Teaching Simple Tricks

Teaching a dog to follow cues like “Sit,” “Stay,” or “Go to Mat” allows them to learn independence. When they associate a reward (a treat and praise) with a behavior, it reinforces a positive message that performing the behavior will lead to a reward. For cats, teaching a simple cue like “Touch” is one way to increase your human-animal bond and to engage your pet with an entertaining activity you can both enjoy.

Set the Scene
When teaching a pet new behaviors, begin in a distraction-free environment. Limit any interruptions from other people or animals or noise from the television or radio. You’ll probably want to start training your dog indoors and move outdoors once they’ve mastered the tricks. Have your training-only treats ready; or you can opt to use a clicker. Keep the interactions fun so your pet stays engaged; maintain eye contact and vary the amount of time between asking for a behavior and offering a reward (1 to 3 seconds). Note that there is more than one way to train pets; click the links in each trick for some variations and additional techniques.

The Basics
For any trick, the association you’re teaching is: cue, lure, behavior, reward. To help your pet learn this, repetition is key. When teaching specific tricks, you’ll want to integrate “the twist,” which will be how to physically cue the behavior, such as motioning to their mat, luring them into a “sit” or “down” position, or instructing them to “stay.”

  • Give the cue (integrate the specific “twist” for the behavior you want – see below for details).
  • Have the treat in one hand and lure the behavior.
  • Reward with a treat and praise.

Teaching “Touch”
The Twist:
 While either sitting or standing, hold an empty hand out at your pet’s nose level. Keep your treat in the other hand, hidden behind your back. As your pet leans in toward your open hand, say, “Yes!” and immediately offer the treat. If your pet is hesitant to touch your hand (this is more common with cats), then help guide the behavior by offering a “Yes!” and reward as they get closer to it.

After repeating this many times and it’s clear that your dog or cat has made the association between the cue and the desired behavior, you can begin to give the cue with your open hand in a different location and from farther away.

Teaching “Sit”
The Twist: 
Give the cue, “Sit” and hold a treat about an inch from your pet’s nose with fingers pointing up and palm facing up. Slowly lure your pet into a sitting position by bringing your hand forward and above your pet’s nose. (If you’re working with a dog and he jumps for the treat, you may have moved too far away or too far upward.) Your pet will shift his weight back and lower his hind end to the ground. As soon as he sits, say, “Yes!” and reward with the treat. Repeat the cue in the same way so that he comfortably and naturally backs into a sitting position. Again, reward with a “Yes!” and a treat.

Teaching “Stay”
The Twist: 
Take a step back from your cat or dog and give the cue, “Stay,” in a long, low tone while holding one hand up, palm facing your pet. In the other hand, have your treat ready. If she goes for the treat, pull back your treat hand and try again. If your pet stays in place for even a moment, reward with a treat and praise. Say, “Yes!” Once she has mastered the “stay” behavior, you can begin to move farther away and even out of the room. This will reinforce the message that if your pet is left alone, she can expect a reward upon your return.

Teaching “Go to Mat”
The Twist: 
With a treat in your palm facing up, hold your hand close to your pet’s nose and lead them to their mat (or bed or a blanket) while giving the cue, “Go to Mat.” Once they step onto the mat, give the reward and offer praise by saying, “Yes!” We want to teach them to associate the cue with moving to the mat. As they begin to make the association, offer the lure a little farther back so that they are more responsive to the verbal cue. You can also lessen the exaggeration of your movements as they begin to understand.

As with any type of positive-reinforcement training, keep your environment stress-free and focus on engaging your pet. When they are having fun with you, they are more likely to follow your cues. Make sure that you have plenty of low-fat treats and plenty of patience; remember, it’s all about rewards and repetition. Watch SF SPCA Shelter Behavior Manager Aaron Teixeira’s video on preventing separation anxiety for a complete demonstration.

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