Jump on youtube.com to see dogs on treadmills, skateboards, two legged dogs walking up right, and even a Chinese Dalmation on a bike. Often the owners of these dogs present their animals as miracles. Whether this a conscious deceit a la the magician doesn’t reveal his tricks or simply those occasional animals that luck into finding their own rewards for complicated behaviors, the only way to set about teaching a dog to skateboard is with positive reinforcement. All this means is that the dog gets rewarded, step by step, for offering parts of a behavior that in the end combine to make a dog who “rides” the skateboard.
This article is my approach and is aimed at newbie trainers. I would never pretend it’s the best. I”m still in the process of teaching my dog to skateboard. There are many different ways to shape a dog to ride a skateboard, when training you should asess whether you and your dog are making progress and tailor your training accordingly. I invite anyone to add to my version and to experiment with it. That said, you might want to try some easier behaviors first if you have never trained your dog before, first get Fido to do an easy trick and build some trust before moving on to 360 flips.
For you advanced clicker trainers you can try shaping your dog to skateboard. It begins somewhat like “101 things to do with a box”, but with a skateboard ofcourse.
Also, keep in mind that when shaping a complicated behavior less is more. What you try to do is break the behavior down into tiny parts and teach the parts separatley so that you can then link them in a chain, creating the full behavior. Try not to do more than four sessions a day. More than that will likely result in burnout for you or your dog. This should be a fun game you and your dog play. If anyone is getting frustrated take a break and come back to it later. Well that’s probably more than enough preamble, let’s skate.
Choose a skateboard. I’d say you want a skateboard about an inch wider than your dog’s stance when it’s comfortable. For bigger breeds this will be a big hurdle. Look for a cruiser type skate or a fatty long-board. Second, I’d recommend using an older set of bearings until your dog is extremely comfortable on its deck. What, your old bearings are still extra slick? You can always get them wet. Try not to let them rust, but you don’t want a one push and glide a mile set up either. If you get on the deck, push once and roll three to five feet on a fairly flat surface before you begin to slow down your bearings are perfect.
Habituate your dog to the skateboard. This means teach your dog that number one, the skateboard is an object to be interacted with and THE FUNNEST GAME EVER. First thing to do is get your dog in the room with the skateboard. If he’s scared of the noises a skateboard makes he’s never gonna wanna cruise. Place the skateboard on some carpet, wheels up, and treat your dog with the best treat you have for showing any interest what so ever in it. If the dog is disinterested, just put the treat on the deck. Spin the wheels, tap on the board etc. Repeat for 2-3 minutes and put the skate up for at least 30 minutes.
Bring it down again, and this time, if your dog did great with it wheels up, put it wheels down. At these early stages you can place a towel or something under the wheels so that the skateboard won’t move when your dog plays with it. You do not want the skateboard to shoot out from under the dog and scare it, this would be the worst thing that could happen, although later you will practise with it happening, for now you just want the dog to think of the skateboard as great and in no way scary.Next session same routine, any interest in skate = awesome treat.
Ok, So roll the skateboard around a little bit. Whenever you roll the skateboard check and ask yourself: is my dog curious, afraid or having fun and seeking interaction with the board? If there is any fear at any point as we go along back up a step. Don’t roll the deck at them, roll it away. Prey runs away and is fun to play with, scary things run at you and bite your paws. We’re just trying to show your dog that the skateboard moves, not get them moving it yet.
Treat the dog (or click and treat) for looking at the board, for moving towards it or hearing its sounds, sniffing it, pawing it, etc. Repeat these steps until your dog seems comfortable with the skateboard. Comfortable meaning they’re not barking at you or spazzing out, but just paying a lot of attention. Alternately, they don’t run and hide whenever the skateboard shows up or does something unexpected. If you ever get an overexcited response or a fearful one it means you need to go back and re-habituate your dog to the skate.
If at any time during this training your dog paws the deck or jumps on give him tons of treats, this is called a “jackpot”. You can be on your knees and hold the skateboard steady if they begin to interact with it. If it does mistakenly happen that the deck pops up and scares him, this is another jackpot. Praise your dog as if he did a great trick. Remember, after 2-3 minutes the skate disappears again, gotta leave him wanting more!
Once your dog thinks the sun shines out the skateboard’s pressure cracks, start training him to put his paws on the skateboard, starting with one paw on the board. To do this, put the skateboard on some carpet or grass, a secure towel, etc. Treat the dog 2/3 times it shows interest in the skateboard, but jackpot him for putting any amount of paws on the grip tape. Or hold a treat out above the board, he may try to walk over the board to get it or paw it out of your hand. Once he gets a paw on the deck he doesn’t have to leave it there, he can initially just touch the skateboard.
Clicker trainers, you can free shape a paw touch on the grip tape and then slightly delay the click to get a paw to stay on the deck. This is the method I used with Scherzo and she began paw targeting the bolts, which worked out great. Be sure and keep a foot or hand on the skateboard so it’s as secure as possible and doesn’t move. Continue this exercise until your dog offers a paw on the skateboard as soon as it’s presented.
More paws. Still on the carpet, begin treating 2/3 times when the dog paws the skate and 1/2 the time when he only shows interest and jackpot/continuously treat the dog if he offers 2+ paws on the skate. The principle is to reward it more for a paw touch and fade out the reward he was expecting for just showing interest. At first this may create some frustration which can be a good thing. For a short time (an “extinction burst”) your dog will try extra hard to do what he thinks will work to get him a treat. It’s like calling your friends name, usually they hear you when you say their name in a normal voice. But say you call them and they don’t respond, what will you do? You will call louder! Your dog might touch the skateboard with a paw. Nothing happens- no treat. He might think “Hey you! I touched it!” and he will touch it again but with more gusto, he might get two paws on, put his paw in the right place or leave it on extra long. Jackpot!
However if he gets frustrated and stops offering anything or barks or whines, you should either go back a step or pick up the skateboard and turn your back on him until the unwanted behavior stops. Continue keeping sessions short, 2-3 minutes or 20 reps, whichever comes first, and move on once the dog offers two or more paws as soon as the skateboard is presented.
Now begin gently moving the skate once the dog places his paws on. Jackpot for keeping them on the deck, reward for returning to it. At first he will probably jump off as soon as the skateboard starts to move. Give him a treat, or click and treat, at that split second that the board is moving but he hasn’t yet jumped off. Put the treat right in his mouth so he doesn’t have to move to get it. Once the dog consistently keeps two or more paws on the deck while you move it 4 feet or so, move on to Part 2 (coming soon) where your dog will learn to move the board and to get all four feet on it.