Although the time-honored doggie sports of old – like fetch and a good ol’ run – remain favorites, these days more and more dogs and their pet parents are opting for unconventional dog sports to get that energy out. From surfing and dancing to skateboarding, dogs are wagging their tails with excitement as they show off their unique talents.
When the skateboarding Bulldog hit the scene in 2007, YouTube was never the same for animal lovers. With nearly 10 million hits to date, Tillman is one of the most famous English Bulldogs around town. He’s appeared in various commercials, on Discovery Channel’s Animal Planet, National Geographic and was an audience favorite on CBS’ “Greatest American Dog.” Tillman’s skateboarding YouTube video debut even landed the pup a spot in an iPhone ad. In the video, the chubby puppy chugs along scooting and skating around a skate park, while passersby smile and cheer the pup on in awe.
It wouldn’t come as a shock then that in recent years pet parents have rushed to teach their loved dogs how to ride a board and hit the streets rolling instead of pad-footing.
For a year now, Jaime Van Wye has been training dogs to skateboard in the advanced tricks class at the Zoom Room Dog Agility Training Center in Culver City, California. The Zoom Room offers classes in obedience, agility and therapy dog training. After encouragement from clients, Van Wye added skateboarding to the center’s repertoire.
Skateboarding isn’t a natural behavior for many pooches, but a combination of conditioning and positive motivation help teach a dog to skateboard, says Van Wye.
The process takes a couple of weeks during which the dog is encouraged to interact with the skateboard. If the dog touches the skateboard he gets a treat. If he puts his paws on the skateboard he gets another treat. Eventually, the dog learns that climbing onto the board and making it move gets him a yummy reward.
Van Wye says that dogs with high prey drives that enjoy chasing balls pick up skateboarding much more quickly than other dogs. They think skateboards are something to chase and they naturally want to pursue it.
“Bulldogs have really high prey drive and they like to manipulate things,” Van Wye said. “They tend to like to move things around with their mouths. They bite it, move it with their feet, pick it up, flip it.”
While some dogs, like the English Bulldog, show a natural affinity for the board and can even stop and turn around, others will bump into walls. Thankfully the training area at the Zoom Room is on rubber flooring so dogs and skateboards can careen out of control and pet parents don’t have to worry too much about injuries.
The class can also work to help those dogs harboring a pesky skateboard chasing habit and teach them to cease chasing unsuspecting human skaters by learning to love the board.
“We teach them how to skateboard and how to stop viewing the skateboard as scary,” Van Wye said. “They stop viewing the skateboard as something to chase and kill.”
For those pet parents wanting to teach their dog to skateboard at home, Van Wye suggests starting out on a floor with lots of traction as opposed to a slick surface; for example, a backyard lawn versus a kitchen floor. By starting lessons on a grassy lawn, you prevent any incidents where your dog goes flying off on the skateboard too quickly. They also then have something to cushion their fall with the grassy terrain of the yard. She added that pet parents shouldn’t force their dog onto the skateboard, but instead encourage the dog to play with the skateboard of his own accord.
If skateboarding seems eons away in training for some pooches, pet parents might consider putting a little more prance in their doggie’s step.
In San Diego, California, Emily Larlham did just that with beloved pup Splash, a Border Collie dancing sensation. Larlham is a dog trainer, pet portrait artist, and co-founder of the SD Canine Freestylers along with friend and fellow dog trainer Pamela Johnson. Larlham is also a dedicated pet parent to her other pup, special needs Chihuahua Kiko who holds her own array of fantastic tricks under her collar. Via their organization, pet parents can help their pooches learn a dance routine of the canine type.
The national organization Paws 2 Dance Canine Musical Freestyle Society defines the sport as “a choreographed set of moves performed to music by dog and handler. Divisions range from pre-novice, novice, intermediate, advanced and masters.”
A worldwide sport, Canine Musical Freestyle has been gaining ground since the late ’80s and reaches dog lovers world-wide. Also referred to as musical freestyle, freestyle dance, and canine freestyle, the sport usually includes a mixture of obedience, tricks, and dance with a dance-savvy handler at the helm. Costumed or not, these daring pups can dance with the best of them.
