Tricks and games can teach your dog what he needs to know, while making training sessions more enjoyable and interesting for both of you.

Does teaching your dog to shake a paw qualify as training? It does if it’s also teaching him to earn something he values. Tricks and games are actually great training tools because they exercise and mentally stimulate your dog, improve cognitive processes, teach a reliable response to cues, and strengthen the human/canine bond. Plus they add an element of fun to the training process.

Tricks can be functional or purely entertaining, and both are useful in training because they teach your dog to do a variety of different things on cue. Functional tricks include identifying and retrieving objects, opening and closing doors, and turning lights on and off. Examples of entertaining tricks include “stick ’em up” or “pull my finger” (more on these later).

Start with a positive approach

In order to achieve your dog’s maximum potential, all training should be positive and motivational – never intimidating. It’s been scientifically proven that fear, stress and anxiety inhibit a dog’s ability to think, learn, remember, problem-solve and make choices, so punishment and reprimands are clearly counter-productive to the training process. By using a positive approach, you have a dog that’s eager to make the correct choice, instead one that’s afraid to make the wrong choice.

Fun and games


These improve your dog’s coordination and increase his strength. You can start simple with doggy “push-ups” that involve alternating between sit and down positions, or else teach your dog to catch balls or other objects. Tug is another great physical game, but it’s important that you be the one who always starts and ends each game. Games involving balls, tug toys, etc., can help you develop reliable “leave it”, “drop it” and “take it” cues, which are especially essential for dogs that pick up inappropriate items. It can also be handy to teach a dog that loves to fetch to put objects “in my hand”. For example, we taught one dog named Kimo to fetch a beer.


Games can also serve as great mental workouts. The more you cognitively challenge your dog, the sharper he will become. Games not only improve memory, but also create a thinking dog that is flexible and resilient.

The cup game is a fun and simple one to try. You’ll need a friend or family member to assist you. First, place four cups (opaque plastic is a good choice) upside down in a row approximately four feet apart. Stand at the far end of the room with your dog on a leash and have your helper approach him and allow him to sniff a treat or small toy. Your assistant then places the treat or toy under one of the cups at the opposite end of the room. Take your dog out of the room, count to ten, then return and release him to find the treat or toy under the cup.

mental canine games for trainingTraining through tricks

There are numerous positive methods for creating new behaviors and tricks to put on cue. For the dog, it’s about learning new behaviors to earn valued resources; for the intended audience, it can be quite entertaining.

Lure-reward training: This involves using something the dog values, such as food or other resources, to motivate and move him. When he follows the lure (it could be a treat, toy, etc.), you can ask him to move his body into various positions such as sit, down and spin.

Capturing: This technique is used to put natural behaviors offered by a dog on cue. For example, when Wile E. Coyote was rescued, she was starving and therefore highly food-motivated. When she saw food she’d spin in circles, wave her paws in the air and then, because she was so weak at the time, lie down to rest. We started rewarding her spins and put them on cue; turned her paw movements into “wave” and “stick em’ up”; and turned her offered down position into “bang”.

Shaping: A required behavior is achieved by rewarding a succession of small steps until you reach a polished end result. This mentally stimulates the dog by tapping into his “cause and effect” mind. We used shaping to teach Skye to perform in the musical Annie. As part of her role, she had to slowly enter stage left with her head hanging (she was sad), stop center stage and look left then right (she was alone), hang her head again, then slowly exit stage right. At the end of the show, she descended a staircase to center stage with the rest of the cast to give her bow and exit. Guess who got the biggest applause?

Targeting: In this technique, the dog is taught to touch a part of his body to a target of choice. Targeting can be used to teach him to heel, move away from you, go to a specific mark, retrieve, flip light switches, open and close doors, and more. You can create cute tricks such the one in which Sahara touches her nose to ours in an “Eskimo kiss”. Others can be funny, like “pull my finger”, in which Leia puts her mouth on a treat-scented finger. We now use this as a check in cue while the dog is off-leash.

Training sessions should be fun and using games and tricks as part of your daily routine is a great way to achieve that. Building a bond and teaching self-control doesn’t have to seem like work, and it certainly shouldn’t be intimidating or stressful for the dog. Training should be enjoyable for both of you, while teaching your dog to think for himself, exhibit self-control and make correct choices. We want companions, not slaves!


Norma Jeanne Laurette, IPDTA-CDT, launched her Puppy Power Training, Behavior & Aggression Therapy Centre in 1992. She has consulted with clients worldwide and taught over 6,000 classes and over 400 professional trainers in nine countries with her Canine Correspondence Studies certification career course. She is co-founder of ACTT (Applied Canine Therapy & Training) and founder and chair of IPDTA (International Positive Dog Training Association).