Teaching your pet some skills can enrich his life and strengthen the bond between you. Karen Cornish investigates the best ways to educate your dog, cat or rabbit
Pets can learn to perform all manner of tricks, from heeding a potentially life-saving ‘wait’ command to more unusual activities such as skateboarding.
‘The benefits of training are huge,’ says behaviourist Claire Stallard from animal welfare charity Blue Cross. ‘Mental stimulation is very important.’ Indeed, trick training is likely to result in better overall health, helping to build muscle tone and stamina in your pet and improve his or her flexibility and balance.
Training should always be fun. ‘You should never use methods that intimidate or cause your pet pain or fear,’ says Clare. ‘Pets, like people, do not learn when they are stressed or frightened.’
Clicker training – where a device is used to make a sound that tells an animal when it is doing the right thing – is especially popular. A retractable pen or vocal noise can be just as effective. Before you start training, teach your pet that a click equals a reward by clicking and giving a treat straightaway.
Dog trainer Karen Wild advises using plenty of rewards. ‘Having a clear goal in mind can help, too,’ she says, ‘such as deciding that you want your dog to wave a paw when you wave at him. But “free shaping” can also be fun: let the dog choose to do things, and if they are things you’d like him to repeat, click and treat him. It can lead to fun actions you’d never have expected.
‘I wouldn’t use shop-bought training treats,’ continues Karen. ‘I mix a bit of a dog’s usual kibble with tiny pieces of chicken or ham so as not to spoil their diet.’
Gina Stokes has been training dogs in agility and canine freestyle (performing in time to music) for almost 10 years. ‘My Border Collie knows many tricks,’ she says. ‘Her most unique is basketball. She will get the ball and stand on her hind legs to drop it in a mini basketball hoop. And my Welsh Sheepdog Cross knows how to jump a skipping rope with me.’
Teaching a pet to be happy being handled, get into their carrier willingly or sit still while having their nails clipped are all ways in which tricks can minimise stress. It’s often said that a well-trained dog is a happy dog and, providing that the tricks you choose are always based on their natural behaviour, other animals can also benefit greatly from training.
Clever cats, bright bunnies
Pet agony aunt and cat expert Celia Haddon has used clicker training to teach her five cats and recommends that owners use training to enrich their pets’ lives.
‘There are immense benefits to training animals such as cats and house rabbits,’ she says. ‘It gives them something to do and enjoy, and can boost the relationship between owner and pet.’ Dr Anne McBride, a lecturer and animal behaviour therapist
specialising in rabbits, says, ‘You can teach a rabbit to come when called, go into a carrier when you need to take him to the vet, and jump up onto your lap. But remember that, as a prey species, they are easily frightened by noise.’ The clicker used for dog training may be too loud, and a retractable pen or a tongue click are quieter yet just as effective.
For maximum success, never force a pet to do something they don’t enjoy, keep within their limitations and stick to short training sessions. And, of course, don’t forget to treat yourself for a job well done!
Teach a cat to sit and beg
You can teach your cat that the sound of a clicker means food over several short training sessions. When she sits of her own accord, click as her bottom hits the floor, and treat. Repeat frequently. Add the cue word ‘sit’ just before she sits down; click and treat. Then hold a treat above her head so that she has to stretch to reach it. Add the cue ‘beg’ just before she rises up. Now you shouldn’t need to hold the treat above her head. Click while she’s up there and treat.
Ask a dog to shake hands
With your dog sitting in front of you, hold his paw for a second before clicking and treating. Repeat often in short sessions.
Now encourage him to lift his paw by tapping his leg gently or patting the floor in front of him. Click and treat even the slightest paw movement. Continue until he offers his paw each time.
Then add a cue word such as ‘shake’ just before lowering your hand. Once he reliably offers his paw on your cue word, gradually fade out the clicker and treats.
Get a rabbit to go in a carrier
Put a dish containing a few treats near your rabbit. If she looks at it, click and treat, and again as she moves towards it. Repeat, but gradually increase the distance between rabbit and bowl. Click just before she reaches the food.
When she does this confidently, place the bowl just inside the carrier. Repeat as above. When your rabbit is freely going into the carrier from about 10 feet away, add a cue word, such as ‘bed’. Say it just before she’s about to move into the hutch. This will need repeating 40–60 times, in short sessions, before she connects the cue and the action.
Five great games for dogs
Discover five ways to play with your dog at blog.petplan.co.uk/doggames
Why not tell us about your own games in the comment box!
Top training products
Brain Games for Dogs by Claire Arrowsmith
A collection of games and tricks you can enjoy with your dog to give him a good mental workout. RRP £9.99; available from all good stockists.
CLIX Target Stick
This telescopic target stick has a soft rubber bulb on the end, which provides a visual target to help guide your pet into various positions. RRP £5.69; companyofanimals.co.uk
Mikki Deluxe Training Treat Bag
This handy bag keeps pockets free from treat crumbs and smells. The easy-close pouch allows for single-handed access, and can be machinewashed.RRP £9.35; pet-supermarket.co.uk
This clicker has a volume/tone control, so it’s useful for training sound-sensitive pets. The step-by-step guide shows you how to teach a dog to sit, lie down and perform basic heelwork. RRP £3.49; companyofanimals.co.uk
Just Jumps Cat High Jump
Designed for cats and small dogs, this high jump has a fully adjustable jump bar and is free-standing, so it can be used anywhere. RRP £23.94; agilitywarehouse.com