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Teaching Your Dog to "Speak"

By: Dr. Amy Wolff

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Teaching your dog a few simple tricks is fun and entertaining for both you and your pet. It's best if your dog knows and reliably responds to the basic obedience commands of sit, stay and down before teaching him to perform tricks. Most tricks are built on basic obedience work anyway and, in the process of being taught "the basics," your dog will have learned to pay attention to you during training sessions.

If your dog has an orthopedic problem, check with your veterinarian before proceeding with more advanced training. Even relatively simple tricks can place unnecessary stress on bones and joints that are in any way compromised.

Successful of training of your dog hinges on rewarding the desired behavioral response in a timely fashion. The most valued rewards differ from dog to dog: For some, food it is the most powerful reward, for others, praise or petting are what they crave. Some dogs will do whatever their owners want them to just to have a little playtime. Find the reward that best motivates your dog to learn and stick with it. Work with your dog daily in 5 to 15 minute sessions. Keep training fun, and end sessions on a high note with reward for a job well done. If you feel yourself getting frustrated or tired, quit and try again later.

When you teach your dog to SPEAK, you are not giving him permission to bark every time he hears a noise or sees a moving object. This command is one your dog will respond to only when asked. If taught properly, barking on command should not encourage the frequent barker to be more vocal, and may even have the opposite effect. If your dog has a problem with excessive barking, it may be due to anxiety, boredom, or may even be part of a breed characteristic personality. Talk to your veterinarian about possible solutions to the problem of a the dog that barks excessively.

"Speaking" should consist of a few short barks, and then your pet should quit. "This is a trick, like "sit" or "shake," that must have a clear end point. To teach your dog to speak, rely on situations that you know cause your dog to bark. Two common bark-promoting circumstances are offering a food treat and knocking at the door (or ringing the doorbell).

To tempt your dog with food, show him a treat. Use a higher, more excited voice than normal and ask him to SPEAK. Most dogs will bark if the treat is withheld long enough. If your dog barks, give him the treat and praise. Practice a few times and then try it without food.

If your dog does not respond to food, but you know he will respond to a knock or a ring at the door, try giving the SPEAK command, than rap on your door or ring the bell yourself. Sometimes your dog will bark even if he sees you do this. If not, enlist a friend to ring or knock right after you give the command. If this situation would normally cause your dog to start some frenzied running around the house, put him on a leash first to control his behavior and focus his attention. Once you get a few barks, offer a treat and praise.

Continue to practice this trick over and over again. Always use a happy singsong voice and lots of positive reinforcement. Eventually, your dog will understand what you want, and when, and will readily speak when asked.

The keys to success in training your dog tricks are patience, practice, praise, and persistence. During training, every small step your dog takes in the right direction should be rewarded as though he had just won the lottery. Tricks are fun – and learning how to do them should be fun, too.

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