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How to bring out your dog’s inner genius

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How smart is your dog? It’s a question more and more people are asking and trying to answer with things like a DIY dog IQ test. Now, there are even more academic studies of the subject with some universities, like Yale, setting up their own centers for canine cognition. According to the New York Times, people are flocking to them to find out how smart their dogs are.

But you don’t need to travel miles to a university lab to help improve your dog’s intelligence. Here are eight simple games you can play to help increase your dog’s smarts, fulfill her need for discipline, and tighten your bond with her.

Old dog, new trick
The simplest way to boost your dog’s intelligence is to teach him a trick or command he doesn’t know yet, while ignoring the tricks that he does know. As with teaching a dog any new tricks, the most important props are positive rewards and patience and your best tool is instinct.

That is, if you’re trying to teach your dog to shake, don’t grab their paw to try to make him get the idea. Instead, wait for him to move his paw, then reward that. As he associates a reward with the action, he should become more definite with his paw movements, until he’s performing “shake” and thinking it was his idea.

A variation on this one which is good if your dog already knows a lot of tricks is “no repeat.” That is, reward your dog for performing a trick he already knows, but then don’t let him repeat any tricks during the training period, which should last no more than thirty minutes so you don’t overtax your dog’s mind. This will also help him improve his memory, since he has to remember what he’s done already and try something else.

In case you’re looking for new tricks to teach your dog, here’s a list of 52. That’s a new trick every week for a year!

Muffin ball
Creating a mental challenge for your dog doesn’t have to that complicated or expensive. For this one, you probably have most of the part already around the house or can find them at the local dollar store. All you need is a muffin or cupcake pan, some tennis balls, and treats.

Start by hiding a few treats in some of the cups in the pan, then filling them with the balls, which should be just the right size to fit the openings and cover the treats. Then, let your dog try to find the treats and figure out that she’ll have to move the tennis balls to get to them. Best of all, this costs a lot less than commercially available hide-a-treat toys.

Hidden treasure
Nose, eyes, ears — that’s the order in which a dog perceive the world, and this game is all about the sense of smell. It can also be a good starter if you ever want to get your dog into search and rescue training.

Basically, your dog is going to be using his nose to find the hidden treats. When starting out the game, begin by having your dog sit and stay, and then show him where you’ve hidden the treat amongst a few small boxes. Once he gets the hang of finding the treat that he’s seen you hide, make it a little more difficult. Don’t let him see where you’ve hidden the treat, increase the number of boxes, or find a hiding place that can mask the smell, like with an old sock.

If you want to vary things or add more incentive, reward your dog with a high value treat for finding the hidden regular treat.

Shell game
This is exactly what it sounds like and a variation of hide-and-seek, although shells are strictly optional and you’ll probably want to use something bigger. The important part is that you have three covers that your dog can’t see through.

Hide a treat under one of the covers and start by just letting your dog figure out that she has to knock over or move only that one cover to get the treat. Once she’s mastered this part, then you can shuffle the covers after you’ve hidden the treat. Note that she doesn’t get a reward for cheating by knocking over the wrong cover or more than one. She only gets the treat when she picks the right one on the first try.

Hide and seek
This one doesn’t require very much explanation because it’s exactly what it sounds like, although you can choose between hiding a treat or other scented object somewhere or by hiding yourself and seeing how long it takes your dog to find you.

Depending on how easily you can get your dog to sit and stay while you go hide, you may need another person to help with the game. It also works indoors or out, so you can play no matter what the weather is like.

Name that toy!
There’s still some disagreement on how many words the average dog can learn. A lot of estimates put it at around 165, although several dogs have tested higher, with the current record-holder, a border collie named Chaser, demonstrated knowledge of 1,022 words. Fortunately, you probably don’t have that many toys lying around, so your dog is probably perfectly capable of learning the names of all of his.

The goal is to teach your dog to bring you a particular toy when you ask for it by name. The secrets are repetition and consistency. You have to repeat the name in association with the particular toy until your dog will select the right one every time, but you also have to use the same name for each toy every time. You can’t say “Bring be the blue ball” some times and “Bring me the ball” others, because this will confuse him.

