How To Teach A Dog To Play Dead
Basic skills needed – drop and sit.
Method used – Guided with Treats (reference as ‘lure’ in the steps below.) Other methods that can be used – Guided with Toys and Hands on (compulsion/moulding into position).
– Have plenty of treats on hand.
– A lead, if needed (handy if you have a dog that wonders off).
Vocal Cues required (Speech)
You will need two; one for playing dead and the other to be released from the trick/acting dead.
– Trick cue; ‘BANG’
– Release cue; ‘ALIVE’
*Vocal cues to start being used in step two*
Signal Cues required (Hands/body)
Again you will need two; one for playing dead and the other to be released from the trick/acting dead.
– Signal trick cue; Your hand in the shape of a gun.
– Signal release cue; Throw both arms up in the air.
*Signals are to be taught in step three* (These are to be use along with the vocal cues.)
Training sessions – should be short but many, take baby steps, set your dog up to win, be consistent, persistent and patient, and of course have fun!
When teaching your dog, remember to have your plan in mind, be prepared and break it down into steps to achieve the final result, for example;
1. Teach the position/trick.
2. Pair the position/trick with the vocal cues.
3. Pair the position/trick and vocal cues with the signal cues.
4. Remove the lure (if guiding with treats/toys).
5. Proof what they have learnt so far.
6. Practice from different positions and in various environments.
7. Move from consistently rewarding with treats/toys to inconsistently.
8. Feel proud and show them off to friends, family and maybe even on the web!
As your dog becomes more competent in the trick; always continue to reward the progress. If at any point he performs it at a lower standard, do not reward him. However, performing at a lower standard can be for different reasons and is important for you to understand them, how to avoid and work with them.
a. Tired; It is usually best to finish the session before your dog becomes tired, know your dog’s stopping point.
b. Bored; If your dog becomes bored easily, keep the sessions short as possible. Another option is to mix them up, throw a couple of other commands in such as sit or come while working your dog to keep them interested.
c. Doesn’t understand; If your dog doesn’t understand, it usually means you have asked too much of them at this point. You will need to take a couple of steps back in the trick and build them up to that point.
d. Stubborn; This can be a tricky one, as trick training is to be a fun form of working with your dog and encouraging them to learn. Forcing a stubborn dog to do something can often discourage them more. Instead find what motivates your dog, what will they be willing to work for and enjoy as a reward.
Let’s get started!
Step one – Teaching the position.
Part one; While in drop, lure your dog to laying on their side (left or right) to ‘play dead’. Repeat and reward. Your aim for the first step is to gradually teach your dog to lay flat on their side (this includes their head too!) for the ‘playing dead’.
Part two; To move out/released from position of ‘play dead’, lure your dog to a standing position to be back ‘alive’. Repeat and reward.
From here start combining the two parts into one part. The main change at this point is; only reward at the completion of the parts. This is essential in teaching your dog to stay ‘playing dead’ until you command them to come back ‘alive’. Otherwise you will find they will break the trick early, to get the reward, instead of waiting for the ‘alive’ vocal and signal cues.
Step two – Introducing the Vocal Cues.
As your dog becomes more competent, start introducing the vocal cues. I would recommend teaching the two vocal cues together and continue rewarding at the completion of the trick. As you lure you dog into the play dead position, use your ‘vocal cue’. As you lure your dog out of position/released, use your ‘vocal cue’ and reward.
As you lure your dog to lay flat and ‘play dead’ use your vocal cue; ‘BANG’. (Do not reward yet!) Have them hold it for a second, as you lure your dog to be released from position and come back to life, use your vocal cue; ‘ALIVE’ and REWARD!
Repeat; while gradually increase the time they hold the ‘play dead’ position, plus simultaneously gradually moving your hand, with the lure, away. The idea here is to start teaching them to hold ‘play dead’ for longer periods of time, while being able to take the lure away without them moving from position until you use your vocal release for them to come back ‘alive’. This is important to start practicing before teaching the signal cues, you do not want them to follow your hand with the lure while you have teaching these cues.
