When I was in college, my roommate had an adorable mutt named Toby. Toby was a friendly, energetic pup, but not particularly good for anything other than eating our leftovers and slobbering on our pillows. He was cute, though, and my roommate and I set out to make him even more attractive (and us by proxy) by teaching him a few tricks. Being avid skaters ourselves, we figured teaching olâ€™ Toby to skateboard would be a cinchâ€” and it was.
Why Teach Tricks
Teaching your dog new tricks is a great way to reinforce the process of learning the kinds of behaviors you want your dog to have. It develops habits of problem-solving and learning that actually make your dog smarter. Tricks are also fun, both for you and your dog. Learning something new relieves stress in your dog, and helps him relax physically and mentally.
The Big Picture
The first thing you need to do is decide exactly what you want your dog to doâ€” do you want him to mount the board and just ride along? Do you want him to move the skateboard with his foot? Or are you really ambitious, and do you want your dog to do backflips while shredding a half-pipe? Take the big picture and break it into the smallest possible steps, and then start backward. For example, if you want your dog to mount the skateboard, push off and coast for a little while, and then jump off, you will start by placing the dog on the skateboard and teaching him to step off. Then you will teach him to stand on the skateboard while it is moving, and so on. Once you have a good idea of what exactly you want your dog to do, and how you can break it into small parts, move on to the next step.
Try to get your dog to show some interest in the skateboard. Let him sniff it, climb on it, play with it a bit. Try encouraging him to sit/stand on the board using treats and a lot of praise when he does something close to what you ultimately want him to learn. Try not to force your dog to do something he is uncomfortable attempting. As he becomes more comfortable with the movement of the board and begins to associate your sessions with the skateboard as fun, heâ€™ll be more willing to try things that donâ€™t come naturally to him.
Approximate the Behavior
Now you are ready to approximate the behavior. This is the most time-consuming part of the process, and it requires some creativity. Start by showing your dog what you want him to do. Step onto your skateboard, push off with one foot, ride a small distance, and then step off. Do this for your dog several times in a row over several days. Then start encouraging your dog to â€śfollowâ€ť your example. Place him on the skateboard and have him sit/stand there for several minutes while you pet him. Once he is comfortable doing this, try rolling the skateboard back and forth while heâ€™s sitting on it. Eventually, your dog will start mounting the skateboard by himself expecting your praise and attention.
Be sure to reinforce his good behavior as much as possible. Pet him while he stands on the skateboard. Praise him enthusiastically when he allows you to roll the skateboard while heâ€™s standing on it. Give him a treat when he rides a small distance and steps off. As he begins to learn the trick, you can raise the criteria for your praise, so that he only gets a reward when he does particularly well. Add extra steps to the trick before he earns a reward.
The Tricky Bit
The hardest part will be getting your dog to push off while standing on the skateboard. We were lucky enough that Toby actually did this all on his own. He understood that to get a treat he needed to be on the skateboard, so he brought the board to us one day while sitting on it (pushing along with his little doggy paw). We reinforced the behavior and it stuck. Alternatively, you might try tethering your dog to the skateboard, so that it comes with him automatically. You might also be able to teach him by moving one of his feet to the groundâ€” he should naturally push off from that position when he tries to remount the board, and then a lot of praise and practice should make the behavior stick.
And thatâ€™s it! Just about any trick can be taught in the same fashion: decide on a trick, break it into smaller parts, get your dog to show some interest, approximate the behavior, reinforce good behavior, and before know it, your dog has learned a new trick!