Understanding Your Dog’s Natural Abilities and Limitations

Understanding Your Dog’s Natural Abilities and Limitations

In This Chapter

  • Taking age into account
  • Considering breed characteristics
  • Paying attention to body type
  • Choosing tricks that fit your dog’s personality
  • Appealing to your dog’s likes and talents

Take a look at your dog. What do you have? Big or small? Active or mellow? Clueless puppy, mischievous adolescent, or full-grown set-in-his-ways dog? Before you introduce your dog to trick training, put yourself in his paws and think through the kind of activities that will get his tail wagging. Dogs are like snowflakes, thumbprints, and children — they’re all unique. Each one has likes and dislikes.

No dog is going to love learning every trick in this book, but you can find enough variations in these pages to inspire your dog’s particular enthusiasms. To know which tricks and activities you and your dog will enjoy the most, tip your trick-trainer’s hat to his breed-driven impulses and natural-born obsessions as well as his personality type, age, and athletic ability, which I discuss throughout this chapter.

Making Your Lessons Age-Appropriate

First up, consider your dog or puppy’s age. A very young puppy need not master complex skills — pottying in the right place and alerting to his name are tricks in and of themselves! You can definitely teach an old dog new tricks, and you can teach a new dog old tricks, but how you teach those tricks — and the tricks you choose — can vary according to your dog’s age. This section explains how.


Beware of the aggressive reaction at any age. Some dogs have lofty impressions of themselves. If your dog growls at you as you explore any of these training routines, stop what you’re doing and call a professional. Your first trick will be to smooth the communication between you and your dog (for tips on canine communication, see Chapter Prepping for Training — Mentally and Physically).

Puppy head start (under 6 months)

Young puppies can be delightfully sweet. Many will stick to you like glue and look to you for reassurance whenever the wind picks up.


Though seemingly open to learning about new things, a puppy can get overwhelmed by human expectations. In the earliest days of your life together, keep your “trick” routines to basic manners like where to potty and to sit before petting and rewards. You won’t end up on Letterman with these tricks, but you and I know that they’re truly remarkable.

As you’re teaching your puppy basic routines, you can practice the skills you’ll use down the road:

Teach as you go. Structured lessons are too much for a young puppy. Instead, practice the teach-as-you-go method, giving direction as you walk your puppy through everyday routines. Choose your command; then say it each time you walk your puppy through the activity. Say “Outside” or “Papers” as you lead your pup to his potty area. Say “Sit” as you help him assume the dinnertime pose.

Avoid staring and repeating directions. To a puppy, being stared down or repeatedly ordered feels scary. Imagine it: a giant 400-pound gorilla staring at you, giving you unintelligible orders. Would you understand him any faster if he repeated the order again and again? Say your directions clearly as you gently guide your puppy’s body through the trick, or show him what you’re envisioning by doing it yourself!

Be creative. If your puppy isn’t catching on, don’t get frustrated — that only scares your puppy. Instead, ask what you can do differently. Your puppy can’t read your mind, and although some pups grasp routines quickly, others need a more creative approach. For example, giving treats to puppies after they potty works for some but not for others. If your puppy is treat-obsessed, he may think that peeing anywhere is treat-worthy. As you’ll discover down the road, getting a dog to perform tricks and complex routines can be a most creative process.


Your first routines should highlight puppies’ natural behavior, like saying “Happy Puppy!” while they wag their tails. Young puppies, while impressionable, have short attention spans and cannot follow complex sequences.

Teenagers (about 6 to 14 months old)

Ah, the teen years. As for most animals, dog adolescence is a study in extremes: One minute, the dogs are full of enthusiasm to learn new things; the next, they’re distracted, overwhelmed, and reverting to naughty behavior patterns like chewing and nipping. When introducing new tricks or routines, your adolescent dog may give you the canine version of the teenage eye roll from time to time.
If your dog knows the basics, then tricks and sporting adventures are ideal ways to have a little fun and shape his social skills. Keep these three things in mind:

Choose tricks that lean toward his passions. If your dog likes to grab things, work on retrieving and carrying skills. If he’s athletic or jumpy, work on tricks or agility routines that highlight those inclinations. Got a noisy or nosy companion or one who likes to bark, dig, or investigate? Find activities to encourage those skills. See the later section “Rolling with Your Dog’s Natural Gifts” for details.