Incidentally, while dogs don’t see color the same way that we do, they can still learn to associate a color with an object if there are other differences — for example, if one ball is very bright and the other is dark, if they’re different sizes, or smell different because of the material they’re made of. And they can distinguish the colors themselves if they are different enough in dog vision — for example, a red ball and a blue ball. Dogs are particularly adept at seeing blue.

Pick a hand
This is a good trick for teaching your dog to pay attention to you and follow your instructions, and is fairly simple to teach. The idea is that you will show the dog which hand you have a treat in, but teach her that she has to pick the hand you name regardless of where the treat is hidden.

This trick is a bit more advanced, so it shouldn’t be the first one you teach, but if your dog is sufficiently motivated by the reward, she should pick it up eventually. Show the treat and hide it in your hand, then hold both of your hands in front of the dog while repeating which hand you want her to choose — for example, your left. When she touches the correct hand with her nose or her paw (your choice), then she gets the treat. Try to vary it so that sometimes you’re naming the hand with the treat and sometimes you’re not.

Keep in mind that this trick can be very confusing to your dog at first, so watch for signs that she’s becoming frustrated, in which case you’ll want to start with the treat in the hand you name most of the time until she seems confident on the difference between right and left.

Stop and go
Before this game, your dog should already have a mastery of the commands “sit,” “stay,” and “come.” Work in an area where your dog can safely be off-leash, or at least where you don’t have to hold his leash if you’d prefer to have a quick way to step in and stop him.

Next, get your dog to chase a toy — ideally, one with some kind of rope or line attached so that you can pull it from a distance. Then, while your dog is chasing the toy, give them the command to sit or stay. If they ignore the command, withdraw the toy and put them in a sit. If the dog does sit on your command, then give him the okay to go immediately.

The idea is to train your dog to focus on you even during the distraction of play, as well as the idea that the faster he sits the faster you’ll release him to chase the toy again.
Remember that our dogs like to make us happy and they like to figure things out. With the games above, you can help fulfill your dog’s need for a job and discipline, while improving her mind.

How to get your dog to listen to you

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When your dog won’t listen to your commands, it can be frustrating — and it can also be dangerous.

After all, this kind of communication can help keep your dog out of trouble, preventing him from running out into a busy street or eating something he shouldn’t. It can also help keep you sane by helping you manage problem behaviors.

But it’s not always easy to get to the root of the problem. So where do you start if your dog doesn’t obey — either in specific situations or all of the time? Here are a few problems you may be encountering.

Remove excess energy
If you’ve ever tried to communicate with a hyper toddler, then you know how excited energy can be distracting. It’s no different with dogs. When your pup is raring to go, his only focus is on releasing all that pent-up energy inside, and he’s going to have a hard time listening to you.

So remember to practice first exercise, then discipline, and then affection. A daily walk that truly drains all of your dog’s energy will go a long way.

Be consistent
If your dog is receiving different messages about his behavior, he won’t understand what you want from him. That’s also true if individual family members enforce different rules. Sit down as a family and discuss the rules, boundaries, and limitations you want to set for your dog. It can be helpful to write them down and display them somewhere prominent.

Master your energy
Dogs listen to their pack leaders, and you can only be that leader if you are displaying calm-assertive energy. If you’re frantic or uncertain as you give a command, your dog will tune you out. Unfortunately, many of us aren’t really aware of the energy we are giving off. Have a friend observe your behavior and give you feedback — or even film it so you can see for yourself.

Go back to basics
Does your dog truly know the command? It can take hundreds or even thousands of repetitions for some dogs to learn a new skill. Practice makes perfect. You may need to focus on training again to ensure your dog really has it down.

Stop relying on verbal commands
Dogs don’t speak to one another; they use energy and body language to communicate. So it’s not surprising that they sometimes have trouble picking up on our verbal commands, particularly when they are bombarded by our constant yammering all day.

Even if they know a command, they may actually associate it more with a non-verbal cue you give at the same time — something you may not even realize you’re doing.