When asked what drew her to train Splash in Canine Musical Freestyle, Larlham said, “I love being inventive with dog tricks and breaking the boundaries of what is possible to teach dogs. Canine Freestyle is perfect for this.”
Larlham credits famed dog trainer Attila Szkukalek and his freestyling Border Collie Fly for inspiring her to pursue the sport. “I did not know freestyle existed until I first saw Attila Szkukalek and his Border Collie Fly on YouTube doing their ‘Charlie Chaplin’ routine. After seeing that routine I became completely obsessed with the sport.”
Roughly around the same time that Van Wye began teaching skateboarding at the Zoom Room, Larlham formed the SD Canine Freestylers with Johnson. A dedicated proponent of positive reinforcement and clicker training, Larlham found a kindred spirit in Johnson who also refrained from using punishment in training her dogs.
“Our dogs and we soon became close friends and started practicing routines together. After doing demos at local fairs we founded our own organization. We now hold meet ups, seminars, and take part in community programs and fairs,” said Larlham. “The SD Canine Freestlyers were not only created to bring together like-minded souls, but also to educate the public that there are more humane ways of training dogs than what they see on television.”
Holding true to the spirit of positive reinforcement training, Larlham says that dogs trained in Canine Musical Freestyle should find enjoyment in the sport, not dread.
“When people’s egos get in the way they can sometimes forget that the sport is about having fun with your dog and celebrating the relationship you have together, and not about owning a circus pony,” she says. Forcing a dog to perform with reprimands and punishment does not create an enjoyable environment for the dog, says Larlham, but under the right circumstances a dog can love and excel in Canine Musical Freestyle.
“I believe the most enjoyable part about Canine Freestyle for a dog is the fact that unlike obedience, the owner gets to choose what behaviors they are going to put in their routine,” says Larlham. “Choosing your dog’s favorite behaviors to do throughout the routine can make the routine rewarding in itself. My Border Collie Splash for instance loves jumps, while my Chihuahua loves reversing in circles, so these are must haves in any of their routines.”
What pet parent doesn’t know their pup’s signature happy dance? Incorporating what makes your pup happy into a dance routine of tricks can begin right at home.
Larlham says that a dog that knows a few tricks or has participated in Rally Obedience has the foundation for doing Canine Musical Freestyle. She goes on to say that teaching your dog some smooth transitions to the perfect music will then make for a good routine.
“A beginning Canine Freestyle routine is about a minute and a half long. It could take a new handler a few months to put a routine together to the point where it looks slick. Once you have the hang of transitions, you can even improvise routines on the spot!” says Larlham.
Splash has strutted her stuff alongside Larlham to Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face” and M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes”. Just last year, Splash’s fancy tricks and flashy dance moves won her first place in the World Wide Pet Industry Association’s Canine Runway. And, in 2008, Splash became StarPet’s winner for the Western United States. Dubbed the “puppy prodigy,” Splash went on to compete in New York against the other finalists and took home the grand prize at only nine months old in the event hosted by talk show host Montel Williams.
Avid lovers of Canine Musical Freestyle, Splash and Kiko are two lucky dogs. It’s proven knowledge that exercise and stimulating activities make for a well-adjusted and happy dog. Although some pet parents find it hard to drag themselves out the door to walk their pup, showing up to a “dance” class or a skateboarding lesson might be just the thing for their and their dog’s daily dose of energy expulsion.
Engaging in fun activities with a dog will only lead to a more positive relationship between dog and owner.
“When you spend time working with your dog in a way that is fun for the dog, the end result is a dog that wants to listen to you on or off leash,” says Larlham. “When the owner becomes addicted to positive reinforcement training and finds out how amazing their dog really is, they start to respect their dog more, and the dog’s quality of life increases.”
For more information about canine skateboarding contact: Jaime Van Wye, (877) 966-6766 in the Los Angeles area, or search for reputable dog trainers in your area by visiting the Association of Pet Dog Trainers.
PHOTOS: flickr.com and courtesy of Emily Larlham
Does your dog do an amazing dog sport? Tell us about it in the comments!