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Belgian Games: Suggestions For Brain Work, Tricks, And Exercises To Do With Your Dog

(By M. Tornikoski + other folks on the BELG-L mailing list; some of the ideas originate from the book 'Min bästa vän' by Marie Hansson-Hallgren.
Original version created in 1994, last update: 2001-02-21.
I welcome additions to this collection -- please send email to [email protected]).

As we all know, Belgian Sheepdogs are active dogs who need lots of exercise, both physical and mental. Most Belgian owners are engaged in various activities with their dogs -- herding, obedience, tracking, SAR, agility (and lure coursing :-) -- but this is a collection of things that you can do with your dog when you don't have the time for 'serious' training, or when your dog already seems to have mastered the 'more serious' things and you just want to have fun with him, or especially if your dog seems bored with all the things that he already knows and spends his spare time barking, chewing etc.

I have divided the exercises into five categories:

  1. Useful Tricks
  2. Silly Pet Tricks or Tricks Just for Fun
  3. Problem Solving
  4. Nose Work
  5. Balance Work

Remember that the tricks are mainly meant to give your dog some meaningful activity -- this means two things:

  1. Don't bore your dog with these tricks, only do them as long as you both are having fun, and when he has mastered one thing, think of something new instead of just repeating the old routines;
  2. Some of them may require lots of time to learn. Don't worry, that's exactly why they are so useful -- in order to master the trick your dog needs to concentrate very much and use his brain! Progress in small steps if needed, and don't forget to reward your dog when he makes progress!

Note added in September 1995 : I have received several requests for some description of methods of succesful training, i.e. how to teach a dog to do these tricks, as opposed to what to teach. This list was initially meant to be a collection of suggestions for new tricks for bored dogs and handlers, but now I have also written a short description of general training methods that I use. It can be read at my not-very-complete dog training page.

Useful Tricks

Have you already put an obedience title on your dog and can't think of any new useful tricks to teach him? Here are some suggestions!

  • If your dog already knows how to heel on your left, teach him to heel on your right or to walk right behind you. These may be useful in crowds, narrow corridors, etc., and heeling on the right is also needed in Agility. Remember to use a new command for heeling on the 'wrong' side!
  • Teach your dog to lift up each of his feet on command ('right-front' etc.) This is useful when you clip his nails, or need to wash or wipe him, etc.
  • Are you tired of collecting all of your dog's chew toys, tennis balls, squeaky toys, teddy bears etc. when your parents-in-law or your non-dog-loving boss is coming for dinner? Teach your dog to do it himself! He can learn to pick up all of his toys and put them into a box on command.
  • If you live somewhere where it rains frequently, you probably already hate the way your dog shakes his coat dry when he is close to you or your clean laundry etc.? You can teach him to do that on command so that you can ask him to 'shake!' or 'rock'n'roll!' :-) when he is standing a little bit further away.
  • Is your duty in the family to wake everybody up in the morning -- a routine which often requires lots of time and effort, and is never appreciated? Teach your dog to do it for you! "Go wake up Jane!" "Go wake up Daddy!" and your dog licks their faces or pokes them with his nose until they are awake.
    Another version of this (by Derede Arthur): The dog 'digs' in the morning: on command, she rips back the covers from around a malingerer and drags them (the covers) back to the foot of bed, exposing said body to cold air and (ostensibly) motivating rising.
  • If you live alone and sometimes fall asleep again after turning off the alarm clock in your sleep, you can teach your dog to start licking and poking you at the sound of your alarm clock.
  • Everybody's heard of the classical trick where a dog fetches slippers or a newspaper, but what about letting your dog 'answer the phone' (lift up the receiver for you), put an empty beer bottle back in the box, or carry some other things on command? (It's possible to teach a dog to identify a very large number of objects by names).
  • When you go out for a walk, let your dog fetch his own collar and/or leash. My Belgian Sheepdog Apollo gets his collar from the shelf when I say "collar!". Some people say that dogs may learn to get their collar and leash also when _they_ want to get out, without any commands from humans, but that hasn't happened to us yet.
    Apollo can also get his leash with the command "leash!", but I use it mainly when we are out training. When we finish a training session I ask him to bring me his leash from where I left it. Some people also use this in Agility, when they finish their run the dog goes to get his leash instead of jumping around the handler demanding for more action.
  • (Derede Arthur): Rontu 'finds my keys' (I lose them c. 2x/day, so he gets lots of practice). Also good for accustoming dogs to metal articles in mouth for utility work. I got this idea from someone on the list a few months back, who's dog even brought her her keys through the car window from the ignition when she'd locked herself out.
    Rontu also brings me the box of kleenex when I sneeze.
  • (Alicia Marcinczyk adds about the usefulness of teaching a dog to find metal articles:) One night my dad was trying to put a new set of drum brakes on our car before going on a roadtrip vacation, and SPROOOOOOIINNNG! went the brake spring, into the darkness! The only critter with a quick reaction was ol' Spunky the dog. ... off he ran, and back he came a few moments later, proudly carrying the brake spring in his mouth!
  • (Alicia Marcinczyk also reports about her dog who could balance beer cans on her head and became a Beer Retriever:) She liked that particular trick so well that one day she slipped into the neighbor's yard during their BBQ, grabbed an open beer that the woman had set on the ground, and ran straight back to my father with the can in her mouth, beer still dripping out.
  • (Jenny Cole invented a trick which is both fun and useful:) Teach your dog to stop and look before crossing a road. You can first teach your dog the directions ("look right" and "look left"), and then combine the commands to sit and to look right-left-right (remember that Jenny lives in Britain, continental European dogs will have to learn to look left-right-left!) before given the permission to cross. (Jenny uses the command "Any cars coming?" for the entire trick). If you are consistent with your training, you can possibly condition your dog not to start crossing the road as long as he sees cars approaching, which would make this trick also extremely useful.
  • (Linda Bergstrom:) I've taught Corey, my 10-year-old Malinois, to "back up". I can't think how many times he's been in the way when I've been carrying something or heading through a doorway with a Mal in the middle of it. With this command, I can give him a simple command to "back up", which gets him out of the way and also earns him some praise -- instead of him receiving human "growls" because he's in the way.
  • (Pam Caldwell's variety of the same trick:) When my dogs were young and played as I hiked on a trail, they would sometimes not get out of my way. I began to say "hut" when they were in my path, about 2-3 steps before I would be where they were. If they didn't move, I would let my foot of knee or shin connect with them as I continued to walk. They would jump and look at me very upset--not hurt, but their dignity was hurt. Very soon, as soon as I said "hut", they would move right away. Now I rarely even have to say it--they have learned that "pack leader" has the right of way! A useful varaition is when you are on the stairs or a hallway carrying groceries or laundry, "hut" gets them out from under your feet, not just for a minute but for the whole trip. The very best use now is in the middle of the night when I need to use the bathroom. I know they are all asleep on the floor and I say "hut" and although they are deeply asleep, they will usually stir and I can hear their tags jingle. Then I know where they are and I can know where to walk to get to the bathroom without tripping over a dog!

