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The Listen Dog Blog

Welcome to the Listen Dog Blog!


I'll be keeping it up-to-date with regular catch-ups on what I've been up to, plenty of original articles on obedience training and behavioural best practice, plus top tips and ideas you can work on at home with your own four-legged friend!


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By listendogtraining, Nov 9 2016 02:55PM

We’ve all been there (honestly, I have too!): you’re all set to transform Fido into the next trick dog extraordinaire, clicker in hand, bait bag at the ready... you begin engaging your dog, and what happens? He stares at you blankly like you’ve left the building entirely.

‘What is this human prancing about for? What does she expect me to do? And why is she waving that bit of cheese about? If only she knew how ridiculous she looked...’

No matter how hard you try and lure the dog to even partially attempt the manoeuvre you have in mind, he is having absolutely none of it.

‘I’ll just sit and wait this little episode out. I feel like she wants to give me the cheese... if I’m patient enough normality will return, and I’ll eat it and leave!’

Some dogs are what we call ‘biddable’. Typically, dogs bred to work closely alongside humans, like Labrador Retrievers (hunting companions) or Border Collies (shepherding dogs) are incredibly biddable when it comes to obedience and trick-training, because they possess an extreme compatibility with mankind; they have been bred specifically for how well they take instruction and how enthusiastic they are to do our bidding!

Then there are those who are not so ‘biddable.’ I don’t want to shoe-box any dog by its breed, because each and every dog is an individual in its own right, but if we take breeds like hounds and terriers as an example, I can more easily demonstrate what I mean. These dogs have been bred to think more independently; to make decisions for themselves and work towards the best outcome regardless of human intervention or instruction. A terrier would be a very poor ratting dog if he waited for his human to instruct him to capture each rodent, and likewise a hound wouldn’t have a very high success rate if he had to hang around for a human to direct him. We rely on these breeds to do their work independently – to follow their own noses and pounce on prey when they deem it fit to – for optimum success in these fields.

So being a less biddable dog is by no means indicative of a dog being less intelligent – far from it, rather that a dog is less acquiescent; they are less inclined to do what you are asking of them, quite simply because they didn’t think of it themselves.

So How Do We Get These Dogs Excited About Trick Training?

A lot of tricks can taught to a biddable dog using ‘lure and reward.’ If your dog is not interested in the lure however, this method falls flat on its face pretty sharpish. So let’s switch tactics and explore a training method called ‘free shaping.’

Hunting for the behaviour that will make the clicker ‘click’ and the human drop the cheese can be the biggest reward available to an independent-minded canine; an exciting process can be far more important to these dogs than an actual goal. Think about how excited children get during an Easter egg hunt, even when the prize is only a small chocolate egg or two: nothing that spectacular, and nothing the kids haven’t had before. But in the context of a ‘hunt’ suddenly those little prizes become a whole lot more exciting – more so than if they were simply handed over to the children at the beginning of the day with no fuss whatsoever. Well it’s the same for dogs who are on the ‘hunt’ for that magical behaviour that makes the human drop the cheese!

If you teach your dog using free shaping, he will become animated, excited and ambitious; a dog who is used to free-shaping will throw out all manner of behaviours when a piece of cheese comes into play, hoping each time to hit on the correct one and release the treat, but enjoying the entire process of trying, and learning. Free shaping can turn even the most scatterbrained dog into a training maniac!

What Is Free Shaping?

Free shaping is the art of building a desired behaviour by rewarding approximations of that behaviour, and gradually holding out for closer and closer approximations, until you hit the jackpot.

Let’s take fetching an object to a human as an example: I want to train my dog to fetch me my slippers. To begin with, I’ll sit in the room with the dog, a clicker, some treats and my slippers... and I’ll do nothing. I’m looking for any behaviour at all that would be the tiniest approximation of him fetching my slippers – and I’m going to let him work this out for himself. The first rewardable move would probably be for him to look at the slippers, or point his head away from me, and in their general direction. As soon as he does (no matter how long it takes) I would immediately click and treat. (Clickers are a fantastic tool for free-shaping, as they enable you to mark the precise moment/behaviour that you wish to reward). After a while, the dog may do this again (probably by accident at this stage) and I would immediately click-treat again. After a while, the light-bulb moment occurs, as the dog realises looking at the slippers gets him a treat. So he offers this behaviour repeatedly. Now you hold out for a closer approximation: I want him to look at them and take a step towards them. Click-treat. Once this behaviour is offered repeatedly, I’m going to hold out for more once again. I want him to look at them, walk towards them and nudge them with his muzzle.

