Trick Dog Specialist Sara Carson on Training Your Dog

Trick Dog Specialist Sara Carson on Training Your Dog

If you have a dog, chances are you’ve tried to teach them a few tricks. Most people and their dogs can easily master a few basics – “sit” and “paw” come to mind – but more complex tricks might seem impossible. There’s a perception that you have to be some kind of masterful, professionally trained dog-whisperer to get your dog to do complex tricks.

Not so. Training a dog is a skill, and just like any other skill, it requires time and patience to master. One of the most masterful dog trainers in the United States today is Sara Carson, whose amazing border collies have been featured on “America’s Got Talent.” Carson and her extraordinarily well-trained dogs competed on the show and took fifth place in the show's 2017 season, returning to compete again for the Champion’s Edition in 2019. Carson has also released a book entitled “Super Dog Tricks” and competes in dog-training competitions across the land. Her dogs do astonishing tricks such as walking handstands and incredible frisbee jumps. While you might not get your Dachshund or Great Dane to do a walking handstand, with a little bit of effort and consistency, you too can train your dog to do amazing things.

Obedience Training vs. Trick Training: What’s the Difference?

Most dog owners are (hopefully) aware that obedience training is essential for dogs. But teaching a dog to sit or beg is very different from teaching them a complex trick, right? Not necessarily. “Every trick is just a behavior,” explains Carson. When your dog learns to sit, come, heel, or beg, they are learning to display a specific behavior. Complex tricks are also specific behaviors, albeit slightly more complicated ones. The fundamental principle of dog training is that your dog should be rewarded in some way for demonstrating a desired behavior.

For some dogs, the reward is affection, a squirt from a water bottle, or a specific toy, but most dogs are highly food-motivated. As such, you’ll find hundreds of dog training treat products lining the shelves of any pet supply shop. But you don’t need to run out and buy special training treats for your dog: Carson recommends using your dog’s kibble for training.

Using kibble lets you incorporate training time into feeding time. You are probably feeding your dog their kibble at consistent mealtimes, and your dog is probably looking forward to eating its meal. This is an opportunity to engage with your dog and leverage their lust for food. Instead of pouring their kibble into the bowl and letting them go nuts, Carson recommends making them work a little bit. Take some of the kibbles in your hand and use them to train your dog for a minute or two. Have them sit, wait, lay, or beg. Carson believes that the mental stimulation of making your dog earn their kibble is a good way to help develop your dog’s cognitive skills. Making them work for their food stimulates and motivates our canine friends. “It just takes five to ten minutes a day to use your dog’s meals, just get them to sit or stay. Just work their brains…you have to find the balance between working and not working for their food,” says Carson.

Building a Strong Foundation

So how should we approach our dogs? How do we begin training them basic tricks? Most dog owners love the idea of bonding with their dogs by teaching them how to do something cool, but many people aren’t sure where to begin with dog training.

First and foremost, Carson says, see a veterinarian. If your dog has had certain kinds of surgeries, or if they suffer from a condition like hip dysplasia or patellar luxation, you should be sure not to teach them behaviors that will aggravate their condition or cause them harm. Once your dog is medically cleared, start small. Teach your dog that you have the reward and that it is beneficial for them to pay attention to you. Take a few kibbles in your hand and have your dog follow your hand with their head. Some dogs are fast learners and intuitively grasp the idea that the human has food in its hand. Other dogs will simply stare at you and wait for you to drop the food – these guys will take a little more finessing, but the basic objective is to teach them to follow your hand.

Building on this, Carson says you should consider throwing your dog’s food. Chuck a couple of kibbles and let your dog chase and eat them, then make them come back to you for more. When teaching your dog a specific trick, wait until they demonstrate the behavior before you reward them. Some trainers do not like this approach, but Carson finds that it works well – and her dogs are very well adjusted. “I wait until my dog offers the correct behavior to reward him,” she explains. She never starves or deprives her dogs, but she is not afraid to make them trade a behavior for a reward.

Sara Carson and Hawkeye
Sara Carson and her dog Hawkeye / Photo courtesy of Sara Carson

Two-Way Learning

Teaching a dog is a two-way street. While we understand that our dogs are learning from us, we also have to learn from them. Learn your dog’s behaviors and cues. Pay attention to them: what do they want? What kind of behavior are they trying to elicit from you? What is the nature of your relationship with your dog – are you in charge, or is the dog leading the way? Dogs are easy to underestimate, and they are deceptively good at training people. You may find yourself giving in and doing something that your dog wants, or you may find yourself letting your dog do something you don’t want it to do. Without a sustained, focused effort in training your dog, you may well find that your dog has trained you! “We have all of these emotions and thoughts and feelings about [training our dogs],” Carson says. It’s easy to lose discipline when you’re emotionally attached to your furry pal but you have to learn how your own expectations and behaviors interact with your dog in order to effectively train them. 