Break a trick into mini lessons to build the success rate. Adolescent dogs get discouraged easily. Shy dogs shut down; more-energetic dogs lose interest. For instance, if your goal is to teach your dog to roll over, break the lesson into six mini lessons. Yes, six! Here they are:

1. Lie down.

2. Lie down on his side.

3. Lie down on his side and then arch his head over his neck.

4. Lie down on his side, arch his head over his neck, and then roll backward.

5. Lie down on his side, arch his head over his neck, and roll over.

6. Lie down on his side, arch his head over his neck, roll over, and stand up!

Each success builds confidence, and although breaking the lesson down is more time-consuming, the extra effort can be well worth it.

 Keep the lesson short and sweet. Young dogs get bored and distracted easily. Keep each lesson focused, upbeat, and short: five to ten minutes maximum. Master one skill before moving on to the next, and highlight a successful routine at the beginning and end of each practice session.

Mature dogs (about 1 year and older)

As dogs age, they become less impulsive, provided they’ve had some basic training. Everyday distractions like the vacuum cleaner, butterflies, and the mail carrier’s visit become commonplace and ho-hum.
The urge to be the center of your attention, however, never gets old. Spicing up your maturing dog’s routine with some new tricks and adventures is easy. You can keep his tail wagging and the chuckles rolling year after year. Here are some things to keep in mind:

Give lessons before meals. Older dogs get set in their routines and can predict meal times with uncanny accuracy. Use this ability to your trick-training advantage. An ideal time for lessons is right before a meal: hungry and alert, your dog will be eager to learn new activities — especially those that earn food rewards!

Factor in your dog’s attention span. Mature dogs have better concentration and will enjoy having your complete attention. Depending on your dog’s personality type (which I discuss later in “Tagging Your Dog’s Personality”), vary lessons from two to five minutes.

Account for aging. Dogs age much too quickly. Although a 3-year-old dog can perform dazzling jumping feats or course an agility field ten times over, at some point he’ll slow down. His knees will ache. He’ll lose his youthful spark and drive. He’ll need longer rest and recovery periods. Don’t despair — we’re all growing old. Work with your dog and pace his routines to his comfort and enthusiasm levels.

Sorting by Breed Characteristics

Open any dog book, and you’ll see lots of different dogs. Big dogs. Small dogs. All-sizes-in-between dogs. Dogs with short hair. Dogs with long hair. Dogs with no hair! All these different dogs belong to different breeds. A breed is a group of dogs that share similar physical traits — they’re all the same size, have the same hairstyle, and act pretty much the same.
In America, breeds are categorized into seven groups: Sporting, Hound, Working, Terrier, Non-Sporting, Toy, and Herding. The American Kennel Club (AKC) organizes these groups, according to shared characteristics. One thing’s for sure — different breeds do different things.
To know which tricks and activities you and your dog will get the most out of, take a look at his breed. Certain breeds have character traits that naturally lend themselves to specific tricks and activities. In this section, I discuss the seven breed groups as well as mixed breeds and tell you which tricks may work best for them.

Technical Stuff

In the United States, the AKC recognizes more than 150 breeds (www.akc.org/breeds). The AKC is in charge of assigning a number to and counting every single purebred puppy born in America. What a job! When I try to make sense of it, I think it’s a lot like a school: You have seven different classes and one principal’s office — the AKC — that keeps everything organized.