You see how it works? You do not lure your dog to perform a behaviour; he must work it out entirely for himself based on experimenting with what works and what doesn’t. All of a sudden, the thrill of the chase is more fun than eating the cheese! And the more you often you do this, the more you’ll find yourself with a dog who is thinking, experimenting, throwing out behaviours, and working things out in his brain. If you put in the time and effort to create excitement in your dog’s mind for the learning process itself, you’ll find yourself working with a highly focussed, highly engaged friend who is as enthusiastic about trick-training as you are!

Try This Free Shaping Exercise:

Step 1. Place a shoebox lid on the floor, and reward ANY interaction with it. Do not lure him, just reward ANYTHING he does with the lid – look at it, paw it, bite it. We are teaching the dog that exploration, and action earns him rewards... doing nothing earns him nothing! We are teaching him to think. (If it helps, you can throw the treat in the lid after the click to give him a clue that this is a ‘hot’ area! You can also put your hands behind your back if your dog is just obsessing over the treats.

Step 2. Choose a behaviour, and shape it (e.g ‘pick up the box lid’). Break that behaviour down into frames (e.g. 1. Dog looks away from me; 2. Dog looks at box; 3. Dog takes a step towards box; 4. Dog lowers muzzle towards box; 5. Dog opens mouth, etc.) and reward each behaviour. Reward each tiny frame at least 3 or 4 times, before you hold out for more – do not allow the dog to fail too much or he will become frustrated/discouraged.

By listendogtraining, May 17 2016 08:52PM

Some people just LOVE teaching their dog tricks… getting your canine to perform on cue – especially if you have an audience – can be great fun! Others however, deem trick-training to have no real purpose, arguing only in favour of the meat and potatoes of a good solid foundation in obedience training. After all, in what circumstance is it ever going to be handy that your dog can spin in a circle on his back legs upon request? Probably none whatsoever. But that doesn’t mean that trick-training is pointless… far from it. Read on to find out all about the wealth of benefits trick-training can offer you and your four-legged friend, what you’ll need to try it out, and exactly how to get started.

Benefits of Trick Training:

Mental Stimulation

Think about it – your dog can’t play a board game, read a book, or enjoy a good film… he needs other ways to engage his brain, and trick training is a fantastic opportunity to give his brain a good workout! You’ll be improving his problem-solving skills as you encourage him to work out what behaviours you are looking for through luring, shaping, marking and rewarding.

It’s Great For Rainy Days

If you have a high energy, high endurance dog, like a Labrador Retriever or a Border Collie, you’ll be amongst the first to wax lyrical about the importance of ensuring your canine companion gets oodles of daily exercise!

However, most people are unaware that a good 5-10 minute trick-training session can be more tiring than a walk itself. Of course, at Listen Dog we are firm advocates of your dog getting enough physical exercise on a daily basis, regardless of the weather – however a well-placed trick training session can help to take the ‘fizz’ out of an exuberant dog who’s yet to receive his morning walk, or buy you some time if you’ve had to delay a jaunt in the park due to an unpleasant storm. Using all that brain-power uses up energy, and can leave dogs feeling just as spent as a hearty game of tug, or a stretch of fetch.

Enjoy A Better Relationship

The more positive things you do with your dog, the better your relationship will become – it’s simple isn’t it? If you keep training sessions upbeat, enjoyable and successful for your dog, he’ll actually look forward to them – and he’ll look forward to trying to please you as a matter of habit. And owning a dog whose default setting is to try and please you is always a joy!

Improves Your Dog’s Ability To Learn

The more time you spend training your dog to perform tricks, the better his problem-solving abilities will become as he grows accustomed to the process of running through behaviours, paying attention to you and looking for ever-more discreet cues, and generally becoming more aware of the lines of communication between you both. All of this adds up to improving your dog’s general ability to learn, which in turn will improve his basic obedience (you know, that crucial meat and potatoes stuff, that is definitely useful in the big wide world!)

Top Tips For Successful Trick Training:

Invest in Literature

As simple as it sounds – stocking up on a few good quality dog-trick books is a fantastic way to jump-start your new hobby. Find one or two that you really like (if money’s tight, try road-testing a couple from the library first) and leave them on the coffee table or out on the kitchen worktop – wherever you go about your daily routine! It takes less than a minute to flick through a book and find a trick you like the look of, and it takes less than 5 minutes to introduce the trick to your dog in the form of a training session. So all those little moments throughout the day – waiting for the kettle to boil, waiting for dinner to cook, waiting for the bathroom... suddenly they’ll become the moments you come to utilise and look forward to!


