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Jessie Gets Radical: Teach Your Dog to Skateboard!

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Why not?

Imagine coming home from ClickerExpo, your head full of ideas, and getting a new dog! That was my situation recently. So, I did what any enthusiastic trainer would do—I trained my new dog to ride a skateboard!

But first I needed a training plan. I admit it—I've always had a tendency to make up my training plan as I go along. But I was turning over a new leaf. I was finally accepting that every good clicker trainer starts with a shaping plan, breaks it down into small steps, and records data along the way. So I created a plan and off we went.

Jessie paw on board

The plan

The first step in the plan was shaping my dog, Jessie, to put her feet on to a box top. Starting with a box allowed me to shape with a stable object versus a rolling board. The box top was wider than the skateboard, but about the same length. I placed it on the floor so that the solid top was approximately three inches off the floor.

Initially, I would click and treat for any paw touches on the box top. I tossed the treat away each time, to reset Jessie for another try. In just two sessions she was reliably touching the box with one front paw, and sometimes with both paws. The next step involved raising my criteria to shape her to touch the box with both front paws every time. This step was also quick, just one session. Jessie was now reliably touching the box top with both her front paws. (By the way, I was doing one-minute sessions and counting the number of clicks and treats per minute to track our success rate. When Jessie was consistently getting about 10 clicks per minute, I would move to the next step in the plan.)

Every good clicker trainer starts with a shaping plan, breaks it down into small steps, and records data along the way.

Now it was time to shape Jessie to position herself lengthwise against the long side of the box top, so that she was approaching and putting her front paws on the box top from the side, as she would need to do when we switched to the skateboard. In our first session, she was eagerly offering to stand on the box top with all four paws. While cute, that was not part of the plan! So I started clicking a bit earlier to capture the action of her front paws (before the rear paws came up). When Jessie was reliably putting her front paws on the box from the side, I began giving the cue "ride it."

At this point, I switched to the "treat count" method to track my rate of reinforcement—counting out ten treats for each session, and putting one treat aside when Jessie did not respond to the cue, or her response did not meet the criteria. We did several sessions at this level, practicing until she was responding to the "ride it" cue 80% of the time.

The real deal

jessie on skateboard

Now we were ready for the skateboard. I wedged Kongs on each end of the board to prevent the skateboard from rolling. Since the board was not as wide as the box top, my plan was to do a couple of sessions without cueing "ride it." But as Jessie watched me set up the skateboard where the box top had been, I was sure that I saw the wheels turning in her head. I decided to try cueing "ride it" once to see if she responded. Smart dog that she is, she responded to the cue and put her front paws on the board. Yippee!

Of course following this little leap, the urge to jump ahead hit me again. After all, she had caught on so quickly. But I resisted and stuck to my plan. We did a few sessions with Jessie putting both front paws on the skateboard with the Kongs in place. When her rate of reinforcement was 90%, I removed the Kongs and let the board roll.

Now we're rolling

Jessie on skateboard

Our next session was humbling. Suddenly the skateboard was all over the place. Jessie would enthusiastically put her paws on it, but sometimes her paws hit the tail and flipped the board. Other times, Jessie would pounce on the board and it would shoot across the floor, without its intended rider. Time to revisit the plan!

The solution was simple—practice on carpet. The carpet slowed the rolling, and our next session was noticeably calmer. The next step in the plan was to shape Jessie so that she would start pushing herself along with her rear paws while standing on the board with her front paws. I assumed this would come easily, since the movement of the board would get her rear feet moving naturally. Though we had many successful repetitions, with Jessie pushing off and traveling a few feet across the carpet, I couldn't seem to get above a 60% success rate with our rate of reinforcement. Hmmm, time to revisit the plan again.

Is my dog goofy?

Jessie on skateboard

I went back and looked at my notes from previous, successful, sessions: what position the skateboard was in, which direction Jessie approached it, etc. Then it dawned on me—could Jessie be goofy-footed?

"Goofy-footed" is the slang term to describe riding a skateboard (or other type of board) with your right foot forward, which is considered opposite the regular stance of left foot forward. Of course, my dog has two feet on each side of her body. Could there be a correlation between her body position, relative to the left or right side of the board, and her ability to push with her rear feet? Would you call that "goofy-bodied?"

During the early part of our shaping, using the box top and then the board stabilized by the Kongs, I had consistently shaped Jessie to approach with the board to her left. Yet, when we reached the step of the plan when we began working with the moving board, I realized that she had been approaching from different sides depending on where I placed the board. How did I miss that?

To test my theory, I set up a session and placed the board so Jessie would approach with the board to her right. My theory, that my dog was goofy-footed, was quickly confirmed when she pushed the board consistently. I continued the training sessions, placing the board so Jessie could approach with it to her right. In no time at all, she was zipping around on her skateboard, pushing it great distances.

In no time at all, she was zipping around on her skateboard, pushing it great distances.

The longboard

I was thrilled with Jessie's success! We continued practicing in new places, including some sloped surfaces where the board really got rolling.

I noticed that the faster the board went, the more Jessie tried to get all four feet on the board. But whenever she brought her back feet up on to the tail of the board, her weight would cause the front of the board to flip up. When that happened, Jessie would immediately put one or both of her rear feet back down on the ground, thereby stabilizing the board.

I started looking for a skateboard with a longer deck. We went to a skateboarding shop and I discovered a longboard. At 35 inches in length and flat (no flipped tail), it seemed ideal. Jessie would be able to stand on it comfortably. However, the price tag was not ideal! So my handy husband decided to make Jessie a board—now we're in business!

We started training on the new board, keeping it stabilized with Kongs. I clicked and treated Jessie for standing on the board with all four paws, and debated whether to add a new cue for the four-paws-on behavior. With a new cue I'd have two cues: one for riding with all four paws and one for pushing. But I decided just to keep the original "ride it" cue and let Jessie put all four paws on the moving board when she was comfortable.

Jessie had no problem getting used to her new skateboard, and picked right up where she left off with her training. When we resumed practice out on the street, Jessie's riding was much more stable.

Even with the longer skateboard, for the most part Jessie still rides with just two or three feet on the board, but she will occasionally bring all four feet up. I think her height makes it hard for her to balance with all four paws on.

Jessie gets some air

Jessie skating

Well, I'm exaggerating about getting air, but with all of the progress she has made, she is pretty radical!

Jessie loves riding the skateboard. She gets the same silly, happy, look she gets when she runs agility. She doesn't get many opportunities to ride the skateboard these days—she really is too radical to ride inside the house! But we get out and ride periodically.

Over time, I've noticed that Jessie has become pretty skilled pushing on either side, and sometimes she even rides squarely forward, with her rear paws directly behind the board. She has not yet mastered leaning on the board to turn. We have been inspired by some Internet videos of dogs going up and down ramps and over jumps. But for now, Jessie is content with the "wind in her hair" kind of air!

About the author
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Tia Guest is Program Director of Karen Pryor Academy, as well as a professional animal trainer.