If your dog is listening to you, consider what may have changed about your physical presence. Are you holding a baby? Are you sitting down? Are you looking away? Small changes like these may be impacting your ability to fully communicate your message like you normally would.

Notice your dog’s emotional state
Beyond pent-up energy, your dog may be distracted by a number of emotions. If you are trying to train her to come when a neighbor’s dog approaches, your pup may instead be so focused on claiming her territory that she’s tuned you out. Or she may be so frightened by the sound of thunder and lightning that there’s little mental space to hear your command to go to her crate.

You have to deal with the underlying issue before you can get your dog to really listen to you.

If you continue to have problems, consider hiring a professional to help. Communication between you and your dog is important for both of you and worth the investment of your time and energy.

Tricks for treats: Training your dog with food

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Food is a powerful motivator for dogs — which is why it can often be very effective for obedience training.

You are asking your dog to complete what may be a complicated task for her — understand a verbal or visual cue and then perform a desired behavior. This may seem straightforward and simple to you, but dogs don’t communicate this way in nature. By harnessing the power of something that is very primal to them — food — you can make learning the task much easier for them.

Here are a few tips for how to approach food-oriented obedience training:

Related: 5 essential commands you can teach your dog
Use small treats
It’s easy to overdo it with treats, particularly while you are training. Help ensure your dog maintains his weight by using small treats or even pieces of treats.

Reward a calm-submissive state
Remember, you are reinforcing whatever behavior preceded the treat, so don’t unintentionally reward hyperactive behavior. Wait until your dog is in the right frame of mind to give it.

Don’t bribe your dog
Here’s the situation you want to avoid. Your dog learns how to do a command… but he’ll only do it when he knows there’s a treat waiting for him at the end of it. Treats are great for initially getting your dog’s attention, but eventually you should rely on them less and less. Instead, share reinforcement by giving your attention or affection.

Reward each step towards the desired behavior
Many people make the mistake of trying to get their dog to perform the entire task before giving the treat… and become frustrated when it doesn’t work. Instead, you want to reward progress — no matter how small — towards the ultimate goal. Often in the beginning, that progress is accidental on the part of your dog.

For instance, maybe you are trying to train your dog to sit, and he lowers his butt just a little. Give him a treat. When he does it again, give the treat again. Eventually he’ll figure out what the treat is connected to. Then you can wait to reward him until he gets his rear even closer to the ground… until finally he’s sitting for it.

“Fade the lure”
This technique helps to avoid the treat becoming a bribe. You’ll use the treat a few times to entice the dog to do what you want, such as lower his head to the ground or coming towards you. Then use the same gesture but keep you hand empty.

When he completes the task, give him verbal encouragement, “Yes.” Then give him the treat with the other hand or a nearby surface, such as the floor. Eventually, you’ll want to only randomly provide the treat, and then stop using the treats entirely.

Give the food where you’d like your dog to be. Remember, the behavior that precedes the treat is reinforced, and that includes your dog’s position. If you want to reward your dog for lying down, then only give it to your dog lying down (or taking an incremental step towards lying down) — not after she pops up excitedly.

Remove distractions
Having trouble getting your dog to pay attention to the food? It may be because there’s something more interesting in the environment, such as whirring cars, scurrying squirrels, or playing children. Find a place where your dog’s focus will be on you and that tasty treat.

Try different treats
Another common problem with food-oriented obedience training is your dog’s taste. It’s possible the treat you’re using simply isn’t delicious enough to be exciting and motivate the behavior you desire. Test out different healthy dog treats until you find one that gets your dog’s attention.

Consider clicker training
You can also combine giving the treat with the sound that a clicker makes. Your dog will associate that sound with a reward, and eventually it will take the place of the treat.

Of course, some dogs are more food-oriented than others. If food doesn’t capture your dog’s attention, toys and your affection may work instead. For those who do have a big appetite for a tasty treat, always opt for a healthy reward.

