The Arrogance of Training Animals Silly Tricks.

Do you follow the Iditarod, too? Northern breeds are such athletes with their instincts on full display. These half-wild dogs are perfect. They get to run with their pack. Then they stop and all lie down to rest. They eat better than most of our dogs. And then, with very little steering, they run some more. It’s a beautiful thing to see dogs get to do the thing their instinct compels them to do.

Like equine endurance events, this race has required stops and safety procedures. Mushers take brilliant care of their dogs. At the end of the race, the winning musher and his lead dog both look fried and zealous for the camera. They are a matching set. These same dogs would make lousy couch potatoes. You need a greyhound for that.

(I recommend reading Winterdance by Gary Paulsen. It details the massive learning curve and passion required. You laugh and gasp for air, and eventually, it all makes sense, a primer for obsession. But only to a special kind of dog person. Or maybe someone with horses.)

The photo above is Walter, my first rescue Corgi, lure coursing. He would have made a lousy sled dog with his many physical shortcomings, but lure coursing was his passion. He translated his herding instinct into chasing plastic bags, and sight hounds beware, he rocked. And everyone lets their dogs bark all they want. No one yells to hush them. It was a flawless day. The guys handling the runs chuckled at Walter at first, but he ran hard. By the end of the day, they made a point of telling us they respected Walter. We beamed.

One of my current dogs is an Olympic-caliber barker, Preacher Man. Not really a sport, I guess. In his dotage, he is practically deaf and prefers to live under my desk. He finally sleeps better. Jack, the Terrier, bounces waist-high and never quite trusts his luck. He’s a good dog in his own mind and that’s close enough. My other dog, Mister, was recently in training for a public appearance. I wanted to take him to a Barnes and Noble book event with me because I get nervous if there aren’t animals around. Maybe people would stop and buy a copy of Undomesticated Women, him being more attractive than an author attempting PR.

Besides, Mister is mad that we’ve been home all winter. He has been sidelined from agility, where he is quick and intuitive but flatly refuses a sit/stay. I think he does it on principle. Sometimes, I take him along to the feed store but many dogs there are bigger than him. Mister does not fraternize with large dogs. He expects me to remember that.

Mister is a Literary dog. He sleeps in while I write and walks me when I need a break. He doesn’t join me when I’m training horses but waits in the air conditioning for me to return, dirty and exhausted, to rub his belly. Because it’s all about him. When I get into bed, barely able to keep my eyes open, he likes a nice twenty-minute game of tug. Mister has traveled over 20,000 miles with me and I have never missed his dinnertime. It’s a different kind of Iditarod, one he is uniquely qualified for.

But a Barnes & Noble bookstore? Their rules would probably be hard for me to follow. Four hours of people walking by? Could I do two things at once; be there for Mister and promote my book? I could bring his crate, but people always want to touch everything and he doesn’t enjoy strangers patting his head. He squints his eyes when people lean over him and stick out a fist. He’s right, it’s rude.

It should be his decision. This is when he breaks into a growly version of What Was I Made For with Preach signing the high parts.

Mister let me know he has better things to do than be my shill and I should suck it up and go to the book event alone. As usual, he’s unimpressed with my tiny would-be fame. He was right. It was a long day in a crowded store with too much talking. He would have hated it.

Do you ever consider how much of what we train is about making animals do things they don’t want to do? Some training is necessary, but how much is human arrogance? In a world where there are search and rescue dogs, it’s depressing when we teach dogs to do unnatural or awkward things and then boast of our domination. We make them parody humans and let children tease them. We correct their natural skills and ask them to do silly tricks. We expect them to surrender their instincts to live inside and amuse us. What if we got the whole thing backward?

I wonder if all those “cute” social media posts aren’t just us showing off a bit. I wonder because I recognize the things I used to make my dogs do so I could show off.

I grew out of it. I’ve given up training party tricks and instead, I want dogs to be dogs. I’d rather they please themselves. I say bring on the Corgis and Terriers and Northern dogs who demand we come into their world instead of us dressing them up in little suits in ours.