At any point if your dog looks like they will move from position early before you have used the vocal release cue ‘ALIVE’, promptly use your vocal release cue and try again. It is essential to have them come ‘ALIVE’ (released) from the position/trick on your terms not theirs, if needed proceed with lots of baby steps here.
Step three – Pairing the signals and removing the lure.
(This is a combination of steps but feel free to separate them if needed.)
As your dog understands the connection between the vocal cues and the trick, it is time to start removing the need for a lure and introducing the signal cues. You may find it easier to start introducing the ‘ALIVE’ release signal first before the ‘play dead’ hand signal. However you can continue to work on them simultaneously.
Part one; The ‘alive’ signal.
Following on from the last part in step two, you have already started introducing the ‘alive’ signal to your dog. Unfortunately going straight into the full on, arms up in the air ‘ALIVE’ signal may cause your dog to move to early or become confused. Procced to continue slowly increasing the distance you move your hand with the lure away from the dog. Keep in mind it is essential to have them ‘released’ from the position on your terms not theirs.
Examples of mini steps to work towards with the ‘alive’ signal;
a. While kneeling on the ground, with both arms straight out next to you along with vocal cue ‘ALIVE’, release your dog from ‘playing dead’ and reward.
b. While crouched/half standing, with both arms straight out next to you along with vocal cue ‘ALIVE’, release your dog from ‘playing dead’ and reward.
c. While standing, with both arms straight up in the air along with vocal cue ‘ALIVE’, release your dog from ‘playing dead’ and reward.
To get achieve the above mini steps may require lots of baby steps in-between, however these will give you a good idea what to aim for and test your dog’s knowledge of the trick.
Remember to gradually increase the time they hold the position while gradually moving your hand, with the lure, away.
If at any point they look like they are going to move too early, promptly use the combination release signal and vocal cue ‘ALIVE’, and try again. Moving from position early can be an indication that they are not ready for that step, just go back a couple and build them up to it.
As you are gradually removing the lure in part two, if you have started the trick without the lure it is essential that you continue without it. At the completion of the trick, reward.
Part two; The ‘play dead’ hand signal.
This one will be a bit tricky as you will be changing the shape of your hand while holding the lure, eventually you will want to progress to the ‘play dead’ signal without a lure in your hand.
Breaking it down into mini steps;
a. To start off with continue holding the lure as normal. However, instead of luring your dog straight into the ‘play dead’ position, place your hand by their head with gentle pressure along with your vocal cue.
Your dog may be a bit slow to figure it out but they should be at the stage where they have associated the vocal cue with this part of the trick and follow through to ‘play dead’. Continue into part one of step three, reward and repeat.
If needed, gradually increase the pressure against their head until they follow through. This is also a good way to test how well they have progressed, if they struggle with this part take a couple of steps back.
b. As you practice this with your dog, occasionally do not hold a treat in your hand.
c. Eventually you should be able to place only light pressure or just the presence of your hand next to their head along with the cue to ‘play dead’.
d. From here shape your hand into a gun, you will still be able to use your finger for pressure if needed and hold the treat in the grip of your other three fingers.
e. Gradually keep increasing the distance of your hand signal from your dog’s head and how often your hand holds the treat. Remember you are only rewarding on the release cues (vocal and signal)!!
Once competent your dog should be able to perform the trick, while in drop, on vocal cues, signals and no need for the treat lure or pressure. From here you can start proofing the trick.
Step four – Proofing the trick.
Once the ground work is in place and your dog shows he has an understanding of the cues and the trick, you can start working on any problems in the trick; such as your dog is constantly wagging his tail when he is meant to be “dead”.
How to fix the constant wagging tail – just concentrate only on the tail to stop wagging, don’t worry about anything else as long as he is able to go into trick and hold the position. Ask for the trick, now you may only get the briefest moment, wait to the tail stops; release and reward. Your dog will slowly pick up to stop wagging the tail. If they move, do not reward and try again. If they are struggling then you have the option of holding the tail still and then release and reward, and work from there. Do not reward your dog for performing the trick with a wagging tail.
Lifting the head or moving to early before release cue – Moving too early may mean they still don’t quite understand the trick and need a bit more practice. I would generally advise to release them before they move, so they associate it with the cue and on your terms not their own. Work from there then gradually start increasing the time before they are to come back ‘alive’. If they can hold for a certain time and break, for example you say the cue as they move, do not reward, and try again.
