One of the biggest challenges dog trainers face is how to encourage people to continue training their dogs. Not only will this help dogs remain well behaved, it gives them attention for a lifetime, not just for the course of a sixweek beginner obedience class. Watch someone who genuinely enjoys playing with her dog and you know that dog has a home for life.
No one understands this better than stunt-dog trainer and trick-dog performer Kyra Sundance. Together with her 10-year-old Weimaraner, Chalcy, she has entertained and educated thousands of dog lovers around the world through her live and televised performances, videos and books. She recently created Do More With Your Dog!, the only official sanctioning and organizing body for the activity of dog tricks. (To see Sundance and Chalcy in action, go to youtube.com/user/kyrasundance.)
“Teaching tricks not only teaches skills, but also teaches focus and establishes a pattern of learning in the dog,” says Sundance. “Tricks are taught through positive training methods, which promote a bond between canine and human.”
She shares the story of her two-yearold Weimaraner, Jadie, as a prime example. When Jadie came into her life as a puppy, Sundance was already under contract to complete a puppy-tricks book and DVD. “We started training right away with simple tricks such as ‘sit,’ ‘shake hands,’ ‘spin a circle’ and ‘fetch,’” she says. “We trained in many fiveminute sessions per day, and worked on several different tricks per session. We went through a lot of treats!”
Incredibly, at the age of four-anda- half months, Jadie could perform 50 tricks, including rolling herself in a blanket, getting the newspaper from the mailbox, tidying her toys into a toy box, wiping her paws on a doormat, ringing a bell to go outside and dropping litter into a step can.
“Spending this quality time together while she was a puppy built a bond between us that will last a lifetime,” says Sundance.
Don’t fret if your dog is well beyond the puppy stage. When my nine-yearold Dalmatian, Darby, retired from agility competition due to injury, trick training was the perfect outlet for her high energy and smarts. She already knew basic skills (see box), and eagerly learned more complex tricks such as “roll over” and “jump through a hoop.”
Sundance’s Weimaraners, Chalcy and Jadie, are accomplished performance dogs, having earned titles in agility, obedience, hunting and mushing. “But I’ve got to say, without a doubt, the activity they enjoy most is trick training,” says Sundance. “When you interact with your dog ‘eye-to-eye,’ your dog is staring into your eyes, looking for clues and enjoying your attention.”
While her training background is in competition obedience, in which dogs are expected to perform with exacting precision, Sundance wanted something more. “I sometimes feel constricted by the narrowly defined objectives— the human must get her dog to perform in one specific way,” she says. “In trick training, I feel a much more cooperative spirit. Your dog may offer behaviors that aren’t exactly what you had in mind … you have the freedom to allow the dog to add his creativity to the trick, to make it uniquely his own.”
Because I missed the joy of performance partnership with Darby, I was thrilled that we had a chance to earn “Trick Dog” titles. Instead of traveling to and competing at a traditional show, the handler asks a friend to witness her dog performing tricks appropriate for the required title level (Novice, Intermediate, Advanced or Expert). The handler then sends paperwork to Do More With Your Dog! or applies online (at domorewithyourdog.com) to qualify her dog for a title certificate.
Darby earned her NTD (Novice Trick Dog) title by performing 15 easy tricks, ranging from “sit” and “down” on command to “peekaboo” and “take a bow.” We’re currently working on her Intermediate Trick Dog title; if she remains physically sound, we’ll go for her ATD (Advanced Trick Dog) and ETD (Expert Trick Dog) titles. It’s exciting to see my senior Spot’s eyes light up when I bring out the clicker and a fistful of treats to try something new.