It comes from living with rescues who don’t entirely trust humans. They need more listening and less obedience. After all, the Calming Signals language I teach horse people began in the dog world. I know Jack isn’t smiling. He pulls his lips into a sneer when he’s nervous. Preacher Man barks when people talk because he’s heard enough. He rolls belly up but not because he has an itch. And Mister, my only dog able to cope in public, doesn’t thrive on human interaction any more than I do. We’re introverts. A matching set.

Cue our personal Iditarod. Next week, Mister and I leave for clinic work in Texas and he can’t wait. Last time we got to Barn Hunt some rats in tubes. Can you imagine? He barks and watches me load the road trip necessities. Sometimes he breaks out and runs to the trailer door. It’s a luxurious crate with more amenities than those silly wire ones. His has a double dog bed covered with travel toys. And there will be whole days in the truck when I drive and scratch his ears nonstop. Mister is a narcissist with a fantasy of being an only dog. And I am his driver.

Available Now! Undomesticated Women, Anectdotal Evidence from the Road, is my new travel memoir. Ride along on a tour through 30 states, 2 oceans, and 14k miles with me and my dog, Mister. It is an unapologetic celebration of sunsets, horses, RV parks, roadkill, diverse landscapes, and undomesticated women. Available now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and signed copies from me.


Relaxed and Forward Training by Anna Blake is no longer on Facebook because of repeated hacking. If you or your horse appreciate my writing, please share, subscribe to this blog, or join us at The Barn School.

The Barn School, is a social and educational site, along with member sharing and our infamous Happy Hour. Anna teaches courses like Calming Signals and Affirmative Training. Everyone’s welcome.

Want more? Become a sustaining member, a “Barnie.” Subscribe to our online training group with affirmative demonstration videos, audio blogs, daily quotes, free participation in “group lessons”, and live chats with Anna. Become part of the most supportive group of like-minded horsepeople anywhere.

Visit to find archived blogspurchase signed booksschedule a live consultation, subscribe for email delivery of this blog, or ask a question about the art and science of working with horses.

Ride for a new brand, find our Relaxed and Forward swag at Zazzle.

Affirmative training is the fine art of saying yes.


This blog is free, and it always will be. Free to read, but also free of ads because I turn away sponsorships and pay to keep ads off my site. I like to read a clean page and think you do too. If you appreciate the work I do, or if your horse does, consider making a donation.

Anna Blake

20 thoughts on “The Arrogance of Training Animals Silly Tricks.”

  1. I enjoyed this post so much, Anna. Love the humor (as always), and important message.
    BTW, you’re the second person to recommend the book, Winterdance.
    So I’ll read that this Spring, after I finished my current book.

    Happy trails to you and Mister. Have fun.

  2. Very much agree with views on “human tricks”. Hearing the description of “furbaby” kind of makes me cringe. Saying that – yeah I know many will disagree – which they & I are allowed to do!
    I will check out Wnterdance, Anna – thanks for the referral.

  3. Dead on point as usual Ms. Blake! It’s all about respect. All living creatures deserve it. Some earn it, some demand it but all appreciate it. Unfortunately humans have, by & large, failed miserably at knowing it is only received by giving it.

  4. Well done leaving Mister home for the book signing, there may have been little girls there in sparkly tutus. I know from experience having a dog in a booth does bring people in, but…
    My Jack Russell, Harlequin, thrived on human attention and loved the days we did fairs for the Humane Society of North Texas. Her successor, Ziva, Rhodesian Ridgeback, only did it to please me so I stopped taking her. It is so much kinder not to ask a dog to go against his nature to please us. Give Mister a scratch for me, I know he would rather you did it. We can’t wait to see you both next week.

    • Thanks, Peggy. I’ve had dogs like Harlequin, but not for a while. They are ambassadors. Mister, well, he can like one visitor at a time. Packing up to see you soon.

  5. Too, fun! I totally enjoyed reading about your travels w/Mister. I, too, have a Corgi who is a real little Shit-does what he wants, when he wants, mostly ignores me and all attempts to do what I ask-unless it’s time for dinner! We also have a Sheltie, a former show dog who does mostly what is asked of him. I often wonder what the Sheltie thinks of the Corgi ignoring me! Thanks for sharing this.