5 essential commands you can teach your dog

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Having a trained dog isn’t the same as having a balanced dog, but if your dog knows a few basic commands, it can be helpful when tackling problem behaviors — existing ones or those that may develop in the future.

So where do you start with dog obedience training? You could take a class, but it’s not necessary; you can do it yourself. In fact, with the right attitude, it can be fun for both you and your dog!

Related: 6 steps to teaching your dog to fetch
Sit
This is one of the easiest dog obedience commands to teach, so it’s a good one to start with.

Hold a treat close to your dog’s nose.
Move your hand up, allowing his head to follow the treat and causing his bottom to lower.
Once he’s in sitting position, say “Sit,” give him the treat, and share affection.
Repeat this sequence a few times every day until your dog has it mastered. Then ask your dog to sit before mealtime, when leaving for walks, and during other situations where you’d like him calm and seated.

Come
This command can help keep a dog out of trouble, bringing him back to you if you lose grip on the leash or accidentally leave the front door open.

Put a leash and collar on your dog.
Go down to his level and say, “Come,” while gently pulling on the leash.
When he gets to you, reward him with affection and a treat.
Once he’s mastered it with the leash, remove it — and practice the command in a safe, enclosed area.

Down
This can be one of the more difficult commands in dog obedience training. Why? Because the position is a submissive posture. You can help by keeping training positive and relaxed, particularly with fearful or anxious dogs.

Find a particularly good smelling treat, and hold it in your closed fist.
Hold your hand up to your dog’s snout. When he sniffs it, move your hand to the floor, so he follows.
Then slide your hand along the ground in front of him to encourage his body to follow his head.

Once he’s in the down position, say “Down,” give him the treat, and share affection.
Repeat it every day. If your dog tries to sit up or lunges toward your hand, say “No” and take your hand away. Don’t push him into a down position, and encourage every step your dog takes toward the right position. After all, he’s working hard to figure it out!

Stay
Before attempting this one, make sure your dog is an expert at the “Sit” command.

First, ask your dog to “Sit.”
Then open the palm of your hand in front of you, and say “Stay.”
Take a few steps back. Reward him with a treat and affection if he stays.
Gradually increase the number of steps you take before giving the treat.

Always reward your pup for staying put — even if it’s just for a few seconds.
This is an exercise in self-control for your dog, so don’t be discouraged if it takes a while to master, particularly for puppies and high-energy dogs. After all, they want to be on the move and not just sitting there waiting.

Leave it
This can help keep your dog safe when his curiosity gets the better of him, like if he smells something intriguing but possibly dangerous on the ground! The goal is to teach your pup that he gets something even better for ignoring the other item.

Place a treat in both hands.
Show him one enclosed fist with the treat inside, and say, “Leave it.”
Let him lick, sniff, mouth, paw, and bark to try to get it — and ignore the behaviors.
Once he stops trying, give him the treat from the other hand.
Repeat until your dog moves away from that first fist when you say, “Leave it.”

Next, only give your dog the treat when he moves away from that first fist and also looks up at you.
Once your dog consistently moves away from the first treat and gives you eye contact when you say the command, you’re ready to take it up a notch. For this, use two different treats — one that’s just all right and one that’s a particularly good smelling and tasty favorite for your pup.

Say “Leave it,” place the less attractive treat on the floor, and cover it with your hand.
Wait until your dog ignores that treat and looks at you. Then remove that treat from the floor, give him the better treat and share affection immediately.

Once he’s got it, place the less tasty treat on the floor… but don’t completely cover it with your hand. Instead hold it a little bit above the treat. Over time, gradually move your hand farther and farther away until your hand is about 6 inches above.

Now he’s ready to practice with you standing up! Follow the same steps, but if he tries to snatch the less tasty treat, cover it with your foot.
Don’t rush the process. Remember, you’re asking a lot of your dog. If you take it up a notch and he’s really struggling, go back to the previous stage.

Just these five simple commands can help keep your dog safer and improve your communication with him. It’s well worth the investment of your time and effort. Remember, the process takes time, so only start a dog obedience training session if you’re in the right mindset to practice calm-assertive energy and patience.

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