Tricks for Fun

These are not meant to be useful (some of them may be, sometime), but just fun for you and your dog, or maybe for some neighbourhood kids if you want to show them how smart your dog is. I'm pretty sure all dog owners have some special 'silly tricks' that they do with their dogs but maybe never show anyone.

  • "Give a kiss" or "hug" -- your dog gives you (or somebody else!) a wet kiss or puts his paws on your shoulder. This is great when you meet someone who thinks that "that dog looks vicious!"
  • "Sit up" or "dance" are quite common tricks (dog gets up on his hind legs), but you can also teach him a more unusual command for this -- for example, ask your dog "What does a CIRCUS-DOG do??" to make him dance for you!
  • "Message Dog" is one of the Scandinavian dog sports not practised elsewhere, but you can do similar exercises for fun. This can even be useful in some situations, especially if you teach your dog to actually carry something with him. The idea is that the dog runs from person A to person B on command, then back to person B, etc. In the Scandinavian competitions this always starts so that person A walks away from person B with the dog, then sends the dog back (in the beginning the dog sees person B from where he is sent to run, in the more advanced version he does not). When person B sends the dog back to person A, it is possible that person A has moved to a new location -- then the dog needs to do some tracking in order to find person A. You can easily invent your own varieties of this game, depending on how challenging you want it to be (in the Scandinavian competitions we have several dogs simultaneously darting back and forth for distances of several kilometres and with some shooting in the background!)
  • Nodding or shaking head -- you can teach your dog to do these. These are more fun if you don't ask him to 'nod' but rather teach him to nod on cue like "I'm so smart and beautiful, don't you AGREE?"
  • "Nose-ball" -- teach your dog to push a tennis ball to you with his nose. This is a great 'living room activity' for rainy days!
  • Soccer: Dawn Carla Speer has trained her dogs to play soccer with people: The fun thing about soccer is that each dog will come up with a different way of handling the ball to get around the fact that it's too big to get their jaws around. Dogs learn to use their nose or/and paws to get the ball moving, and you can have several people playing the game with the dog.
  • Volley ball: If you thought that soccer would be the most advanced ball game you can teach your Belgian, here's news for you: Lisa Baldwin has trained their Tervueren to play volley ball with people!:
    Ice thinks the game is GREAT fun so we had to come up with some way to control his impulse to be involved with the game. We taught him "play outfield" at which he takes off running until far enough out and we say "swing" and he turns around and sits -- whenever the ball goes in his area he leaps up and tries to hit it back over the net!! If it doesn't make it he will push it over to the other teams side and then run back to his spot and wait for the next one.
  • Pointing at a treat: hide a treat in your hand, hold both hands in front of the dog and request him to point at the treat, either with his nose or foot.
  • Singing: some dogs "sing" very easily especially if they hear high tones. Some dogs can be trained to make different kinds of weird noises, especially the more vocal breeds/individuals. In Finland there is a famous dog call Gizmo who performs with a symphony orchestra. He sits on the owner's lap and sings along with their music!
    Dawn Carla Speer wrote: I could get Heike going for a couple of minutes straight ... I would make different sounds -- sort of like the range of sounds you could get from a wah-wah pedal for a guitar -- and she would imitate them really closely. If I told her "Be indignant!" she would make lower pitched noises, and if I said "Shhhh..." she would just make the mouth movements with no sound at all.
  • "Speaking": many dogs can be trained to "speak" on command, and they can even be trained to bark loudly or more quietly. Stephanie Price's puppy owners taught their Belgian, Savana, the following dialogue:
    "Savana, what does a big dog say?" -"WOOF!!!"
    "What does a debarked dog say?" -"woof"
  • "Teddy Terv / Vicious Terv": Linda Baldwin's husband taught their Tervueren Ice the following trick: We kneel down (so theres a lap) and say "Teddy Terv" and he flings himself on to his back, belly exposed for scratching. Then in the same normal sounding voice we say "Vicious Terv" and he leaps to his feet growling and biting (not hard) and being very wolf doggish (thats what we call it anyway!)... then you say "Teddy Terv" again and he flings himself in your lap etc etc.
  • Many owners play with their dogs games where they hide the dog's favorite toy etc. under a blanket for the dog to find. Some people hide other family members under blankets, or simply their own hand for the "catch the mouse"-game.
    Carilee Cole has her own version of the hiding game: This is called "The Triperooni Game". This can only be played by a dog named "Trip". You huddle on the floor with your head buried under your arms and sing, "Triperooni, Triperooni" to the tune of the Hallelujah chorus, and the Trip will come racing over and excavate your head out from under your arms using his nose as a shovel. It's lots of fun, honest... Well, maybe you had to be there!