Sporting group

Retrieving breeds, Spaniels, Pointing breeds, and others in this group were originally bred to spend entire days running in the fields seeking out and collecting land and waterfowl for their masters. The Sporting group is still pretty hung up on the retrieving thing. They’re an energetic, loyal, happy lot who thrive on interaction. Trusting, friendly, and eager to please, they take to training (both trick and agility) well and generally view each new exercise as an adventure.
Here are some favorite tricks and activities your Sporting dog will excel in:
An overdisciplined or untrained Sporting dog, on the other hand, will use all his retrieving skills against you. Instead of bringing you objects, he’ll play “Keep Away.” Call him, and he’ll stay just out of reach. Ignore him, and he’ll bark at you. Trained or untrained, helpful or bothersome, endearing or annoying — it’s up to you.

Hound group

These guys, including Beagles, Basset Hounds, and Greyhounds, were bred to course fast-moving game, with hunters in quick pursuit. Dogs with a mission! Active, lively, and rugged, the Hound group has been domesticated into fun-loving, gentle pets with a high spirit for adventure. Here are some activities your hound dog may enjoy:
Not bred to look to humans for direction, members of the Hound group usually don’t. Consequently, obedience training can be slow and challenging; Hounds would rather trail a rabbit than hang out doing “Sit–Stays.”
Trick training, however, with its use of food and toy lures, takes on a whole new meaning. Hounds excel in activities that require their nose, and if you put them in the spotlight, these guys are real hams. Although independent and somewhat distractible when their instincts call, they’re still a lot of fun.


A leash or enclosure is required when Hounds are outside.

Working group

The Working group, breeds such as Bernese Mountain Dogs, Boxers, and Samoyeds, is the most diversified group in terms of their breed functions. Some members of the Working group pull sleds, others guard flocks, and others protect the homestead. They do, however, have one common thread: They’ve all worked in the past to serve people. Here are some activities you may want to consider with your working dog:
You can’t ignore a dog with a history like that of the Working group. Obedience training is a must, though after the dog masters those skills, trick and activity training is a natural adjunct. Not quick to embarrass themselves doing circus routines, however, these dogs prefer more-complex, multi-step tasks that put their minds to work.
Though more patience may be required with certain routines, these guys can learn anything.


An untrained Working dog is lost. Unemployment leaves them bored, nervous, and in some cases, territorial and aggressive.

Terrier group

These guys come in two varieties: rodent and pest hunters, like the Cairn Terrier, Lakeland Terrier, and Kerry Blue, and bull baiting/fighting terriers like the American Staffordshire and the Bull Terrier. Originally bred for their tenacity in many European countries (especially on the British Isles), their popularity has spread worldwide. Terriers are a self-assured, spirited, and lively bunch. Agile and independent, they don’t excel in off-leash obedience training and need to be leashed outdoors.
Trick training, however, is a different story. Terriers love the spotlight. As happy on two legs as they are on four, they’ll dazzle you with their athletic feats. Great candidates for this trick and activity book, they’ll leave you in a fit of hysterics marveling at their spunk, quick-mindedness, and good humor.
Here are some activities your Terrier and you may enjoy:


Untrained or isolated, Terriers can become chronic barkers, destructive chewers, or urine markers, and they may develop aggression over objects, over food, and with other animals.

Toy group

Dogs in the Toy group (such as the Maltese, Yorkshire Terrier, and Chihuahua) were bred for one thing and one thing only: to be companions. In keeping with their ancestors, they continue to perfect the art of being adorable. Playful and affectionate, Toys love the spotlight, and if the end result of a trick session is more attention, they’ll be happy to cooperate. Don’t get your little handful confused with a Working breed, however. If the task is too difficult or you’re not praising them enough, Toy dogs just might go on strike.
Anyone who’s ever shared his or her life with a small dog will tell you they’re adorable, especially when they’re puppies. Spoiling them almost seems to go with the territory. Their behavior is so miniaturized that it’s rarely a problem; however, living the unstructured life, being doted on night and day, is just as harmful for their psyche. The result? What I call Small Dog Syndrome, recognized by excessive barking (I’m in charge — hear me roar!), nipping (I may be small but watch out when I’m mad!), and, at the other extreme, excessive clinging (I can’t cope on my own). Sound familiar?
If obedience is too structured for you, try trick training. Little dogs take to it like a fish to water, and seeing them perform is a real hoot. Here are some tricks your Toy breed may enjoy:


It’s easy to neglect any type of training with Toy dogs, but owner beware! Without direction, they can become quite tyrannical, ruling the house with constant barking and snapping. To get the most from these little guys, train them to do some useful tricks, endearing them to one and all.

