If you are just starting out with trick training and want to teach your dog something quick and easy that will help improve your training technique at the same time, shake is a great option.
Not only can shake be taught in a few simple steps, but most dogs pick up on this behavior very quickly, making the training process more rewarding for both parties. Plus, once your dog has mastered shake on one side, you can easily reteach the behavior for the opposite paw.
The first time you teach your dog this trick, you will learn a lot about how they learn and can easily apply that knowledge to training them to shake with the other paw. Are they the type of dog that throws out random behaviors to try and earn their reward? Or are they more laid back, making you work to get them to perform?
You will also get a better sense of what types of rewards work best for your dog, as well as how they react to praise or correction with a negative marker.
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Keep mental notes of these things while you work on shake with the first paw. When you retrain shake with the second paw, you should be able to customize your training to be more effective for your dog. You should find that training goes much faster and smoother the second time around.
But before we get into the specifics of training shake, we need to talk about one of the most important aspects of teaching this trick: the rewards!
Shake is a fun behavior to train, but more importantly, it’s an easy way to strengthen your relationship with your dog. Training simple tricks like this allows you to spend quality time communicating and having fun with your pup.
Why Should You Use Treats During Training?
While training your dog to shake on command is a very rewarding feeling, that isn’t the kind of reward I’ve been talking about. I’m talking more about those tasty, smelly, super-enticing treats your dog is working for during training sessions.
When I taught obedience classes, I could expect there to be at least one person in every class who was hesitant to use treats during training. They didn’t like the idea of teaching their dog to expect a reward for doing what they were asked. Whenever this came up, I would always ask the owner why they went to work every day. The answer, almost without fail, was for the money.
I would then kindly point out to them that their dog was working hard to learn these new tricks, and so, shouldn’t we pay them for that work, too?
The fact is, you shouldn’t expect your dog to work for nothing. They need some kind of motivation to do what you ask. You could use aversive measures like most trainers used to recommend. But consider how your work might be affected if you got “paid” by someone yelling at you or yanking on your tie. Not only would you be less likely to give your all, but you would probably be too preoccupied with anxiety to concentrate on learning anything new.
Most dogs love treats, so why not use that love to motivate them to work with you? Using treats in training will keep your dog motivated without having to allow extra time to play games or play with a toy between reps.
Positive rewards provide your dog with healthy motivation and create an environment that’s conducive to learning. Toys and praise make great rewards too, but treats are particularly good for training new behaviors. Small treats can be inhaled fast so more repetitions can be completed each session, while toys require longer breaks after each success. Praise is great for making a dog feel like they did something right, but you can’t dangle praise in front of a dog to get them to try a new behavior.
For the majority of dogs, soft, stinky, tasty treats are going to be the best reward you can offer.
If You Train a Behavior With Treats, Won’t You Always Need Treats?
Another common misconception about treat-based training is the notion that a dog trained with treats will always require treats to perform. But this is only true if you fail to train your dog correctly.
Dogs are notoriously bad at generalizing. If you train your dog to sit while standing in front of them in your living room while using hot dogs and wearing a red shirt, they are going to struggle to give you a sit at the park without treats while running away from you in your blue shirt. Their brains just don’t make those leaps.
You need to help them make those leaps by slowly changing different variables within the training until they understand that the one constant is the command that is given. Once they truly understand that they should sit when you say sit, no matter where they are, what you are wearing, or what treats you do or don’t have, only then have you truly trained a behavior.
Praise, pets, and love can also be very rewarding for dogs, but when first training a new behavior, especially a tough behavior, treats will provide a more enticing motivation.
The Power of Variable Rewards
Teaching your dog that they won’t always get a treat for doing a particular behavior is another step most owners forget to take. This can be a bit of a confusing concept if you are unfamiliar with it. After all, your dog should get paid for their work, so don’t they always need treats for doing what we ask?
