A classic dog trick is “the shake.” Dogs can learn to shake with all four paws – even their back paws! All you’ll need is a naming convention. The easiest thing to remember are numbers, and I use one and two for the front paws and three and four for the back paws (dog’s right and left, respectively).
The first thing to do is grab some dog treats. Say “Yes” to mark each time your dog earns a treat and follow that word by 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 they move their paw just an inch off the ground.
Although there are a few ways to teach the shake, my favorite is gentle manipulation. That means we are going to touch our dog and be slightly annoying.
- Have your dog face you. Make sure your dog is in a relaxed position, either in a sit or stand (not a “Stay” position).
- Reach toward one of their front paws with an empty hand – do not have treats in this hand or your dog will sniff it. If your dog actually lifts their paw up on their own, say “Yes” and give them a treat.
- Tap the underside of their metacarpals multiple times -- you’ll be tapping almost toward yourself and slightly up. The force of your tapping will not be enough to physically lift the dog’s paw, but it is enough to inspire a reaction. When your dog chooses to lift their paw an inch, say “Yes” and offer a treat. Repeat this 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 their own.
- Begin saying your command word (“1” or “2”) for the front paw before you reach for the paw. Tap until the dog lifts their paw on their own, say “Yes” while the paw is in the air, and then offer a treat. Eventually, your dog will realize that they earn a treat and lift their paw after you say the command, but before you tap! Give multiple treats in a row, called "jackpotting," for that breakthrough. After that, you’ll start treating paw lifts without taps for that paw and you’ll jackpot for the higher lifts. Over time, raise your criteria so that your dog must lift a paw high enough for you to catch it in order to earn a treat. You’ll say “Yes” when the dog places the 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 their lower metatarsals. When they lift their back foot, you’ll say “Yes” and offer a treat. Continue with the instructions in step four above.
The back paws generally take longer for the dog to learn. You may have to 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 toward their back paws, get them comfortable with you handling them. First, try touching your dog’s front shoulder. If they remain still, say “Yes,” and offer a treat. Then move to the rib cage. Then to the back thigh.
Next, gradually move your hand down the back leg an inch at a time, each time saying “Yes” and treating if they don’t move backward in excitement or hesitation. If your dog moves away, it means you made it too difficult and you need to go back to the last spot that didn’t make them shy away. Then, move just half an inch and keep acclimatizing your dog to the process slowly. Eventually, you will have a dog that does not back away when you reach for their back foot. Now, it’s time to start the tapping!
Benefits: Teaching your dog to shake with their back paws creates abdominal strength, enhances balance, and makes your pup aware that they have back feet, also known as “rear end awareness.” Many canines go through life mostly focusing on their front legs, without rear-end awareness. Even if you don’t do formal dog sports like agility, teaching the back paws can create a lot of smiles from other humans and is a great way to wear your dog out as they happily engage 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 their paw and offer a treat.