By Charlene Dunlap

March 2005

What is a trick? For our purpose of dog training, my Oxford Complete Wordfinder says (in option number four): "An unusual action learned by an animal." Unusual? Okay. What then is usual? Asking Oxford again, we get: "Such as commonly occurs, or is expected according to custom or habit." Theoretically then, this could mean that any action or behavior that a human trains a dog to do on cue could be defined as a trick since dogs would not 'usually' do for us on their own most of what we train them to do. However, I doubt that most people would adhere to a definition this inclusive.

Recently, members of a trick training list I'm on were discussing what they thought constituted a "trick." There was no consensus, but the thing most replies had in common was that a trick was a trained action/behavior that was something fun taught to the dog for amusement and entertainment purposes: That tricks were neither essential as was teaching obedience exercises, nor necessary, like manners would be.
But, an interesting sidenote about dog obedience is that when Blanche Saunders, who was one of the founders of dog obedience in the United States, was touring the country in 1937 giving exhibitions to promote this fledgling sport, she wrote in The Story of Dog Obedience: "The ringside was crowded as every one was anxious to see the two crazy women from New York and their trick Poodles."

For example, police dogs are often trained to climb ladders, walk unstable surfaces, and crawl under obstacles. One would consider these actions within the context of a police dog's job. But, my dogs are also trained these actions and people call them tricks.

Although my dogs' training incorporates manners, advanced obedience, tracking, agility, obstacle training, scent training, musical canine freestyle and "tricks," one owner of a dog training facility where we once trained called everything I did with my dogs, "Charlene's little tricky stuff." Since none of what I trained was with competition or titles in mind, it was all considered tricks.

I once saw a circus act where five dogs came into the ring, proceeded to a targeted location and then each immediately assumed a different pose. They 'froze' in those poses for several seconds. A clever 'trick' you say? But, conformation show dogs are also trained to stand in a specific pose for a period of time and this is called a "stack." Basically the same concept under different conditions -- one dog's pose is considered entertainment, the other's for judging structure.

In movies, dogs are called half-way across a set and then cued into an instant down (as if shot). A "trick." In obedience competition, the dog is called from a distance and then cued into an instant down (several yards from the handler). An obedience 'exercise'. Fundamentally the same move, different setting.

In advanced obedience, a dog is required at one point to carry (hold while moving) a dumbbell. This is an obedience 'exercise'. In a live performance act I saw, a dog carried a wooden rod that extended about 10" on either side of his mouth. What made this a 'trick' was that two brightly colored (dyed) doves sat on either side of the rod. Both behaviors were the same 'unusual action' learned by a dog -- but one action was trained to earn a title, the other was trained to entertain an audience.

When my late black Standard Poodle Stoney was selected for a part in the dog training video FAMILY DOG, his casting identification was listed as "Trick Poodle."  Among Stoney's required actions/behaviors

were: 1) to open a fridge, get three cokes out and take them into another room to his 'owner,' and, 2) to take a letter to the mailbox, open the lid, put the letter inside, shut the lid and push up the flag. A black Labrador Retriever was also selected to do similar actions/behaviors. She went to the fridge and got a large soft drink bottle which she brought to her 'owners.' Next, she put toys away in a box and then went to a television to punch the ON button with her nose. In real life, the Lab had been trained as a Handi-Dog. My Standard Poodle (who could perform the same actions as the Lab) was considered a 'trick' dog. Both dogs' trained actions were basically the same -- just the intended use of their training differed.

A back flip is trained to both circus dogs and Frisbee catching dogs -- (though Frisbee dogs are not taught the way this old-time trainer is teaching it).

Pictures used with permission.

Attila and Fly in the Charlie Chaplin routine

I recently watched an old Gene Kelly movie (Living in a Big Way) where Kelly danced with a little dog. The dog had to walk or trot from place to place while Kelly danced around him and he had to do it precisely on cue so as to not interfere with Kelly's timing. The dog was being cued from off-stage with hand and body signals. Since he was a movie dog, this would probably have been considered 'trick' training. A dog sport that relies heavily on guiding the dog with hand/body cues (and on timing) is the sport of agility -- but this is called 'running a course'.

