Owners find rewards and patience do the trick for pets

For The Baltimore Sun
How can you teach your pet a new trick or two?

Mario and Bella can hardly contain their enthusiasm. The Jack Russell terriers wag their tails and bark excitedly as they jump through a hoop, walk on their front paws and dance on their hind legs.

"These are the first dogs I've ever trained," says their owner, Marian DeAngelo, who showed off her pets' talents recently at the Capital Dog Training Club in Silver Spring.

Since finding out her dogs are unusually talented, DeAngelo has become as enthusiastic as they are, often taking them to perform at hospitals, schools and nursing homes throughout the Baltimore area. "This is my love and my passion," the Rockville resident says.

Champion dogs will vie this week at the Westminster Dog Show in New York for the title best in show, but even pets that aren't show quality can learn to be show-offs.

Teaching a pet tricks beyond basic obedience can benefit both the animal and the owner, local trainers say.

"One of the benefits of teaching tricks is not only is it fun, but it's a great way to bond with the dog," says Alisa Peters, owner of You Silly Dog in Baltimore, who offers a tricks class. "Tricks tend to be more fun because of the way their people are responding to them. It helps your dog learn how to learn."

The secret to training animals is finding what motivates them, says Carol Rosen, a Maryland trainer who has worked with animals that appear in commercials and shows, including the HBO series "House of Cards."

Some animals will work for food, some enjoy toys and others will work to please their owners, she says.

Rosen says her two Jack Russells learn tricks because they enjoy playing with toys. In a commercial with one of her dogs, an actress stuffed a toy ball in her shirt to get the dog to come and lick her on the face. But Rosen says her German shepherd, Jessie, is motivated by simply wanting to please.

Rosen, who lives in Silver Spring and offers a tricks class through her Positive Dog Training School, says she learned the importance of motivation when she started training horses in 1978. "You can't make a 2,000-pound animal do what it doesn't want to do," she says.

Animals, like people, can learn their lines for shows and commercials, but just like people, some are more talented than others, she says.

"Every dog has a different personality," Rosen says. "Some love to work and show off."

And some dogs are more intelligent than others. "But within any breeds, you can have really smart and the opposite," she adds.

Herding dogs are often the easiest to teach because they are bred to take commands from humans. Terriers will usually work for toys that remind them of the small prey they were bred to catch.

And each species is different. Rosen says she has seen trainers teach chickens and even an iguana. Cats are smart, but they are usually not very motivated, she adds.

Rosen's three cats will come and sit on command. She taught one of her cats to ride on a scooter when he was a kitten, but now that he is an adult, he doesn't always want to do it, she says.

Tecla Walton, owner of Tecla's K-9 Academy in Ellicott City and Elkridge, says sometimes a stubborn animal can turn out to be the best performer.

Her shepherd Aries was such an animal. When he was a puppy, she tried to train him with treats, but he always was more interested in what other dogs in the arena were doing. She said it took almost a year to develop a bond with the dog, but he has since won numerous obedience championships.

Sometimes the training isn't a matter of the animal's intelligence or motivation but the knowledge of the trainer. Marian Hardy of Rockville says she rescued her 14-year-old toy poodle, Ping, when he was a year old because his original owners didn't think he was smart.

The problem, she says, was he was so smart he had his own way of doing things. Hardy shows Ping in freestyle movement competitions, and even though she choreographs his performances, he frequently adds his own variations. "He's got a sense of humor," Hardy says.

Peters, who has been training dogs for 12 years, says the easiest tricks to teach a dog are those similar to behaviors the dog already possesses. For example, young dogs will often put their paws up when they want something. It's easy to teach them to shake or give a high-five by rewarding them when they do it.

When dogs are excited and playing, they often jump and bow. At those times, the key is to capture that moment and give them a reward so they can associate the behavior with a command and a treat. Some trainers use a clicker so the animal will know right away when it has done something right.

Stacie Beasley of Upper Marlboro has taught her Keeshond, Clancy, to play a child's toy piano, honk a horn and strum a guitar by adding on to the command to stick out his paw. The 31/2-year-old also falls down in a dramatic "play dead" when Beasley pretends to shoot him with her finger.

"We started it for fun and bonding," says Beasley, who recently showed off Clancy's talents at the Maryland Pet Expo in Timonium. She takes Clancy to hospitals and nursing homes and has begun posting videos of his tricks to raise awareness of animal cruelty in puppy mills.

Rosen says she begins training her own animals when they are young by putting strange objects, such as skateboards or a toy shopping cart, in the house. She prepares them for work in commercials or shows by taking them to stores and other public places so they can become used to distractions.

"Over time, they take in the unexpected," she says.

Most trainers use positive reinforcement rather than punishment to teach animals. "If we can make it gentle and fun, and we can motivate the dog in some way, whether it is treats, belly rubs or games, it will be enjoyable for the dog," Peters says. "We try to make it as fun for the dog as possible. If the dog is not enjoying it, what is the point?"

Although younger dogs are usually easier to train, it is possible to teach an old dog new tricks. Sometimes, however, an older dog may not be as agile as a younger dog or might need more time to catch on to what's expected, especially if the dog never learned any tricks when it was younger.

"The dog is basically learning how to learn," Peters says. "The bottom line is they are capable of learning throughout their life."

DeAngelo says she continues to be amazed at how eager Bella and Mario are to learn. The brother and sister are like human siblings, and they have different strengths. Mario is more athletic and less afraid of heights, but Bella learns some tricks more quickly than he does.

The education is a two-way street, DeAngelo says. "Everyday I'm learning."

Tips for teaching a pet tricks

Find out what motivates your animal, whether it is food, toys or praise.

Build on behaviors the animal already knows or does instinctively.

Reward the animal immediately when it performs the desired behavior so it learns to associate the action with the treat.

Recognize that animals, like humans, have different talents and abilities. Older and larger dogs, for instance, may lack the agility of smaller and younger dogs.

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