Lift the head is similar to the tail wagging, I would recommend to wait for them to put their head back on the ground and then release but do not reward and try again.
The previous behaviours are easier to fix if you are able to use the release cue before they do wag their tail/lift their head/move and then slowly build up the length of time they hold the trick, before they come back ‘alive’. Once you have these few things sorted and your dog is now performing the trick easily from a drop and holding till you release you can now move onto doing it from a sit/stand/randomly and removing the lure and reward all the time.
Remember in this step it is easier to focus on the one behaviour before moving onto the next or trying to fix all three at the same time. If your dog does all three I would recommend working on releasing too early first, then in any order; tail wagging and lifting the head.
Step five – Practising from different positions.
Sit is usually the next best position, up from drop. Also a great way to test how well your dog has learnt the trick. Get your dog’s attention, ask for a sit and then ask for the trick and release. Reward and repeat.
Stand is the next level up, always best to make sure you have your dog’s attention before proceeding to ask for the trick. Get their attention, ask for the trick and then release. Reward and repeat.
If at any point your dog struggles with performing the trick from a different position then you need to take a few steps back and help him out. If from a sit, all you may need to do is gently push him into the drop, he may pick up what you are asking and get the idea. If you seem to hit a brick wall, he may not be quite ready to do it from another position. To begin with, if at any point you have to assist with the trick and he follows through, reward him. Gradually reduce assistance, he may be a bit slow but if he follows through on the cue, reward him. If he doesn’t, no reward and try again.
Keep in mind, keep the sessions short and fun. Always try and finish on a positive note and setting him up to win, even if you are taking baby steps.
Once your dog is competent in doing the trick from a stand, start challenging him and do it from different distances and environments. Remember make sure you get his attention first and then ask for the trick. At any point he struggles, take a few steps back and try again.
Step six – removing the lure/rewarding all the time.
Removing lure and not rewarding all the time has many benefits: they become less reliant on the lure and reward. Which helps perfecting and moulding the trick.
In step two, you have already started the process or removing the lure. Simply continue to intermittently asking for the trick without the lure. Gradually build them up to this.
a. Lure, lure, no lure, lure.
b. Lure, no lure, lure
c. Lure, no lure, no lure, lure
d. No lure, lure, lure
e. No lure, no lure, lure
f. And so on, eventually you should be able to ask for the trick each time without the lure. If you ask for the trick and they do not perform without the lure and they have demonstrated that they are able to; do not get out a lure, simply get them up, move around and ask again.
What you may find helpful here; work on removing the lure while still continuously rewarding good performance. Once they are able to perform the trick without lures, start practicing intermittently rewarding good performance of the trick.
Do not take; ‘not rewarding all the time’ literally. What I mean here is using the treat less, so you do not end up with a cheeky dog who thinks; No treat, no trick!
Ideally you will now start working with level rewarding; ok performance receives the relevant reward, good performance receives the relevant reward, and so on. Level rewarding is different with every dog and not too hard to figure out. Here is an example to go by;
a. Level 1, the ultimate reward for great performance; Treat or a combination of levels.
b. Level 2, suitable for good work; A toy thrown
c. Level 3, for ok to good work; Pats, cuddle and or general fuss.
d. Level 4, for ok work (trick was completed but not to their usual standard); verbal praise ‘good boy’.
As you teach the trick and your dog becomes more competent, you have already started introducing the process of rewarding inconstantly (not rewarding all the time). This is through rewarding the trick performed correctly, and not rewarding the trick performed at a lower standard. For example; he has shown he knows how to lay on his side and ‘play dead’ on the verbal cue alone and has decided not too this time, he would receive no reward. However when you get him moving and try again, and the trick is performed on the verbal cue; he reaps the reward (after being released to come back ‘alive’).
You will soon be able to start asking for your dog to perform the trick on cue without any guidance, use of lure and reliance on the reward.
Remember always reward the baby steps regardless of how small they are, little progress is better than none. Keep the sessions short and always finish on a positive note!