By Sophia Yin, DVM, MS
Ever since that great video featuring Tyson the skateboarding bulldog hit it big on Youtube, skateboarding has become a standard dog trick that owners attempt to train. Most owners start by using some basic method of luring the dog onto the skateboard with a treat or pointing to the skateboard and hoping the dog will get on. If he does, then they praise and pet him like they would a child who has finally managed to ride a bike without the training wheels. They may even give the dog a treat.
For some natural-born skateboarding dogs, this crude technique works. In other cases you end up with a dog that sometimes rides the skateboard and at other times tries to eat it. Or worse, you get a dog that goes crazy every time he sees the skateboard because he wants to chomp on it like it’s a chewtoy. For those who have dogs that don’t naturally know how to get up and ride, here’s a step-by step plan. This simple dog trick starts with teaching the dog to step on objects with the two front feet on cue and progresses to stepping on moving objects such as a skateboard.
Start by Teaching a Simpler Dog Trick Called “Step” with the Two Front Feet
Step 1: Luring
The first stage of training this dog trick consists of teaching Fido to place two front feet on any object that you want. The benefit of this behavior is that you can also use it to teach other tricks such as shake paws, high five, wave, turn on the lights, or ring the bell.
To start, you’ll need an object that’s elevated several inches off the ground and wide enough so that your dog can’t easily walk around it. Objects I’ve used for a 40-pound dog include a step-aerobics platform, an indo board, several coffee table books placed side by side, and a square, firm doggie bed.
Next lure the dog with treats or kibble so that his front feet are on the object and then give him 5-10 more treats in a row. Then walk away so he gets off and follows you (or toss a treat on the floor so he has to move) and repeat the procedure. Repeat this step until you are able to walk towards the object with him and he steps on without hesitation consistently-meaning 5-10 times in a row-with the food lure.
Step 2: Switch to Rewarding the Desired Behavior
Next, switch to rewarding the behavior instead of luring. Walk up to the object and see if he will step up on his own. If he does, say “yes” right as he does it in a distinct voice and give him a treat within 0.5 seconds. That’s right. I said 0.5 seconds. Dogs learn best if the reward comes within a split second. That means you’ll have to whip your treat delivery hand out and get that treat right up to his face. If you’re able to do this, then “yes” will come to inform Fido exactly what he’s done right and that he’s getting a treat within an instant. Again, follow with several additional treats. Then, walk away and repeat. Be sure to approach the object from different directions so that you know Fido’s focusing on stepping up onto objects rather than just on stepping on one object from one specific approach.
Step 3: Generalizing to a Few Other Objects
When he can immediately step up 5-10 times in a row from different approaches, switch to a smaller object for him to step on. Try a coffee table book or a hard-cover binder. At this point you may realize he only knows to step on the objects you just trained. So you may need to go back to step 1 when you first start with a new object. Work on several different types of objects so that you know he’s learning the concept of “step.”
Step 4: Adding the Cue Word
Once he’s regularly stepping onto the object of interest, you can start teaching the cue word “step.” Walk up to the object ahead of him and if you’re sure he’ll follow and step on it, point to it first and say “step.” It’s important that you’re sure he’s going to step up and you say the word before he’s performing the action. If you say the word and he does not perform the behavior, he will not make the connection between the word and the action.
Step 5: Practicing on Random Objects to Test Fido’s Knowledge of the Cue
Now you can move to even smaller objects or objects that are tilted slightly. If the object is small, it’s OK for him step with just one foot. Walk up to the next object, point to it and then stay “step.” Once he’s stepped, say “yes” and reward. Avoid staying “step” and pointing simultaneously in this step (and the last step, too) or he’ll tend to learn just the visual pointing cue and not the verbal cue since the visual one is more obvious. Repeat step 5 in rapid succession going between different objects. When he can step on different objects on cue without hesitation, then he actually knows what the visual or verbal cue means.
This process is short. Most dogs can learn this dog trick within several sessions if they are hungry and motivated for what you have to earn. My dogs are used to working for their meals so I use their daily allotment of kibble as rewards when I want them to learn tricks such as this quickly.
Step 6: Turning this into the Skateboard Dog Trick
Now transfer this dog trick to stepping on a skateboard. Place the skateboard on a carpet or grass so it won’t move and scare him. Point and say “step.” Then reward him when he’s standing with his two front feet. Repeat 5-10 x in rapid succession. Then start requiring he step on with 3 or 4 feet before you give the reward. Once he easily steps on onto the board, sometimes reward 2 feet on and sometimes 3-4.
Next move the skateboard to a sidewalk so that it will move around and have him step on the skateboard. When he’s more excited he’ll jump on with all four feet. It’s important that he learn both 2 and 4 feet so that he can propel the board forward as well as riding on it. Practice this dog trick in 5-15 minutes sessions several times a day and in just several days your pooch will be a skateboarding pro.