Forget the cliche, "You can't teach an old dog a new trick." A new class taught through the Peninsula Dog Obedience Group is out to prove any dog can be taught a trick with a few clicks.
The class, called Tricks for Clicks, teaches dog owners how to get their canines to perform simple, fun tricks. The secret is a hand-held clicker the owner uses to reinforce the dog's training. When the dog performs a trick correctly, the owner squeezes the clicker, which makes a pop, before feeding the dog a small treat. The dog quickly learns to associate the sound with approval and a treat.
The clicker is a great attention-getter, and getting a dog's attention is the first thing that has to happen if the pet's going to learn.
"You can't do anything with your dog if you don't have its attention," said Faith Hays, who taught the course, which ended Thursday.
Tricks taught in the class ranged from the basic, like sitting up and rolling over, to more out of the ordinary, like fetching a tissue from a box of Kleenex or a can of beer from a portable cooler.
Heather Silas took the class with her Great Dane, Zsa Zsa. Silas taught Zsa Zsa to fetch a cotton bandanna from a Kleenex box at the command, "achoo." Silas had to substitute the bandanna for Kleenex to get her dog to do the trick. The dog was reluctant because the tissue paper kept getting saturated and gumming up her mouth.
"Since she's a Great Dane, she has a lot of slobber," Silas said.
Zsa Zsa is somewhat deaf. Silas likes using the clicker because her dog can hear the pop well.
"It gets results like you wouldn't believe," she said.
Mary Jane Hanley took the course to become closer to her English springer spaniel, Emma. The springer is nervous and jumpy and shies away from physical contact. Hanley has been teaching Emma tricks that require the dog to touch her and has had some success.
"She'll put her front legs up in my lap," Hanley said.
Hanley hopes the routine contact will get Emma to settle down and become more "cuddly." Ideally, she'd like the dog to feel at home in her lap. To get there, she's trying to teach Emma more tricks that require contact.
"We're working on kissing," Hanley said.
Sue Robinson trained horses for 25 years. She has multiple sclerosis, which has limited her ability to work with horses, so she's been concentrating on training her dog, Siduri.
"Siduri was the wine brewer in 'The Epic of Gilgamesh,'" Robinson said, in explanation of her dog's name.
In addition to teaching Siduri to sit up, roll over and other basic tricks, Robinson has been working to teach her dog tricks based on scent cues. Robinson has taught Siduri to go lie down on her rug at the scent of camomile tea.
"It's kind of a settle down cue," she said.
Siduri performs a useful trick at the scent of her master's favorite lotion.
"Vanilla hand lotion means I'm done with my shower, now go get my slippers," Robinson said.
Many of the eight dogs and owners who took the tricks class have taken more serious obedience courses or participate in dog agility competitions, which can make the dog and owner a little stressed. Focusing on teaching tricks is one way to take the pressure off and still get some valuable training done, Hays said.
"The dog doesn't stress, because the owner doesn't stress, because it's just a trick," she said.
Hays was pleased with the outcome of the class, which she treated as an experiment and is thinking about offering again. At the very least, she's learned how to improve the other courses she teaches.
"I'm going to integrate more tricks into my other obedience classes," she said.
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