Non-Sporting group

Unlike other groups, there is little consistency in personalities here because the Non-Sporting dogs were all bred for different tasks. One thing is consistent though — they’re all lovable! Some take to trick-training better than others. A Dalmatian, for example, will slide into a tutu much more readily than a Lhasa Apso. Here are some tricks to consider with your Non-Sporting breed:
Many of the Non-Sporting breeds were originally bred for specific work, but because work is hard to come by these days, they’ve become companions. If you have a dog from this category, consult breed-specific books to figure out what yours likes to do.

Herding group

Dogs in the Herding group, such as the German Shepherd Dog, Australian Shepherd, and Border Collie, were bred to move flocks and herds. Agile and alert, they’re quick to figure out whether the people they live with are smart enough to be considered shepherds or passive sheep. If you’re a sheep, your herder will run circles around you; if you’re his shepherd, training will come quickly and easily.
Ready to master anything new, Herders make great trick dogs and excel in agility games. Herding dogs take to many activities with natural style and grace. Some they naturally master include the following:


Isolated or ignored, dogs in the Herding group may develop timidity, barking, or pacing habits.

Mixed breeds

If you have a mixed breed dog, don’t despair! Your job is twice the fun. First, see whether you can identify the mix. If you’re not sure, get a professional opinion. After you have a rough sketch, read over each group your dog may belong to. Then on to the fun part: the observational experiment. Study your dog’s behavior and decide where he fits in. I know a Shepherd-Retriever mix, Charley, who’s the spitting image of Rin Tin Tin but who’d retrieve a ball for you until the cows came home.

Technical Stuff

Hybrid vigor is a theory that states that mixed-breed dogs, due to their larger and more diverse gene pools, are superior in health and temperament to purebred dogs. Do I agree with this theory? A qualified partly. You see a lot of inherited health problems, such as hip dysplasia, in certain breeds, that may or may not show up in a mixed breed dog. There are no guarantees. Regarding temperament, much depends on environment, upbringing, and training. I’ve loved just as many purebreds as mixes. The choice is up to you.

Considering Body Type

Your dog’s body type affects which tricks and adventures he’ll be drawn to. Although your Basset Hound may have the enthusiasm of ten Border Collies, coaching him through complex agility courses may not be in his best interest; instead, teach him to find keys or to round up the kids for dinner. Which body type category does your dog fit into?

Balanced proportions: Dogs who have balanced proportions, such as English Springer Spaniels, Airedales, and Bichon Frises, are generally comfortable moving into various poses and thus can excel at trick-training and sporting activities. These dogs are controlled by their breed drives, age, and personality, so read the earlier sections in this chapter for guidance on where to get started.

Leggy and light: Slender, long-legged dogs such as Whippets, Vizslas, and Border Collies, often excel in fast-moving activities and tricks that utilize their agile frames. They’re not built for contemplation and stillness, so save tricks that demand these skills until after you have them hooked on performing.

Short-legged, big-boned: Dogs with this body type, such as Bulldogs or Basset Hounds, may be high on enthusiasm, but due to their frames, they’re low on flexibility skills. Although your dog may not be bred for tricks or activities that demand speed and agility, you dog can excel at plenty of clever tricks such as fetching a ball (Chapter Go Fetch! Finding and Retrieving Tricks) and combat crawling (Chapter Adding Drama with Clever Tricks) that will most definitely wow the crowds!

