Tricks Contest: How to Teach Your Trick with Luring, Shaping or Capturing

People have been teaching dogs tricks since they starting hanging out together, many moons ago. That is my guess, anyway. After all, we both like to play, we both have a sense of humor (some more than others, both species), and we both seem to find it entertaining. I can just picture the first time someone tossed a dog a scrap of meat, and the dog caught it in her mouth. “Cool trick,” the onlookers must have said (presumably in an early Homo sapiens dialect).

So now, here you are, looking at your dog. And your dog is looking back at you, maybe a little bored, or maybe even a little optimistic that you’ve got something interesting for him to do today.  Well, it’s his lucky day, because it’s time to learn a new trick.

Tricks can help a shy dog come out of her shell, can help a busy dog calm down and focus, and can wear out a young, energetic beast who needs something to wrap his mind around. Many a dog has gotten plenty of aerobic exercise, but still has too many ants in the pants from lack of mental stimulation. Tricks fit the bill. They can also relax your dog in the veterinary waiting room, help your dog warm up for a dog sport, or facilitate an interaction between with children or other people who may prefer to enjoy your dog at a slight distance. When you think about it, a lot of impressive dog training, like agility or competition obedience, is really many tricks strung together.

Where to start? The first thing to know is, you can’t botch it up. If it doesn’t work out, so what? Start over fresh, or teach a different trick. It is pressure-free training at its finest. A good way to try out some tricks training is to experiment with the three main ways to teach a trick (there are other ways, but we’ll stick with these three for now). Before you start you should plan on what you are going to call your trick (this is the “cue”).  But (and this is a big but) for the last two methods listed here you will not use a verbal cue until the trick is completely taught (dogs don’t speak English anyway, so it doesn’t help them to chant the word over and over).  I recommend putting only finished tricks on cue, as otherwise your cue will only get you a so-so response. Save the cue for the action you want to show off as the final product.

Helpful Hints

  • Use tiny, pea-sized, very special rewards.
  • Keep training segments super short (1-3 minutes). Your entire session can be longer if you break the segments up with play or down-time. (Dogs who understand shaping–see below–are often highly motivated to train for longer sessions.)
  • Use the cue word only once you have the polished behavior.

Remember to enter the Big Tricks Contest. No experience necessary, any level difficulty trick is eligible. You can post here for troubleshooting help between now and February 15th. Someone has to win, right? It could be you!

Here are the three methods with which to experiment:


This means the dog already does the trick, you just have to put a name to it. It’s something she already does in her daily life, like stretch when she wakes up from a nap (call it Take a Bow!) or shake her whole body from nose to tail when she is wet or has just gotten up form rolling on the ground (call it Dry Off!). The difference is that you will teach the dog that if she hears the cue for the action, then she should offer it on purpose.

That’s what makes it a trick; you cue it, she does it, there is applause.

On the video in the last blog entry, you’ll see the dog is cued with the word “Hungy?” and she licks her lips. I did not teach her to lick her lips; she already did that on her own. I waited for her to lick them, and the moment before she did so, I said, “Hungry?” and rewarded her.  After doing that nine million times (actually, it was really more like ten times), I could say, “Hungry?” when she wasn’t even expecting it, and she would lick her lips. Ta da!

To use capturing, pick the action your dog does that is predictable. For two or three days, keep an eye out for when he is about to do the action you want to capture. Within 2 seconds of him doing the behavior, before he does it, say the cue word in a calm, neutral voice. When the behavior has ended, say “yes!” and reward him with a treat. Don’t want to carry treats around? When you think about how fast you’ll have a pretty complicated, completed trick, it doesn‘t seem like such a big deal to carry a pocketful of treats around for a couple of days. Besides, I bet you can come pretty close to predicting exactly when your dog is about to offer the action you are hoping to capture.

Just a word of caution. Capturing is a good idea for actions your dog does that you like and that you won’t mind seeing more of. You may have read in a dog training book that it’s easy enough to capture a behavior you don’t like by putting it on cue, so that the dog won’t do it at all unless you ask. (Barking and pawing are examples you’ll come across. “Just teach him to bark on cue and then he won’t do it in the absence of the cue,” the books will claim.) However, I don’t recommend trying that for behaviors you don’t like. Most people are not obsessive enough about training to put a behavior under perfect stimulus control (meaning the dog does it only when cued), and they can end up with a dog who offers the annoying behavior more than he did before you started cueing and rewarding it. Just thought I would give you the heads up.