Some tricks – like ‘lay down’ are fairly straightforward, and luring your dog into the correct finishing position is easy, whilst other require a little more guidance. Be patient with your dog, and reward baby steps along the way. The goal of each training session is simply to get better results than the last time. For example, whilst training an over-enthusiastic Labrador to ‘beg’ (sit on hind quarters whilst both front paws are offered up in a stationery position) I initially lured her front end off the ground, and marked and rewarded (using a clicker) every time she lifted her front paws. Progressively, I then aimed to ensure she kept her rear end in a sitting position as she raised her front feet, so I only marked and rewarded this behaviour. Once she understood this, I then only marked and rewarded when she held the position for a split second, as opposed to just throwing herself up then straight back down again. This process is called shaping, and is a really helpful way to break down more complex tricks into manageable chunks so that neither you, nor your dog ends up confused and frustrated.


In trick training, it is imperative that you ‘mark’ the precise moment your pet performs the correct action. Dogs make very direct associations, and will only associate a reward with whatever they did immediately prior to its delivery; if, for example you tell your dog to lay down, which she does, but whilst you’re fishing in your pocket for a treat she stands up and takes a step toward you, you are not rewarding the correct behaviour. However, rewarding your dog with a treat at the exact moment or in exactly the desired position is not always possible – hence why most trick trainers wax lyrical about ‘marking’...


This is why clickers are so wonderful – they’re both easy and instantaneous – two things that the swift delivery of a piece of cheese just cannot always be! If you and your dog are entirely new to clicker training, you will need to initially ‘charge’ the clicker up – which means building a positive association with the clicker in your dog’s mind. Put simply, sit with your dog, your clicker, and a pot of treats for a few minutes, and click-treat, click-treat, click-treat... you get the idea. Your dog quickly learns that a click represents success and impending reward. So for those moments when you can’t deliver a treat immediately, you deliver a click – cementing in your dog’s mind the exact behaviour that the following treat is a reward for, and increasing the likelihood that he will repeat that exact behaviour, the next time you ask!

Put In The Time

Honestly, I can’t stress this enough, because it’s happened to me so many times – you may feel like you’ve been trying to teach one trick for weeks but your dog is just never going to understand it... he’s just squirming, pawing and obsessing over the treat in your hand... don’t stress. Keep going through the motions, day after day, and you will SEE the lightbulb moment when it occurs – and boy will you be glad you persevered!

Maybe it’s just me, but I love the buzz of seeing a dog fully understand a complex request, and knowing that it’s because of the work I’ve put in. And remember, when your dog succeeds at something, HE feels great about it too; you can sleep easy knowing that your dog is happier, because of you!

Motivate Your Dog

Try to ensure you always set your dog up to succeed; don’t ask too much of him, and always break down bigger or more complicated tricks into smaller steps that he can achieve and be rewarded for. Try not to let him be wrong more than two or three times in a row, or he will end up feeling frustrated and discouraged. For trick-training to work, you need your dog to WANT to learn, and the best way to achieve that is to ensure he enjoys the process of learning. If he repeatedly fails at something, take it a step back, and practise executing and rewarding an earlier stage of the trick for a while – always set your dog up for success, not failure. Also remember to keep training sessions short, and end on a high note. When you are about to finish, it can be good to quickly run through two or three commands your dog is confident with, to let him finish on a high, in anticipation of the next session, rather than dreading it.

Want To Take It Further?

Dog trainers tend to train the hardest when working toward a goal – it helps to keep you motivated and focused when you’re striving towards a specific end-game, and Do More With Your Dog provides you with just that, in the form of progressive Trick Dog Titles which you and your dog can work towards, one at a time, as your trick training progresses! Each title, from Novice to Champion involves the successful training and performing of a checklist of progressively complex tricks, and will earn you certification and a title ribbon.

For more details on how to get involved, click here to find out about the first certificate, and download your first checklist and application form!

Always remember – trick-training is meant to be fun for both of you! Keep it positive, and you and your dog will go far.

Listen Dog training will be launching tailored Trick Training workshops in September 2016. To register your interest and be added to our waiting list, get in touch today!

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