constellation of reasons for learning to train chickens. Her comments were shorthand to me, and in no way represent a misunderstanding of what happens at chicken camp, or minimization of the teaching skills of the marvelous Bob Bailey, who is one of her heroes. It is yet another reflection of her ability to take inspiration from sources from afar and apply it to her training.

      Training a different, challenging species (not to mention in long behavior chains) ups the ante, perhaps in a way that can’t be emulated. But if anyone can create that challenge for herself, it’s Marge. Learning about chicken camp (and not being able to go) inspired her to work on her own mechanical skills in the most challenging way possible.

      One of the things that is well known to me is that the experience can be grueling. I admire her for even wanting to go. I would be….chicken.

    2. Oh, Robin, MY dogs make me look like a pathetic trainer ;-( They are always trying to second guess me, or think of faster ways of doing things, or simply looking at me blankly when trialling and say “I don’t know WHAT “heel” (sit. stand/stay/come) means!”
      Now chooks (US chickens) rats and mice learn and then they KNOW. No confusion or trying to make life more interesting for themselves. “I do this, I get a shelled rockmelon seed.” So they do it 🙂

  3. I’ll be honest, I am obsessed with trick training. One of my dogs has their trick dog championship and I love shaping new tricks. It made all the difference for my reactive dog – it taught us how to communicate with each other and built a better relationship and trust. Really everything is tricks to the dog but there is also no better way to wear out a hyper herding dog than teaching tricks like “balance on my back” or “spin around on a peanut.” Glad you found some benefit in it 🙂

    1. That’s so cool, Gabi. I think the trick trainers are some of the trainers I admire the very most, because of what you and Marge both describe.

    2. Is that the Trick Dog title from Kyra Sundance’s DO MORE WITH YOUR DOG organisation, or another one? I thought about doing that one, they allow video submissions and it looked like fun. Never got around to actually signing up, though.

  4. Hi Eileen – thanks for another delightful blog – I always learn something new when I read them!

  5. I have taught two “click-a-trick” classes and they were really fun. The first time someone signed up, I was a little nervous because the only trick In our regular class was paw (or shake). I taught bow, sit pretty, say your prayers, roll over, play dead, jump through a hoop, wave goodbye, spin (on all four feet) and twirl (hind legs). I had so much fun it inspired me to teach Max some tricks. My favorite is “whisper” which is a very soft woof because he has a very loud bark. It works better than saying “enough” when he barks. 🙂

  6. I really enjoyed this post. Thanks Eileen
    I wouldn’t exactly class myself as “crossover”, as I never used aversives, just rewards and encouragement. The classes I attended until George was 1 year old, told me clicker training didn’t work and I’d need 3 hands. All the lessons were focused on competitive obedience. No LLW, just precision heelwork. Boring, boring for both of us.
    I started reading Karen Pryors books and booked myself a 1-2-1 with a trainer to help me get on the road and not have George confused. I started with tricks so I wouldn’t mess up any obedience work. It helped a lot with my confidence too. I think it’s Emilty Larlham who says that once dogs know 4 or 5 behaviours, they have learned to learn. It all gets easier in most cases or it’s my fault!
    So, here’s my useful trick. There are loads of cats in our neighbourhood. The 2 min walk to the woods keeps me busy holding George’s attention before he spots a cat. (The one and only time he has pulled me over was when he spotted one before I did) Having taught George to speak, I can now warn the cats to make themselves scarce 🙂

  7. I watched the video to the end….can you guess what I’m going to try and teach Zuri (the Rhodesian Ridgeback to do now?). Where’s her water bowl????? As if I didn’t have enough to do already LOL

  8. Hi Eileen – how did you teach the sit pretty?

    I’ve been trying but my pup won’t let go of my hands ….

    I’ve been trying to lure the behavior – I put him in a sit and then take take a treat, bring it to his nose and then take it straight up in the air – he’ll follow it but he grabs my hand with his paws ….



    1. Hi Gayle,

      Clever boy! He has figured out an easier way. I taught it mostly like in this video by Kikopup. I bet something in the video will help.

      I didn’t use a lure at the very beginning, but I used a hand target instead. In the video, Emily emphasizes going slowly so your dog can develop the muscles.

      If your dog will touch a target stick or something else, you might be able to work out something he can’t hang onto.

      Or, you could do like Marge and use spray cheese (which is great for developing duration). Pretty hard to hang onto that can. I hope this helps. Write back after you try following the steps in the video, if you are still having the problem. <aybe one of the professionals can chime in. (Feel free at any time, folks, if you have a good fix for Gayle's problem.)

  9. After reading this I started working on leg weaves with Betsy – we’ve gotten to the point where she knows what I want if I give her a hand cue (holding a finger behind my leg in the same kind of ‘lure’ position as when I was holding a treat) but she totally grumbles in frustration if she isn’t rewarded every single time! It’s so weird. I want to give her a treat after she does each leg at least once (a ‘complete’ weave I guess), and build up to doing it two or three times before a treat… but if she doesn’t get a treat after just doing one leg, she starts to vocalize and air snap in annoyance 😛 Any thoughts? I thought it would be fun for her but it seems like she just thinks it’s a pain in the butt!

    1. (by the way, I realize ‘air snap’ has an aggressive connotation but I don’t find the behaviour threatening at all, her body language is irritated and treat-focused but not aggressive! It’s just her way of complaining that the trick isn’t producing the results she wants.)

    2. Well it doesn’t sound like it’s such a big turn on for her so far, but I bet a pro could weigh in here with a suggestion about getting over the “one weave” hump. Any suggestions?

      1. Been having more success recently, thanks for the reply! I think I was just trying to fade the treats too quickly, but now we’re doing 4-5 weaves before a treat and she’s happy to do it, so I think we’re over the hardest part. Still can’t tell if she ‘enjoys’ tricks or if she is just so focused on getting the food that she will do whatever it takes 😛 I like the -idea- of dogs doing tricks because they find them fun… but I swear she just sees it as a means to an end…

        1. Brava! Sounds like you solved your own problem. I have a trainer friend who likes to point out that sinking a bunch of treats into the dog at the beginning of teaching a behavior is the best way to be able to fade them the fastest. That being said, my dogs often don’t make that transition to not being paid much, but I think it’s in part that it’s not a big goal for me. The leg weave thing was a happy accident.

  10. I love all your articles and videos! You are so eloquently spoken and everything is very relevant. Wish I had your gift for writing. Can’t wait to read and see more! Thanks,

  11. Pingback: Betsy at 11 months

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