This means you take something your dog will follow with his head, like a food treat or a toy, and you hold it close to the dog’s nose. You will pretend the desired item has a magnet in it, and that the opposite pole magnet is in your dog’s nose. Therefore, anywhere you move the lure, your dog’s head will follow. Neat! (If your dog won’t follow the lure, he is telling you he doesn’t care about it. Pick something yummier.)

If you took your dog to a basic obedience or manners class, you probably lured your dog into a sit: head following the treat goes up, butt goes down. Ideally you would have said, “Yes!” to mark the moment the hiney hit the floor, and then popped the lure into your dog’s mouth as a reward. This is a wonderful method to use if you need to make the action happen right then and there (class time is limited after all), or if you would like a hand motion or hand signal to be part of the dog’s trick.

Suppose you want to teach your dog to “spin,” meaning he should pivot to his right in a tight circle. You would offer the thing he likes right in front of his face so he can lick at the treat or follow the toy with his eyes. Ever so slowly, you will lure your dog around to his right. When he completes the circle, you say “yes!” and release the reward item to him. If making the entire circle is too much, teach half a circle and build from there. (Hint: start with the dog in a standing position; if he’s sitting, he can’t pivot too well. Back up and make a kissy noise and he’ll stand up to come toward you.)

As soon as your dog has the hang of it, meaning he goes right around as soon as he sees the lure moving, you should begin phasing out the lure (or he will become dependent on it to do the trick). Hide the reward in your opposite hand. Hold an invisible lure in the hand you’ve been using all along. “Lure” your dog around in the tiny circle with your invisible lure (this will ensure all your body, eye and hand cues all still look the same). When your dog completes the circle, say, “Yes!” and reward from the hidden treat in your opposite hand. This is how you explain to the dog that he doesn’t need to see the reward in order to perform, but that it’s the hand motions that counts. Eventually you will hide the reward in your pocket, then on a counter top, then hidden somewhere in the room, until you don’t need it at all. When he’s really good at it, say “spin” a split second *before* you move your arm and he’ll learn the word for the trick. If you want to eliminate the hand signal, you can “fade” it out of the trick by making your arm movement slightly less dramatic each time you cue the trick, until it disappears altogether. Fancy!

In the video, the dog is cued to lie down with the word “down,” but I used luring to teach the trick. First I used the treat to get her in a down position. Once she was doing the motion reliably, I stopped holding a food treat but did the same hand motion. Then I added the word “down” before my hand motion. Finally, by making my hand motion just a teeny tiny bit less obvious each time, the dog learned that just the word “down” meant to lie down, no hand motion needed.


Now more than ever, this method is all the rage in the dog training world.  Although I would not say it is better than the other two methods, like the other two, it has its advantages. There is no lure to fade out of the trick. There is also no arm or hand motion to fade out. The dog may have a stronger understanding of the trick because he has to figure it out by trying different things, rather than being shown the finished product from the beginning. And you can get your dog to offer all sorts of actions that would be pretty darned hard, if not impossible, to lure or capture.

They key here is to make sure you have first taught the dog that the word “Yes” is the sound that means he has just earned a treat. You will use this sound to communicate with him every step of the way. Some people use a device called a clicker, because it is a unique, neutral sound that the dog can readily key in on as having the meaning “you just earned a treat!” “Good dog” won’t really cut it for this, because it’s used in too many ways and not always followed by a special treat. To load the word “yes” with meaning, just say, “Yes!” pause a beat, then feed the treat. After about ten repetitions your dog will have it, especially if you use bits of cheese.

The trick “Potluck” from the video was taught using shaping. This means at our first training session I said, “Yes!” and rewarded the dog for any, even tiny, remotely bowl-related behavior she offered. At first she may have only glanced at the bowl, which I marked with the word “yes” and rewarded. Then I said “yes” for her sniffing it, followed by nudging it or walking near it. As the session evolved, she tried hard to make me say the word, “Yes!” by offering new things. As soon as she started engaging with the bowl deliberately and actively, I started getting pickier about what I would say “Yes” for. Soon I was saying “Yes” for any feet in the bowl, then only for all four feet in the bowl, then only for all four feet in the bowl plus staying in it. Then I finished the trick by saying, “Potluck!” just as she was hopping in the bowl.

So first teach your dog the magic word (Yes=treat). Then start rewarding for any movement, then for movement more related to the finished product (however remotely), and then gradually get pickier. You should be saying “Yes” and rewarding a lot because your dog has no clue what the desired action is and you’ve got to keep her in the game until her guesses start looking like what you want. Your goal is to gradually and purposefully shape the final behavior by rewarding tiny, incremental steps toward it.