  6. Did I miss something or was it intended that I smile, snort, and chuckle nonstop throughout this essay? Your besties are the best, Anna. Happy upcoming Trails. Will be looking forward to tagging along!

  7. Even though I don’t currently have dogs, I can appreciate this. It always seems so tragic to me when someone acquires a breed of dog unsuited to the living arrangements he/she will be required to endure, e.g. border collie left in an apartment alone all day.

    This blog reminds me of a FB post from a horseman. He raised the question regarding training horses to do silly tricks, e.g. sit on a bean bag,. Many of us would probably say that’s disrespectful of the horse or wrong in some other way. He posed the question: Aren’t most of the things we train a horse to do also tricks, for example accept a rider, wear a bridle/halter, pick up their feet for trimming, and so on. What is the difference between those sort of things we train so we can ride and tricks like sit on a chair ? Aren’t both for our amusement or gratification?

    I don’t have an answer but i’ve been thinking about this, and your blog reminds me. Maybe you have an answer ?

    • It’s a good question, thanks, Sarah. I think there is a difference between training hoof care positions versus beanbag sitting. Is it for the good of the horse or showing off? I’ve had horses who enjoy working under saddle and it’s been my joy to train with them. And then there are horses who have been victimized by harsh training. I’d ask the horse, what do the horse’s calming signals say?

  8. There are tricks and then there are tricks. I train tricks. I did not always, but I do now. I am thoughtful about my tricks, and respectful of my dog’s desires. I chose a dog who is wicked smart and loves to train because my sports of choice require that; we do obedience, rally, herding, scent detection, nosework, and tracking. I have a problem though; my workaholic German Shepherd, loves to train. And he has had knee and back surgery. So we have run out of sports his body can train for. Yes, we can polish the elements of the sports he can do, but he loves to learn. We work on physio, but he knows all of those exercises too. So we train tricks. He loves to learn and he loves people and he loves an audience. He would love to join you at Barns and Noble. There is no single answer for every animal and human relationship. We train tricks.

    Hawkeye is a cool dude. He loves to travel and loves spending time in hotels with me. He loves to show off two paws on the counter and tap my credit card. He loves when the hotel staff make a fuss over him. Sadly, he does not love my other love; wilderness canoeing. In fact he hates being out on big water. So we travel to show, and do tricks and go to workshops, but he does not join me for my multi week solo wilderness canoe trips. Knowing who he is, tricks are a special thing we do together. They may be silly, but they feed our joint need to train and learn together, and as long as he is having fun, I have no problem with them.

    Choose the dog who will fill your cup, and no, I don’t think that making dogs look like fools, or making them do things like walk on their hind legs (very hard on their backs!) or interact with people they don’t like is a good idea, but remember that knowing your dog which sounds very much like what you are trying to say may include doing tricks some of the time.

  9. Thank you – I love your articles! In my spare time I’m a veterinarian with a post grad qualification in animal behaviour. So I’m very good at teaching animals tricks. One of my favorites, particularly with overlarge Pit bulls, German Shepherds, Rottweilers, is called “now lie down quietly and look at this nice treat your mom is holding, so you don’t notice when I stick a needle into you. If I ask nicely and they let me scratch behind their ears, I don’t have to put a muzzle on. But that’s a “trick” I train them for as well. Very quickly. Its all to do with body language and tone of voice. Mind you, I also invented a metal “doggie crush” for protection dogs used by industries to attack criminals who want to break into factories. Its like a cattle crush, but smaller . Trainer stands in front and dog has a choke chain and muzzle – a looong time ago, when I was just starting out, I decided a muzzle was always a good idea as a rottie bit his handler when I vaccinated him… OOOPS!!!

    • I’m wondering if we use the word “trick” differently. I also think the studies that compare treats to praise are pretty interesting. Thanks, Cheryl. I tend to work with horses who act like those dogs.


Leave a Comment