A classic pet trick is shake. Dogs can learn to shake with all four paws – even the back paws! You’ll need a naming convention. The easiest thing to remember is numbers. I use 1 and 2 for the front paws and 3 and 4 for the back paws (dog’s right and left, respectively).
Grab some dog treats. You will say “yes” to mark each time your dog earns a treat and follow that word with inserting a treat into your pooch’s mouth. The “yes” will bridge the time gap. You won’t be able to get a treat into the dog’s mouth the second that he moves his paw just an inch off the ground.
Although there are a few ways to teach the shake; my favorite is gentle manipulation. This means we are going to touch our dog and be annoying.
- Have your dog facing you. Your dog should be in a relaxed position (not a “stay”) in a sit or a stand.
- Reach toward one of his front paws with an empty hand – do not have treats in this hand or your dog will sniff your hand. (If your dog actually lifts his paw up on his own, say “yes” and give him a treat.)
- Tap the underside of his metacarpals multiple times - you’ll be tapping almost towards yourself and slightly up. The force of your tapping will not be enough to physically lift the dog’s paw, but is annoying. When your dog chooses to lift his paw an inch, say “yes” and treat. Repeat several times. Again, you are not forcefully moving the dog’s paw off the ground – you’re just acting slightly obnoxious so the dog lifts the paw on his own.
- Begin saying your command word (“1” or “2”) for the front paw before you reach for the paw. Tap until the dog lifts his paw, say “yes” while his paw is in the air and then treat. Eventually your dog will realize that he earns a treat and he will lift his paw after you say the command but before you tap! Give multiple treats in a row, called jackpotting, for that break-through. After that, you’ll start treating paw lifts without taps for that paw and you’ll jackpot for the higher lifts. Eventually up your criteria so that your dog must lift his paw high enough for you to catch it in order to earn a treat. You’ll say “yes” when the dog places his paw in your hand.
- After you’ve mastered the front paws, it’s time for the back paws. Start with your dog standing and facing you. You again do the tappity-tap toward yourself on his lower metatarsals. When he lifts his back foot, you’ll say “yes” and treat. Continue with the instructions in step 4 above.
- The back paws generally take longer for the dog to learn. You may work on this daily for a few weeks before it finally starts to click.
If your dog is backing away from you when you reach towards his back paw, get him comfortable with you handling his back paw. First, try touching your dog’s front shoulder. If he remains still, say “yes” and treat. Then move to his rib cage. Then his back thigh. Then gradually move your hand down his back leg an inch at a time, each time saying “yes” and treating for not moving backwards in excitement or hesitation. If your dog moves away, it means you made it too difficult and your need to go back to touching the last spot that did not cause shying away. Then move just half an inch and keep desensitizing your dog slowly. Eventually you will have a dog that does not back away when you reach for his back foot. Now it’s time to start the tapping!
Benefits: Teaching your dog to shake with the back paws creates abdominal strength, enhances balance, and makes your pup aware that he has back feet - “rear end awareness.” Many canines go through life mostly focusing on their front legs; without rear-end awareness, some dogs will knock bars in the dog sport agility. Even if you don’t do formal dog sports, teaching the Back paws can create a lot of smiles from other humans and is a great way to get your dog mentally tired and happily engaged with you.
Extra credit: You can transition the shake command for the front paws into a “high-five.” Gradually change the angle of your hand from fingers pointed down to fingers pointed up with your palm still facing the dog. Say “yes” the moment your dog touches your hand with his paw and treat.