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When you and your dog reach the Elite Performer level, you’ll need not only to perform high-level tricks, but also act out a story together. The same is true for the AKC Virtual Trick Dog Competition. So, is your dog ready to be the star of their own show?

As a fiction author turned dog trainer, I find it fun to put together a routine that tells a story. But I know the thought of writing a story is stressful for many competitors. The good news is that you don’t have to be a great writer to create a fun routine for you and your dog to perform. Everyone’s creative process is a little bit different and there’s no wrong way to write a story and routine. But if you’re feeling a little overwhelmed about how to get started, here are some tips for developing a fun and entertaining trick routine.

Brainstorm Ideas

Before sitting down to write, it’s helpful to put together ideas for the kind of story you want to tell. Are there genres of stories that you like, such as science fiction, inspirational, or westerns? Those are themes that you can incorporate into the routine. Both the Elite Performer Title and the AKC Virtual Trick Dog Competition give the handler complete creative control. You have the freedom to come up with a story and personalized routine that tells a story you find fun.

Not sure where to start? It can help to brainstorm all the ideas you have for routine themes. When trying to come up with a story, think about your dog’s personality. Is there something quirky, funny, or impressive about them that would make an interesting story? You could also think about your dog’s breed and what makes them special. Seasons or holidays are also great themes to consider. For example, will you be performing the routine at a family Christmas party? Or perhaps you want to create a spooky routine to share on social media for Halloween. If you’re feeling stuck, you can always retell a classic—fairytales work well for a short script.

trick dog routine performance

Know What Makes A Good Story

Once you’ve picked the theme or idea for your story, it’s time to put it all together. It can be helpful to spend some time reading children’s picture books (you can borrow these for free from your library) to get a sense of how much story you can reasonably fit into the few minutes you’ ll have for your routine. A story can be broken down into three parts:


This is where you’ll be introducing the story and your dog to the audience. Depending on the story you’re telling, you may be a character in your dog’s story, or you might be just part of the background, cueing your dog. Either way, in the beginning, you want to set the stage for your audience, meaning introducing your dog, the setting, and the story you’re going to tell.


The middle of your story is where things are going to get interesting. This is where we need to make sure that our audience stays invested in the story. Most stories have some kind of conflict and this part of the story is where big action takes place. It’s where the exciting stuff is going on—maybe a person falls overboard, the stagecoach is attacked, or an evil wizard casts a spell on everyone.


The ending of a story is more than just saying “The End.” This is where the resolution to the action or conflict from the middle of the story happens. Your dog might rescue the person drowning, stop the robbers who attacked the stagecoach or defeat the evil wizard.

How to Write Your Story

For most trick routines, you can either tell the story yourself or have a helper narrate the story for you. Either way, it will be useful to have the story written down so you can have a script to memorize or read from. You don’t have to have a long story or a lot of words to make the story interesting to your readers. Outline the beginning, middle, and end on the page, filling in the text of what happens during each of those sections.

As you read back over the story and make edits, pay attention to the three main parts of the story. Ask yourself:

  • In the beginning, do you find a way to introduce the characters of your story and what’s going on?
  • In the middle, does something exciting or interesting happen to those characters?
  • In the end, does the story resolve in some way?

Your story doesn’t have to have a “happily ever after” ending. But, especially in a short story/performance like this, you do need to have a clear ending so your audience isn’t left wondering if the story is over.

When you have a story you feel good about, it’s helpful to get an outside perspective. See if a friend or family member would be willing read your story or listen to you read it. Ask if they have any feedback or if any part of the story doesn’t make sense. You can then go back and incorporate those edits into your story.

Make Your Trick List

Now that you have your story, it’s time to start thinking about the trick component. It’s useful to create a list of all the tricks your dog knows how to do (if you don’t already have one). You can even create this as a document on your computer or in the notes section of your phone so you can update it easily every time you teach your dog a new skill or trick. If there are tricks that you are in the process of teaching them, you can add those in a different section so you can keep them in mind as you start to plan your routine.

Add Tricks Into Your Story

Now you’ll need to figure out how you’re going to incorporate tricks into the story to make your dog a character. Props are often a big component of any trick routine, so think about whether there are ways you can decorate or disguise props to have them fit the theme of the story you’re trying to tell. You can use the tricks in clear ways, like having your dog use props to do exactly what the story says. Alternatively, you can take a more conceptual approach where your dog isn’t literally doing what happens in the story but is acting it out in some way.

To keep track of what tricks you’re going to use, you can circle or highlight them. Make sure they fit your theme and will help you tell the story. To keep the energy up, it’s fun to include some of your dog’s favorite tricks. It’s also a good idea to incorporate easier tricks that your dog is super confident doing, alongside skills that are more challenging.

Develop the Choreography

The next step is coming up with the choreography for the story. Think about the space that you and your dog will be performing in and where your audience (or the camera/virtual audience) will be. Make sure that your audience will be able to see your routine clearly.

This is where the artistry of the choreography starts to come into play as you think about how to make the transitions between tricks part of the story—which might mean adding in more tricks/skills. For example, you might have your dog heel from one area of your performance to another to make for a smooth transition. The idea with choreography is to make the routine look smooth and connected to the story—not like your dog is just doing one trick after another.

As you figure out the choreography, write “stage directions” in the margins of your story so you’ll know where you should cue your dog to do different tricks. You can also make notes for yourself of when you need to pick up different props, or when you and your dog need to move from one area to another. The most important component of a good trick routine is to have fun—and then practice, practice, practice! Remember that you are the choreographer, and it’s completely okay to adjust and edit your story and routine as you start to practice. You might discover that some aspect of the story is confusing or that a trick is more challenging than you thought, and you may want to swap it out for another trick your dog is more confident with.

Know the Requirements

As you finish writing, double-check if there are any requirements you need to keep in mind before finalizing the routine. If you’re doing a routine to perform in your local community, it’s likely you won’t have any requirements other than a time limit. However, if you’re creating a routine for a title or contest, there are likely some requirements you’ll want to keep in mind. For example, if you’re writing an Elite Performer script for your dog, they must perform at least ten tricks—and at least five of those must be from the Performer level. In addition, five tricks will have to incorporate props without using agility or obedience equipment.

Ready to get writing?

Related article: Poisoned Cues in Dog Training: What They Are and What to Do
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