Tricks: Teaching the A, B, Cs

Behavior & training
Teach your dog to spell

I've taught several of my dogs to recognize the letters A, B, and C; much to the amazement of people who see the trick. People just don’t believe a dog can recognize and identify letters. But one of my dogs, Riker, could spell his name by touching the letters of his name when asked. During his therapy dog trips to visit children, the teachers would use Riker’s skills as a motivator for the kids, “Let’s practice your letters this week so you can show off to Riker when he comes back next week.”

Bones, my youngest dog, is in the process of learning to spell his name, so I’ll share with you how I teach it. Although it can take some time and you need to be patient, it’s not hard.

Before You Start

To begin this trick, your dog needs to know how to do the ‘touch’ command. If your dog doesn’t know this yet, teach it first. While you dog is learning touch, go to a craft store and pick up some wooden letters. I’ve found the bigger ones – five to six inches high - work best. These are big enough to attract your dog’s attention and your audience can see them well.

You can get either A, B, and C or 1, 2, and 3. Or if your dog has a short name, get the letters for his name. A few years ago, a student in one of my trick training classes taught his dog to spell FEED ME. What you choose is strictly up to you. For Bones, I chose the letters to spell his name.

I paint the letters bright colors, not so much because the dogs can see them – dogs see limited colors – but because I like bright colors. But you can leave the letters natural, paint them, or stain them.

One Letter at a Time

It doesn’t matter which letter you begin with – just choose one. For Bones, I began with S – the last letter in his name – and then worked backwards.

Have a handful of high value (smelly and tasty) treats. Hold a treat immediately behind the letter and hold the letter in front of your dog. Tell him, “Sweetie, touch S.” At this point, he recognizes the touch exercise and he’ll probably touch the letter even though he has no idea what the letter is nor the name of the letter. However, when he touches the letter, praise him and pop the treat in his mouth. Repeat four or five times, take a break, and in a little while repeat this step. Do this for several days.

Then put the first letter away and introduce the second letter. Teach your dog the sound of that letter for several days. If you have letters that sound alike, such as ‘B’ and ‘E,’ make sure you enunciate well. Bones’ name is bubee for B, oh for O, enn for N, ee for E, and ess for S.

Teaching the Difference

Once you’ve taught your dog two letters, you can teach him to identify between the two. This is the thinking part for your dog and is the hardest part of the trick.

With a letter in each hand (and treats within reach), ask your dog to touch one of the letters. If he touches the correct one, enthusiastically praise him, “Yes! Awesome job! Good boy!” and give him a jackpot (handful) of treats.

If he touches the wrong letter, say nothing. However, place one of the letters on the table and do a quick refresher of the letter remaining in your hand. Then place it on the table and refresh the second letter. Then again, have one in each hand and ask your dog to identify one.

Sometimes this step needs to be repeated a number of times until the dog understands. Be patient and keep your training upbeat and fun for both of you.

Continue Teaching

When your dog can identify both of the first letters, no matter which letter is in the right hand or left (mix them up), and is making few mistakes, then set those letters aside and introduce the third letter. Follow the training steps above for each additional letter.

When your dog knows all of his letters and can touch each one, then begin having fun with it. When Riker and I were doing therapy dog visits with the kids, I would place all of the letters on a low table, all mixed up. I would tell the kids that Riker could spell his name, “Riker, touch R.” He would and the kids would cheer. Then I would ask for an I, then a K, an E, and another R. As he touched each one I would pick it up and place it in order so the kids could see it. When he touched each letter in turn and finally spelled his name we would always get wild cheers.