Problem Solving

  • Opening boxes -- you can put a treat into a box and let your dog try to get it out. Start with boxes without a lid, and progress to freezer box -type boxes with a lid that can be opened by pulling on the side. (And be prepared to have tooth marks all over the box, you may even end up with the box in zillion pieces!). This is a good exercise if you are busy doing something (getting ready to go to work etc.), because you don't actually need to do anything when the dog is working on the task.
  • Finding the way out: Go to the other side of a fence etc. so that your dog can't get to you directly but instead needs to find a way to get to you (without jumping over the fence). (You can also do this inside, if there's a room with two doors). Don't help your dog to find his way to you, because then he'll learn to expect help from you. Naturally you can't do this many times at one place.
  • Opening doors: teach your dog to either push a door that is ajar open with his nose or to use his paws on the handle to open the door. Note: the dog may scratch the door when opening them; also after learning this, he may open doors also when you don't expect it!

Nose Work (Scenting)

Dogs love using their noses, and nose work requires lots of concentration --> these exercises are great for hyperactive dogs.

Some people fear that actual tracking is too difficult or time consuming, so here are some less elaborate ways of doing basically the same thing!

  • You can hide treats in your house for your dog to find. The most convenient way to practise this game is to teach your dog to sit still while you go to another room (or several rooms) and hide a treat.
  • When you go for a walk with your dog, you can sometimes stop and hide treats for him. It's easiest if your dog sits waiting while you hide the treat in the grass, behind a tree etc., and only starts searching when you give the permission. You can make this more difficult by sometimes hiding the treats on low branches of trees, on fences, etc. so that your dog really has to do some work in order to find and get the treat. And remember that you are doing this in order to give the dog some work to do, so don't help him if it seems to take a long time to find the treat (otherwise he'll learn to expect help from you!)
  • Instead of hiding treats, you can hide your dog's favourite toy and ask him to find it. If you would like this to resemble 'real' tracking, drop the toy (or treat) on the track where you walk (= on your footstep) and don't come back to your dog the same route.
    This is the way puppies can be introduced to tracking.
  • (Sue Mills:) Another variation of the hiding treats to be found is to hide a favorite toy or ball and reward the dog with a brief game when she finds it. The next step is to hide similar, and gradually, quite different objects for the dog to find and retrieve. Lots of fun, can be practical (if you teach object names :) and teaches your beastie to carry all manner of strange things for you... (Sue also mentions how creative dogs get when they learn to find toys hidden in difficult places like bathroom sinks.)
  • You can teach your dog to pick up an object with your scent when it is among strange objects. You can do with this sticks, stones, etc. in order to facilitate the availability of non-scented objects.
  • Hide and seek -- teach your dog to find a person who is hiding in another room, behind a tree, etc. (He can use air scenting, or tracking, or both, depending on where you are practising.) Kids love this.

Balance Work

Everything that is done in Agility could be listed under this category, but because very few people have the agility equipment at home, this list consists of tricks that can be done without very complicated equipment.

Should you have a concern regarding the health of your Beagle(s), you should contact your veterinarian. All information on this site is presented solely for educational and informational purposes and should not, at any time, be considered a substitute for seeking or receiving veterinary care for your Beagle(s).