When Frisbee-catching with dogs became a popular sport, extremely athletic dogs began doing flips and amazing leaps as they caught the flying discs. In bygone days one would have seen such acrobatic stunts taught only in 'trick dog' acts. Now, these 'stunts' (tricks) are quite common in disc-dog training.

Dog trainers in the last few decades have become increasingly skilled in dog training techinques and have found that their dogs enjoy learning and performing "tricks;" that trick training enhances the relationship between dog and owner, and that trick-trained dogs delight and amaze audiences. Because of this interest in trick training, sports and events are evolving that allow trainers to use their dog's tricks in increasingly sophisticated and exciting ways.

But, again, how can we define what exactly is a 'trick'? Long-time magician, Rob Weiss said that the word

Getting the phone is trained to both trick dogs and Handi-Dogs.

Trick Poodles -- or Poodle Actors??

Example of a trained retrieve for movie acting. Carry duster while walking around a table keeping duster in contact with table.

Example of a trained retrieve for live entertainment.
Carry rod holding live doves while performing other actions.

Syd: "Ut Oh! Busted!"   Jy: "Shame on Sydney"

Most people would agree that dog acts on the old Ed Sullivan Show and in circuses were made up of tricks. The tricks those dogs performed took considerable skill and time to train, and the dogs' good performance was how those trainers made their living. Tricks were their livelihood. To them, tricks were essential.

But, other than obvious trick acts, what other actions/behaviors do we call 'tricks'? If we examine some of the things dogs are trained to do, we might find that the action or behavior that is being defined as a 'trick' may simply be given that status by the setting in which it is being performed.

With the advent and ease of computer video editing, making dog movies is another option now open to trainers interested in displaying their dog's advanced trick training. Whereas live entertainment, such as trick acts and freestyle, is energetic and overt, movie acting is 'realistic'. All actions that the dog does in a movie must be believable within the context of the storyline. Good dog actors can make movies both convincing and engaging by performing tricks and behaviors that represent emotions and actions that tell a story. Making movies of their dogs gives trainers an entertaining record (in story form) of all they have trained their dogs to do. These movies also allow owners to enjoy their dogs long after that dog has gone.

Example of a trained retrieve for
Jump hurdle, pickup dumbbell and return carrying it over hurdle.

Up until the last sixty or so years in the United States most dogs either had jobs or were pets. There was not a class of sophisticated dog enthusiasts with highly trained sports competition dogs such as now exists in our culture. Comparatively few dogs in the U.S. now have purposeful jobs, and that's probably why sports for dogs were invented -- for the dog's and the owner's fulfillment. Flyball, agility, freestyle, competition obedience, disc-dog -- and even hunting, coursing, herding, and ground-dog trials are done mostly for pleasure these days rather than for any essential or utilitarian purpose.


"trick" originated from "trickery:"' that magicians who performed obviously impossible illusions were perceived as using trickery. He speculates that any unusual action or behavior taught to a dog (or other animal) was called a 'trick' because, back when the word originated, it seemed impossible to the general public that animals could be trained to do such amazing feats. And that now, even though more and more people have the technique to train animals 'unusual' actions and behaviors, the word "trick" remains.

Whatever we call them, unusual trained actions and behaviors (tricks) enrich and enliven performances of all kinds. 

If we examine some of the things dogs are trained to do, we might find that the action or behavior that is being defined as a "trick" may simply be given that status by the setting in which it is being performed. 


Trick dogs have always had jobs. They earned a living for themselves and for their owners, and some still do. When the motion picture industry became popular, some of these highly trained dogs began a career in movies, and later in television. Interested pet owners learned how to train their dogs some of the easy tricks they saw theatrical dogs doing but didn't have the skills to train the more complex tricks. This is changing though -- and the change is showing up most rapidly in the sport of musical canine freestyle.

In the infancy of this sport most handlers did little more than heeling maneuvers to music, but as the sport continued to evolve trainers began incorporating more sophisticated 'moves' (tricks) into their routines. Tricks as moves have added depth and pizzazz to the sport of musical canine freestyle.  

Anyone fortunate enough to have seen the brilliant trainer, Attila Szkukalek (of the UK), with his Border Collie, Fly, in their Charlie Chaplin routine has witnessed 'trick training' at its highest and most challenging level.