They say depression has tripled in the United States since the start of the pandemic, with corresponding increases in suicide rates, domestic abuse, and addictions. It’s not hard to see why, and I’m not sure what to do about it. I am sure, however, that training my trick dogs has helped me get out of bed in the morning, and even laugh and smile. It’s helped my friends and my students, especially during the pandemic. Trick dog training won’t save the world, but it could save a dog person or two, and dog people are my favorite animals. If you’re feeling down or even desperate, if scrolling through puppy pictures isn’t helping anymore, consider teaching a dog to do a trick. And here’s why:
You can practice tricks anywhere, any time. Because many tricks don’t require any space or special equipment, trick dog training is an activity you and your dog can share in any room of the house or anywhere you go. You can practice in the kitchen while your spaghetti boils, on your morning walk, in line for your turn in the agility ring, any time and any place you want to connect and amuse yourselves. Practicing tricks is also a great comfort to a dog who’s nervous at the vet or groomer. You don’t have to be an expert at anything. You can be a child or a senior. You don’t have to be an athlete, or even remotely fit. You may even suffer disabilities. For tricks, you don’t even have to leave your house.
- Tricks cost you nothing. YouTube is filled with free lessons on how to teach your dog to do everything from shake to a handstand, but once you get the hang of basic training, you can probably figure out how to teach all kinds of behaviors. For example, on my channel you can find short videos on how to train simple favorites all the way up to sophisticated expert-level tricks. It means a lot to me that people say they especially love my videos because it’s clear your dog doesn’t have to be perfect. Thanks to Do More With Your Dog, there are also free “Spark” teams on Facebook where you can get free coaching and camaraderie. In fact, you can join me and my group right here and now.
- It’s not just low-stress, it’s stress relief. Hallelujah, the stakes are low! Unlike some tricks, such as “stay,” “come,” or “off,” no one’s life is in danger if your dog can’t roll over properly. Unless you’ve entered yourselves in some kind of a tricks contest, there’s nothing to lose, no need for perfection, just the sheer joy of interacting and working toward a shared goal. Tricks, by their very nature, are playful, creative, and fun, and who doesn’t need more playfulness? Isn’t that one of the biggest reasons we have dogs in our lives?
Training your dog is good for you. Besides helping your dog become a better companion and you a better trainer, the activity of trick dog training requires you to be patient, focused, and full present for your dog. Tricks training gives you a few minutes of mindfulness, during which you pay relaxed, focused attention to your dog. Relax your shoulders. Become aware of your dog and your body in space and time. Suspend judgement of yourself and your dog. Be playful and creative with each other. Mindfulness relieves stress, improves sleep, alleviates pain, and contributes to a whole host of health benefits.
- Dog training increases oxytocin. Known as “the love hormone” or “the cuddle hormone,” oxytocin is the hormone responsible for “pair bonding.” Raising your levels of oxytocin reduces stress, alleviates pain, and fights depression. Yes, you can increase oxytocin simply by petting, grooming, and cuddling your dog, but trick dog training encourages playful, loving face-to-face interaction. Eye contact is known to boost oxytocin and reduce the stress hormone, cortisol, and it’s a big part of why lovers and parents with babies gaze into each other’s eyes.
Modern dog training creates a positivity loop. Unlike in some training situations, in trick dog training there’s never any excuse for negative reinforcement—as I said, the stakes are so low. If it isn’t fun, you aren’t doing it right. Using all-positive techniques to train a trick, I find myself “rewarding the best, ignoring the rest.” My dogs are delighted when they please me and get their rewards, and I share vicariously in their accomplishments. I also feel like a kind and loving person and a good trainer. I find myself in good spirits, and laugh at assumptions they make and my own errors. Later, when I may have frustrated or disappointed myself or I’m embroiled in a stressful moment with a difficult customer service representative, I remember to focus on what’s going well instead of what isn’t. I’m more likely to do some cognitive restructuring and think healthier thoughts. I’m more likely to feel grateful. I’m a happier person and others are happier with me. Dog training can completely turn a downward spiraling mood around.
Tricks training leads to accomplishment. Besides all the benefits I’ve already listed, you will feel the dopamine rush of mastery when your dog finally lifts his paw to shake, rolls over by himself in front of your friends and family, or wows the world in your next TikTok video. In addition to all these hurrah moments, you can also set goals and work toward them earning you titles. AKC Trick Dog and Do More With Your Dog offer all kinds of trick dog titles. Plus, tricks are a big part of Canine Freestyle, Agility, Nose Work, and most other dog sports. You will never run out of the fun you and your dog can have together!
Still not motivated? Here are a few more reasons to give it a try. what do you have to lose? So chop up some cheese or hot dog and grab your dog–or someone else’s dog–and say, “shake.” You and the dog will be happy you did.