If you are training a new behavior, then absolutely you should “pay” your dog after each success. If you don’t, they will think they aren’t being treated because they did the wrong thing. And that can lead to a breakdown in the behavior you are trying to train.
On the other hand, once your dog knows a behavior and is performing it reliably every time you give the command, not treating them on occasion can actually increase the reliability of the behavior.
This is due to a natural phenomenon in the mammalian brain, known as the “slot machine effect.” When a human sits down at a slot machine, they don’t receive rewards every time they pull the handle, or even every hundred times they do. Yet, they continue to feed in their money and play again and again. The idea that with every pull the odds of getting the reward increases drives the behavior to continue.
The same is true for your dog. Once they know that down means to lay down, if they don’t get a treat this time, they believe they are more likely to get one next time. So, they will make sure to give the down again so they don’t miss out on the opportunity for the reward they know is coming.
There’s a reason some people struggle to step away from slot machines. And that same addictive brain glitch is present in your dog’s head as well. Utilize variable reward schedules to keep your dog addicted to performing certain behaviors even in the absence of rewards.
You can incorporate this idea into your training by slowly introducing a variable reward schedule once your dog has mastered a command. Make sure you are still treating your dog every few reps, but don’t do so predictably. Try treating on the second, fifth, sixth, tenth, and thirteenth attempt, for example. And, to really hook that mammalian brain, try throwing in a jackpot reward every once in a while by throwing out multiple treats to your dog or starting up a fun game of chase.
Replacing Treats With Other Types of Rewards
Of course, treats aren’t the only reward your dog is likely to accept. Praise and play also have a place in training. You should always praise your dog when they are first learning something. Later on, praise can be offered on a variable schedule just like treats.
Both praise and short bouts of play can be used in place of treats if you happen to be without. As long as your dog feels confident in their knowledge of the command and that they will get paid eventually, in one form or another, they should continue to perform reliably whether you have treats or not.
How to Train Your Dog to Shake
Now that you know how to utilize treat rewards effectively to train reliable behaviors, it’s time to practice what you’ve learned by training your dog to shake.
Before you begin, make sure you have plenty of tasty, stinky treats, your treat bag, and a quiet room to train in.
Like humans, dogs tend to have a dominant hand. Your pup will probably offer this paw first when training begins. Continue to work with this paw exclusively until your dog is ready to learn to shake with the opposite paw.
If your dog is clicker trained, you can use your click as your positive marker for when your dog does the correct behavior. If not, you can just say “yes!” or “good dog!” instead.
Step 1: Entice your dog to pick up their paw
To begin, ask your dog to sit down in front of you. Next, take a stinky treat and show it to your dog, then ball it up in your fist.
Hold your fist down near your dog’s wrist. Your dog will likely start mouthing and pawing at your hand to get at the treat.
The second they lift their paw, use your positive marker and give them the treat.
If your dog does not paw your hand, you may need to try an alternate method to get them to raise their paw.
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With your dog still sitting in front of you, tap their leg gently just above their paw. Continue to tap until they move their paw. Use your positive marker the moment they twitch, lift, and slide their paw over. Then reward and praise them
Repeat whichever of the above processes works best for your dog. Continue until your dog quickly lifts their paw when you present your fist or tap on their leg.
Some dogs are more handsy than others. You may have to get creative to get your dog to lift a paw off the ground at first. In this case, even the slightest paw movement should be rewarded. Slowly shape that movement into a more exaggerated paw lift over time.
Step 2: Reward your dog for pawing your hand
Next, you will shape the paw lift into an actual hand touch.
Start as you did before and encourage your dog to lift their paw by presenting your fist or tapping their leg. Hold your hand (or fist) near their paw. The moment their paw touches your hand, use your positive marker and reward them.
If they don’t hit your hand when they lift their paw, wait a moment to see if they will try again after you withhold the reward. If they don’t, you may need to return to step one and reward them a dozen or so more times for just lifting their paw before trying this step again.
