Why skateboarding? Learning any new trick is fun for both you and your dog and increases your bond. Plus, skateboarding teaches balance and confidence, and whose dog couldn’t use more of that?
Skateboarding is also a great training example of splitting behaviors and then chaining them all together. Think of splitting like all the ingredients in a recipe. Chaining is then like combining the ingredients together sequentially to create a finished outcome of ability that cannot only be repeated, but is something your dog chooses to repeat freely because it is fun for her to do so.
Step 1: Getting comfortable
First, let your dog freely explore and see how she feels about being around a skateboard as an object in her environment. The single fastest way for a dog to form associations to anything or learn anything is slowly. Start out with a skateboard in an area with your dog. The skateboard doesn’t need to move, and you don’t need to spin the wheels. Just allow your dog to gather information about this new piece of equipment and freely approach it on her own — sniff it, walk around it and inspect it.
Step 2: Don’t let skateboard move
A key element for success is ensuring that the skateboard does not move in the beginning. Tighten up the wheels so they do not move freely and also tighten up the trucks so the skateboard does not move from side to side. You can also purchase skateboard trainers to put on each wheel to prevent movement ($25.95. SkaterTrainer 2.0; amazon.com).
We introduce movement only when the dog gets good at going up on the skateboard and staying on the skateboard comfortably. This can take days or this can take hours. It is up to the individual dog and how comfortable she is in the process of learning this new novel skill.
In all my decades of helping humans and dogs learn how to skateboard, not one of them ever started to learn how to do this moving. Every single, last individual learned how to stand on the board when it was not moving first and to get comfortable with doing this extremely important first step before moving on to the next step.
Step 3: Getting on
Next up, encourage your dog to get up on the skateboard. If your dog has any previous platform training, it will make this learning process even more simple for her, as this would be a generalization of a previously reinforced behavior in a similar situation. The idea is to have your dog get used to the muscle memory required to step up onto something.
Set your dog up for success. If you have carpeting, start in this environment so the board is even less likely to move.
If you do not have carpeting and you have grass, you can also do it outside. Do not start on pavement, as that comes later after your dog is confident with getting on the skateboard and staying on it.
The body mechanics of this start with you in front of the board and your dog behind the board. Hold something your dog enjoys in your hand to lure her onto the board from the back while you stand in front of it. Slowly guide your pup toward the skateboard until she steps on it. Once she steps onto the board, mark and reinforce her for being on it.
For going onto any object with my dogs, I use the verbal cue “Load up.” This is a verbal cue to request them to step up and go onto whatever is in front of them. This is also how I request my dogs to load up into my vehicle, or a stump, a bench or anything in our environment that would be fun to stand on. If you use a clicker, you can also click for her cue.
Stay at this stage for as long as it takes for your dog to get comfortable standing on the skateboard for an extended duration of time comfortably, with confidence born of her own. For some dogs, this can be a short period of time as they take to this activity more naturally then another dog possibly would. If we pressure them into being on the skateboard when we introduce movement too quickly, the individual dog may never be as comfortable being on the skateboard, which is why we tighten up the wheels and tighten up the trucks.
Step 4: Prep for movement
Once your dog is comfortable standing on the skateboard, move on to movement. At this stage, loosen up the wheels a little bit, so they move slowly. It’s still a good idea to keep the trucks tight for part of this stage of learning. This is also when to move from the stable carpeted environment to flooring or a backyard patio.
Step 5: Forward movement
You want to do your best to manage the movement of the skateboard. One good way is to attach a leash or rope to the front truck. Slowly pull the dog (standing on the skateboard) and the skateboard toward you while reinforcing her for staying on the skateboard in forward movement.
This is an important stage: Have fun here and reinforce your dog a lot for staying on the board while it is moving.
This entails moving the board forward a bunch with the dog standing on the skateboard so you can build up this behavior.
Step 6: Side to side movement
At this stage, spend some time letting your dog get used to balancing herself on this now less-stable platform. With your hand or foot on the board while your dog is on it, slowly rock the board side to side, introducing this new aspect of movement to your dog and helping her expand her balance skills.
Humans turn a skateboard by shifting their balance either on their heels or on their toes. Dogs move a skateboard side to side by adjusting their weight either to the right or leaning to the left. Again, spend as much time here as your dog needs to be comfortable in this step.
Step 7: Self-propelled
Next up is guiding and encouraging your dog to move the board on her own with her rear legs. With her front legs on the board and her rear legs on the ground, move the board forward and help create an “aha” moment for your dog to realize that she can now move the board on her own.
Lure her forward with something that motivates her, like a piece of her favorite food or a favorite toy. You want to be far enough away to motivate her to use the skateboard by propelling it toward you but not far enough away where she decides to run to you to get the reinforcer without the skateboard. Adjust to and be flexible with distance to your dog at this stage, slowly increasing it as she develops her skill at moving the board freely on her own.
Expanding the Environment
Now that your dog is developing skills where she is better at staying on the board, move her to an environment where she can skateboard safely on her own. Your dog will need to be off leash, as it is extremely tricky to have a dog on a skateboard while holding a leash attached to a harness. If you affect the dog in any way with any pressure on the leash, that will throw her off balance and the leash could get caught in the wheels.
Your dog also needs to have a safe area in which to further develop her skills. If you have a patio in a fenced-in backyard or if your driveway is fenced, these are managed environments that are safe. You can also try a local tennis court or any outside paved area that is fenced in.
Take the Time Needed
Nothing is more important than spending as much time as needed at each step of learning to skateboard — move as fast as the slowest learner. When shaping a new behavior there is no wrong, there are only behaviors we reinforce, and then there are other behaviors.
This type of thinking allows for a lot of flexibility for the individual learner. If this is all done progressively tailored to your individual dog, then in the future just picking up the skateboard will be all the information your dog needs to know exactly what’s going to happen — skateboarding fun.
Is Skateboarding Right for Your Dog?
Before teaching your dog to skateboard, consider if she is physically capable to do this activity. I am not one to discourage the individual — I’ve seen dogs who don’t allow any boundaries hold them back. However, some breeds are too big or too small to skateboard. A 10- by 30-inch skateboard is a good platform size for most dogs.
If this is too small or too big for your dog, adjust with her physical abilities with either a bigger board or just teach her to have fun standing on a skateboard, which is basically just another platform. Platforms are an elevated sturdy surface an animal goes up onto to stand on and do other behaviors on. People have been using platforms to train animals for centuries. Many things can be used as platforms, and a skateboard is just a platform that eventually moves.
See the Dogster article “The Rise of Platforms” for more information on platform training.