Take It Slow

One of the key factors in training your dog to do great tricks is to be patient. Dog training is not a race so much as it is a journey. Your dog will never be “done” training. Ideally, even everyday activities like going for a walk will incorporate some dog training, and every activity can be a learning experience for you both. The key to learning with your dog is being patient with them. Your dog is an individual with a different temperament, history, and brain than every other dog, and as such you have to exercise patience and discretion when training them. Adjust your expectations to meet reality, and understand that your dog may learn at a different pace from another dog. According to Carson, “Every single dog is different. Every behavior is going to be different for every dog…people need to be more patient, more lax about how long it’s going to take them to do something because you really just don’t know until you get into it.”

Be Consistent

Part of taking it slow is being consistent. You must help your dog build muscle memory and reinforce the cognitive pathways behind any given trick. Just like teaching a human to do complex mathematics, practice makes perfect. You should be training with your dog every day. This might sound like a ridiculous expectation: after all, we’re all very busy people. The average person’s day-to-day life is crammed full of activities, work, obligations, and so on. When can we find time for consistent dog training?

The thing about training your dog is that it doesn’t have to be massively time-consuming. Five to ten minutes a day is enough time to teach them some basic tricks and build a solid rapport. Spread out over time, you can easily teach a dog new behaviors in five or ten minutes a day. And even though we are all busy, the reality is that most people can carve out five or ten minutes. How many hours a day do we spend aimlessly scrolling on our phones? How long does it take the coffee pot to brew in the morning? How much TV are we watching every night? A lot of the time, we are not so much “busy” as we are cultivating the illusion of being busy. In all likelihood, you can find five minutes twice a day to train your dog, especially if you follow Carson’s advice and train them at mealtime. “Before you put their bowl on the ground, before you feed your dog, get them to do something. Even just one thing,” she explains.

What if you miss a few days? Even if a lot of our busyness is illusory, there may be times when you miss a few sessions with your pooch. Don’t panic! If you miss a day or two, chances are your dog will be able to pick back up pretty close to where they left off. Carson has had one training client whose dog could remember complex tricks eight months after learning them!

That said, Carson encourages dog owners to practice safety training with their dogs every day. “Safety stuff like recall or crate training for separation anxiety, in my opinion, is a necessity. I always tell people to just never let that slide,” she says.

3 Basic Tricks for Beginners

Before you try to teach your dog to pour you a beer or dance the tango, teach them basic tricks. Carson’s first recommendation is to teach them to spin. “Most people don’t know that dogs don’t really know that they have back feet, so I like to start with spin because it teaches the dog how to use their body and that they have a body.” After teaching your dog to follow your hand, make them follow it in a complete circle. Once they’ve mastered the circle, associate the command word with the action. Before you know it, your dog will be spinning like a washing machine.

Carson’s second recommendation is the leg weave. This is especially helpful if you eventually want to teach your dog to dance. It helps them understand your body language and teaches them how to coordinate their motions with your motions. Teaching your dog the leg weave is also a great way to help them stretch and move in unusual directions.

Third, teach your dog how to do a nose touch. The touch command teaches your dog to touch their nose to your hand. While this is a simple trick, it is incredibly useful in redirecting your dog. It can be used to call them from across a room, direct them around an obstacle, get them in a car or off a sofa, or even provide a new way of saying hello to new people. The nose touch is an excellent foundational trick, as it allows you to guide your dog into new and more complex behaviors.

3 Advanced Tricks To Work Toward

Training your dog to spin, weave, and touch will provide you and your dog with the tools necessary to build into more complicated behaviors. One of Carson’s favorite complex tricks is the walking handstand. The first dog she taught to do a walking handstand was her dog Hero. Training Hero was an exercise in patience and consistency: it took Carson and Hero three years to master the walking handstand. “I was learning how to teach it, and the methods I was learning online were not working. So, I was trying to be a little creative…and one day, he got the behavior, but I knew that there was a way to get it quicker.” Carson learned from this experience, and the next dog she trained took only three and a half months. With more refined methods and a lot more experience under her belt, Carson can now teach some dogs the trick in as little as five days. Experience matters, but so do persistence and consistency.

Another exciting trick is to teach your dog to dance using its hind legs. Dancing is a difficult behavior to teach to dogs. Dogs do not naturally want to stand upright, pivot, and spin: these are behaviors that must be taught and reinforced, and it can take a long time for dogs to build the muscle memory needed to successfully achieve this trick.

A third advanced trick that you can work towards is a foot stall. For this trick, the dog will need to learn how to jump onto their owner’s feet and maintain balance while they have their feet and paws on their person’s feet and hands. This trick requires a lot of coordination and strength, and may not be for all dogs. Your Chihuahua may be too small for this, and your Great Dane might break your back, so think carefully and realistically about the abilities of you and your dog.