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Once your dog does hit your hand, praise and reward them. Continue enticing them to move their paw and rewarding them for making contact with your hand over and over.
Step 3: Introduce your hand cue
Once your dog understands that they are being rewarded for touching your hand, you are ready to remove the initial enticement to get them to lift their paw.
Once your dog understands that they are being rewarded for lifting their paw, they should readily pick it up as you move your hand toward them. Use this behavior to create a hand cue to ask your dog to shake.
Without holding a treat or touching your dog’s leg, present a flat, open hand in front of your dog’s wrist. You should use the hand opposite the paw they have been lifting.
Give your dog a minute to consider what you want. They should lift their paw and touch your hand as they were before. Once they do, mark the behavior and reward them.
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If they don’t swat at your hand after a few minutes, go back to the previous step and do a dozen more reps before trying again.
Repeat the process of offering a flat hand and rewarding your dog for swatting it. Lift your hand slightly higher with each successful rep until your dog will swat at your hand when it is held out in front of their shoulder.
Once your dog is doing that consistently, start holding their paw once they paw your hand. At first, only hold it for a second. Then slowly work up to a full shake before marking the behavior and rewarding them.
Step 4: Name the behavior
Now that your dog is consistently shaking when you hold out your hand, you are ready to add a verbal cue.
This time, before offering your hand, say “shake.” Offer your flat hand as you did before and reward your dog for shaking.
Repeat this process at least a few dozen times to allow your dog to build an association between the word “shake” and the behavior.
In this video, you’ll see how to entice your dog to lift their paw, reinforce them when they do, and how to add your hand and verbal cue to create a reliable behavior.
Step 5: Introduce variable rewards
Once your dog is successfully shaking each time you stick out your hand and say shake, you are ready to introduce variable rewards to make the behavior stronger.
NOTE: If your dog has learned shake in one training session, wait to introduce intermittent rewards. If they are still offering a consistent shake when you begin your next training session, then you can begin introducing variable rewards.
Start by rewarding the first ten or so successful shakes. On the next shake, only praise your dog. Reward them for the next. And then skip the reward for the next two reps.
Continue this process of increasing the number of unrewarded reps between rewarded reps.
If your dog begins to hesitate before shaking or you get to a point where you are going long stretches between rewards, surprise your dog on their next successful rep with a jackpot reward. Praise them when they shake, then throw a handful of treats on the floor for them to pick up.
Your dog might be a little confused the first time they perform a behavior and don’t get a treat for it. But once they do get that treat, they’ll be even more enticed by the “game” of earning their next reward.
Outside of training sessions, ask your dog to shake before you feed them, before you let them out to play in the yard or go for a walk, or anything else your dog considers rewarding.
Step 6: Switch paws!
Once your dog has mastered shaking with one paw, it’s time to retrain them to shake with the other paw.
Follow the same steps outlined above, but this time use your opposite hand.
If you want, you can call this shake something else, like “paw” or “low five.” Since dogs are more keyed into our body language and hand signals than what we say, using “shake” for both sides is also fine, as long as you use opposite hands.
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Keep Your Dog’s Tricks Reliable
Whether your dog knows only a handful of tricks or a few dozen, it’s important to keep them reliable.
Congratulations! You’ve just added two great new tricks to your dog’s collection. Now make sure to go back and practice their shakes from time to time so the behavior stays sharp and reliable.
Starting and ending training sessions by asking your dog to do a variety of different tricks that they know is a good way to find any weaknesses in their memory. Plan to spend the next session working on any behaviors that they struggled with.
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You should also find time in real life to ask your dog to perform the tricks they know. Ask your dog for a different behavior before each mealtime. When you stop at a crosswalk, ask your dog to rattle off a few tricks while you wait for the light to turn.
By revisiting tricks in this way, you’re not only strengthening your dog’s generalization of the command, but you are helping your dog differentiate between newer commands they have learned and those they already know.