Stocky and solid: Dogs who have solid builds, such as Rotweillers and Mastiffs, are less agile and more inclined to process their motions rather than act impulsively. Choose tricks and activities that highlight their problem-solving capacities, such as playing the role of pet detective (see Chapter Adding Drama with Clever Tricks) and participating in the breed-specific/mixed-breed hobbies in Chapter Participating in More Hobbies and Breed-Specific Events.

Handicapped dogs: If you’re the owner of a handicapped dog, either by accident or birth defect, I commend you for picking up this book. It says that you accept your dog’s physical limitations, that you recognize that he’s mentally competent and eager to learn — like every other dog in the world — and that you love him with abandon. Set your sights on tricks and other activities that your dog can easily master and perform in front of visitors or a crowd. Having your three-legged dog sit back on his haunches and wave will certainly shift others’ expressions from sadness to delight!

Tagging Your Dog’s Personality

After you understand your dog’s ancestry (see the earlier sections on breed and body type), you need to take an individual look at his personality. Like people, each dog is different, and how dogs relate to the world directly affects how they’ll relate to you, the teacher. Dogs have distinct personalities, and some are definitely more into learning than others. Fortunately, every dog has a weak spot. Whether it’s cheese or liver or a toy, your job is to find something your dog is head over heels for and use it to reward his efforts and encourage his cheerful cooperation. Sure dogs could work for nothing, but that would be like forcing you to work for no pay. Dogs aren’t prisoners, so reward them — the payoff is great!
I’ve identified six character types of dogs that I refer to throughout the rest of the book. Read them over and identify yours:

 Eager Beaver: As trick dogs, these creatures will do whatever it takes to make you happy, although they can be difficult and manic if you ignore them. Presented with new material, it’s almost as if they’re racing the clock to figure out what you want.

You’ll notice they excel in tricks that approximate what their particular breed was designed to do. With this dog, all you have to do is decide what’s next, and it’s done. Though enthusiasm and staying power are a must, harsh techniques will crush their spirit.

Joe Cool: These fellows are laid back and relaxed, and they’re not terribly interested in organized activities. Obedience puts them to sleep, and when it comes to tricks, you may get a teenager-style eye roll when you request “Paw.”

But every dog — even the coolest of the cool — has a soft spot for something. Maybe it’s cheese; maybe it’s dried liver. But after you discover it, you’ll be amazed at how quickly your mellow fellow will come to life. Lessons must be kept short and your enthusiasm high to keep these guys awake and interested.

Comedian: These guys are the Jerry Seinfelds of the dog world. They live for a laugh. These wonder dogs will figure out a routine before you’ve had a chance to learn it yourself. Quick-minded perfectionists, comedians will get into a lot of trouble if they’re not directed.

Bully: These dogs take themselves far too seriously. In a group of dogs, they’d be destined to lead, and your home is no different. Unless you’re an experienced trainer, dogs with this nature can be difficult to work with.

Obedience training is a must, and although bullies are often turned off by lighthearted tricks, they excel in organized activities such as tracking or agility. If your bully dog threatens you, seek the advice of a professional trainer, and don’t delay.

Sweetie Pie: Docile and mild, these dogs like to observe situations rather than control them. Whereas obedience training makes them feel more secure about situations, tricks and organized activities help build their confidence. They adore the people they love and train best under a soft, patient hand. Yelling or hitting frightens them terribly, even when it’s not directed at them.

Nervous Nellie: These dogs like to view their world from behind your legs. Be patient and forgiving when teaching new maneuvers, and you’ll notice how eager your dog is to please you. Training is essential to help these dogs feel more secure and to build their confidence.

Rolling with Your Dog’s Natural Gifts

All dogs have natural talents: activities they live for and things they love to do. Whether you appreciate them, well, that’s another story. Fortunately, trick and adventure training can channel your dog’s passions into skills that put a smile on your face. Sound too good to be true? It’s not. Read through this section to get a quick gauge on what sort of tricks to start with, depending on your dog’s strengths.