Bonding With Your Dog

Humans and dogs share an ancient bond, but we no longer sit together around campfires sharing squirrel meat or whatever it is that our ancestors did with their dogs. What are the best ways to bond with your dog? First and foremost, get obedience training. Formal training helps you both develop the skills necessary to engage in bonding activities. Other great ways to bond are to take your dog on little trips. Carson likes to bring her dogs with her to Lowes, outdoor cafes or restaurants, and Starbucks, where you can get a Pup Cup for your pooch. Inserting your dog into your life and bringing it with you wherever you can is the best way to cement a strong bond with your dog.

Paradoxically, you must also teach your dog independence. Crate training is a great way to teach your dog how to relax and enjoy their own space without you. This is a critical skill as dogs are not welcome everywhere. Even if you work from home and spend a ton of time with your dog, you are going to have doctor’s appointments or errands that you can’t include them in. Even if you are home all the time you should teach your dog how to be alone in the crate to prevent separation anxiety from developing. Bonding with your dog should include both structured activities together and structured time apart to help them develop a balanced set of skills for dealing with life.

Five Ways To Improve Your Dog’s Quality of Life

1. Provide Mental Stimulation.

Everybody knows that dogs need exercise, but they also need mental stimulation. You should spend five to ten minutes a day training your dog. Frequent training with enticing rewards helps keep your dog motivated and engaged, and helps them develop muscle memory for commands. Carson likes to gamify training: for example, she’ll play the box game, placing a box on the floor and rewarding desired behaviors when the dog demonstrates them. She also recommends reframing walking the dog into training time. Bring some rewards on the walk, and reward good behavior when your dog demonstrates it. This is far more productive than letting your dog drag you all over the neighborhood.

2. Teach Your Dog Their Name.

To teach your dog their name, interact with them. When they make eye contact, say their name and reward them. Try throwing food or treats for them to chase: when they get their treat, say their name. When they come back to you, reward them again. Carson says it is also helpful to separate your dog’s name from the command you are trying to teach them. Say their name, then after they acknowledge you, issue them a command.

3. Train For Duration.

Train your dogs to perform a trick with duration. For example, don’t immediately reward a successful sit. Make them wait a few seconds, and gradually increase the intervals before rewarding them. Duration is especially important when you are crate training or training a dog to go to their place.

4. Integrate Car Rides.

Too many dog owners only put their dogs in the car when they’re heading for the vet. Try bringing your dog to new, fun places. The hardware store, Starbucks, the park, or even the beach are all good places to bring your dog in the car. Start with drives around the block, increase the duration, and offer rewards. This will help your dog become a successful car traveler.

5. Have Patience.

Dogs are wonderful creatures but they can be frustrating. They have a mind of their own and do not behave like humans. Dogs are individuals with their own discrete emotions, needs, and motivations. Just like with people, patience and kindness go a long way toward building a strong bond with your dog.

Sara Carson and her dog Fury
Sara Carson and her dog Fury / Photo by Jamie Popper and courtesy of Sara Carson

Is There Ever a Bad Time To Get a Dog?

If you don’t have a dog but you’re thinking about getting one, make sure you can realistically incorporate a dog into your life. When the pandemic first began, many people ran out and adopted dogs, only to return them to the shelters later when they realized they didn’t have the bandwidth, patience, or space for a dog. The pandemic also made it difficult for people to adequately socialize their dogs. Outside of a pandemic, are there any times when people should not adopt a dog?

In Carson’s opinion, it is a bad idea to adopt a dog if your life is undergoing major transitions. “I would say during big life changes is probably the worst time to get a dog because you don’t know what’s going to happen,” she tells us. This makes a lot of sense. If you are in a job that might transfer you to Italy or Argentina tomorrow, a dog might not be a good idea. If you’re about to have a baby, get married, or get divorced, getting a dog might not be a great decision. Instability is stressful for dogs like it is for people, and if your life changes in a way that means you can no longer have a dog, it will be heartbreaking for both you and your pet when you need to separate. Before getting a dog, Carson says you should be sure you are ready. Dogs are independent and intelligent animals, and they require humans who are emotionally mature enough to provide them with adequate care.

Dog Days

Training your dog to do awesome tricks is something that seems far away but is actually attainable. Just like any other life skill, training a dog gets easier the more you engage with it. Taking the time and energy to train your dog properly will help your dog behave better and help the two of you build a strong, lasting bond. Sure, it takes hard work and energy. But it’s hard to imagine any greater reward than the loving gaze of your canine companion. You may never become a celebrity dog trainer like Sara Carson, but making an honest effort to do right by your dog is something you will never, ever regret doing.

Cover photo by Pratt + Kreidich Photography and courtesy of Sara Carson.

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