From skateboard phobia to free wheelin' rider

From skateboard phobia to free wheelin' rider
May 2, 2011 by Colleen Safford

 A wee bit over a decade ago, a friend of mine was riding on a subway. She saw a cute young Chihuahua riding in a bag thrown over the shoulder of a trendy Brooklyn vixen.   My dog-loving friend immediately stormed the woman and her dog, "Can I maul (ok, really she said pet) your dog?"    The woman quickly quipped, "Nope.  You can hand her this treat though.  She's fearful of people reaching at her head in the bag."     After some chat, my friend went on to say, "My friend (referring to me) is trying to become a dog trainer."    As luck would have it, that  Brooklyn girl  was Denise Herman - dog trainer and owner of Empire of the Dog.   Denise replied, "Tell her to give me a call. I'm a trainer and always need apprentices."       Lucky me and lucky Pi to have this talented owner and mentor.  

Flash forward all these years, Pi is now 11 and Denise is still a vixen. The cool part, Denise and Pi are still teamed up, tackling any behavior issue that crops up as Pi has evolved from puppy to senior.   Most recently, Denise turned Pi's skateboard fear into talent  with a training technique called free-shaping. 

Free shaping requires waiting for a dog to offer actions on her own; rewarding the dog for small approximations towards an ulitmate goal.   A trainer does not give guidance during this type of training.  Rather the trainer "shapes" the behavior by offering rewards for small snippets of behavior freely offered by the animal. Over time, the trainer increases their criteria as they move toward reaching the ultimate goal.  

The mind of a free shaping savvy dog is brilliant to watch (as you'll see).   Watch as Pi offers a behavior and then automatically checks back in with Denise to see...."was that it?"     

 In this case, the ultimate goal is skateboard riding. Check out Denise's free shaping session with Pi here!

Skate & Destroy from Denise Herman on Vimeo.

 To begin this process,  it's likely that Denise started by laying the skateboard on the floor. Any time Pi looked, sniffed or took a step towards the board, her behavior was marked with a clicker (you hear the clicker in the video) and rewarded with a treat.  The sound of the clicker tells Pi - she's onto something. Think of your use of the phrase, "Good dog,"  when your dog sits for you.   Those words tell your dog that he nailed the behavior and (hopefully) will be rewarded for doing so.      The clicker is a quick, consistent, precise way of delivering information to a dog during the training process. 

During a free shaping session,  a dog's brain really starts working. "What will make that thing click?"  Over time, Pi connects her actions to the sound of the clicker and food reward.  By rewarding each behavior, Denise increases the likelihood that Pi will offer the behavior again (and as you can works!)  As Pi grows more confident and understanding of what is delivering her the treats,  Denise slowly increases her criteria.   Pi must go from approaching the skateboard to touching it with her paws.    To begin, one paw will do.  Next Denise wants to see movement of the board.   Notice that Denise is clear (by not clicking) that she is not looking for Pi to scratch the board. When the scratching goes unmarked/unrewarded, Pi will catch on and the behavior will cease. 

Denise's training plan for free shaping a free wheelin' Pi  would look something like this. Keep in mind, that for each dog, you're criteria would change a bit depending on what the dog was offering.

1. Look at board - click/treat

2. Move toward board - click/treat

3. Sniff/touch board - click/treat (have to becareful that dog does not think sniffing is the behavior you are looking for though!)

4. Paw touch to board - click treat

5. Move Board - click/treat

6. Multiple paws/Stand on board - click/treat

7. Duration on board - click/ treat

With each session, Pi progesses towards the ultimate goal of riding. Taking up boarding at 77 years of age! Not too shabby. Hope I can follow in Pi's paw prints!

Free shaping can be used to train any behavior from extremely simple to quite complex. A reward based trainer with learning theory know-how can help you and your dog with free shaping behavior and tricks. For a trainer in your area check

Denise (and Pi) can be found at  and BONUS she's starting a skateboarding class!

 Warm wags!



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