Carrying: The Retrieving Rover

The Retrieving Rover likes to put everything in his mouth. Toys, shoes, paper towels — they’re all the same in this fellow’s eyes. Correcting this behavior is pointless. When you yell, it’s perceived as prize envy: You want what he has, so it must be worth keeping! Chasing him only increases the obvious value of what he has, and the frustration level ratchets up. Now your dog is training you.
Turn these frustrations on their tail by working on the retrieving and carrying skills in Chapter Go Fetch! Finding and Retrieving Tricks. Because you can’t turn off the mouthing gene, you may as well get some help carrying in the mail and collecting the dirty laundry.
You can get a head start on retrieval skills with a treat-cup game. Because your dog considers all his finds to be treasures (from his bone or favorite dog toy to the TV remote), encourage him to bring them by rewarding him with a treat from the treat cup. You may think you’re rewarding delinquent chewing, but in fact, chewing won’t become a problem because your dog is now showing you — and sharing — his treasures.


All dogs love treat cups. To make your own, get a few disposable plastic cups or deli containers (cut a hole in the lid of the container for easy access). Fill the cups halfway with small treats or a light breakfast cereal such as Cheerios. Each time you pass a treat cup, shake it and call out your dog’s name. Soon he’ll pay attention every time you call him, treat cup or not.

Entertaining: The Enthusiastic Acrobat

Enthusiastic Acrobats are peppy, bright creatures who are as happy on two paws as they are on four. Alert and inquisitive, they want to be in on everything and are drawn to laughter. Needless to say, their forwardness can be quite annoying if you don’t redirect their energy. Fortunately, they love to learn, and you can start teaching a lot of natural routines from the start. You can find a trick in nearly every chapter that lauds their eagerness — finally, a hobby that rewards their enthusiasm!
Teach good dancing skills (Chapter Jumping and Dancing for Joy), explore jumping and agility routines (Chapter Jumping and Dancing for Joy and Part IV), and turn their aggravating play bows and catch-me-if-you-can prances on their heels with commands like “Take a bow” (Chapter Engaging Favorites).

Problem-solving: The A+ Academic

A+ Academics are the engineers of the dog world. They’re clever, smart, and keenly mindful of life’s natural sequences, so you need to keep one step ahead of this dog’s learning curve. These dogs love multi-step tasks, sporting adventures, and tricks.
As you work on your chosen routines, lighten up these somewhat serious souls with rewards and praise. These dogs can frustrate more easily if they’re not encouraged. A simple game like “Hide and Seek” (Chapter Minding Manners and Trying Out Some Tricks) can help to keep their tails wagging and their minds sharp. You can find other appropriate activities like balancing acts, agility, and flyball in Chapters Adding Drama with Clever TricksTeaching the A-Frame, Dog Walk, Teeter, and Weave Poles, and Sharing Favorite Sports and Backyard Games, respectively.

Moving: The Agile Athlete

Is your puppy into everything? Are your houseplants being uprooted? Lamps overturned? Do you feel like your home has been turned into a racetrack, adventure park, and canine gymnasium rolled into one? Agile Athletes end up in the darndest places, and correcting them only increases their enthusiasm and mischief. Although not getting mad can be hard, you can channel their enthusiasm with the tricks throughout the book. Leaping skills in Chapter Jumping and Dancing for Joy, high five and rolling over in Chapter Engaging Favorites, and fetching tricks in Chapter Go Fetch! Finding and Retrieving Tricks can direct his energy and problem-solving skills and turn your four-legged nightmare into a dream dog.
If you have an Agile Athlete, you’ll want to explore the agility chapters in Part IV, but why wait? Setting up a mini obstacle course in your house or backyard today can absorb your dog’s energy level and tone down his curious streak. Be creative — brooms or logs to hurdle, a tunnel to zip through, or an old tire to climb on. If your house and yard are too small, use what you can find at a local park.


If you have a young dog, make sure your jumps are no higher than your dog’s elbows. Jumping too high can damage growing muscles and joints.

by Sarah Hodgson