I’m seeking comment from personal experience on training steps for the teeter with special interest in remedial training methods for dogs that demonstrate a fear of the teeter. My own experience with training the teeter spans a period of more than 20 years; and I have supervised the introduction of the teeter to hundreds of dogs. That being said, my knowledge is surely incomplete.
Certainly dogs are as different and as complicated as humans. So there isn’t likely to be any one size fits all answer. However, a dog trainer should always find interest in new tools and new remedies.
Below I’ve organized some of my writing on teeter training and fear from over the years. It’s a bit of an eclectic collection intended to provoke comment and input.
I look forward to hearing from anyone who’d like to contribute. I’ll summarize the comments in due course.
A Remedy to Teeter Fear – Seek the Pivot
Teresa, a student of mine who’s been struggling with a performance fear on the teeter with her young Dachshund related to me some success she’s had in a new training protocol. She rewards her dog for seeking out the pivot point and rocking the board forward. And from this she reports considerable success in overcoming the dog’s fear.
To dog agility old timers this statement of training objective is going to seem a bit retro. Indeed, in the early days of agility this was typically the statement of objective. The real problem with “seek the pivot point” is that it led to a performance of the tipping plank that was altogether too slow. Consequently within the agility community trainers have grown to set more aggressive criterion for performance: Run to the end of the board; ride it down; and assume an unambiguous position until released.
And yet, I am struck by Teresa’s report of success in the method. This suggests that seeking the pivot point, while contributing to an overall slower performance of the teeter, might be an important remedy to teeter fear, allowing the dog to grow his confidence.
The Third Fear of the Teeter
Most often teeter fear (or “Golden Terror”) is described as an aversion to movement beneath the dog’s feet; and just as often is said to be an aversion to the noise the teeter makes.
Barbara Ray submits that the third fear of the teeter is the jarring shock of the plank hitting the ground or floor. It’s like the old joke goes “Falling doesn’t hurt much; It’s the landing that’ll get you.”
This suggests that it would be useful for some dogs for the handler to take hold of the plank and gentle it down during practice. Or, a pillow or cushion can be placed where the tip of the plank strikes the ground to cushion the blow.
It strikes me too that Teresa’s “Seek the Pivot” remedy might very well work with a dog that is fearful of the jarring shock of the teeter hitting the ground.
Donni’s Aluminum Monster
There’s a teeter in use in the TDAA that is made of folded aluminum sheet, and not terribly thick at that. When I walk a course it is my habit to push down the teeter as I walk by it. It’s a thing I do to gather information, allowing me to gauge whether the teeter is heavy and slow, or light and fast.
Well, this aluminum thing set itself to quivering when it banged on the floor. I suspect it might even have set up a humming tone rather like a tuning fork. I banged it down a second time and put the flat of my hand on it. Sure enough it was shivering from the reverberating shock.
It proved to be a bad weekend for dogs’ confidence on the teeter.
I think that teeter will have to be retired from TDAA competition!
Reviewing Everything I Know about Teeter Fear
I have a private lesson upcoming with a student whose dog demonstrates significant anxiety in the performance of the teeter. And so I’ve been rummaging through a chest of dog trainer stuff at the back of my mind just to go over what I think I know about this problem. Marsha’s take on it is that it might be a difficulty with the dog-trainer. I’ll come back to this idea later.
Dogs are unique and individual, complicating the dog trainer’s task. The work of training dogs cannot be approached in assembly line fashion as dogs will defy being cast by mold. Though there are certain breeds that seem to be disposed to fear of the teeter—The Golden Retriever is so prone to fear on the teeter that the name of the breed attends the syndrome: Golden Terror! —individual dogs of any breed might be fearful for one reason or another.
Many second-generation-dog agility trainers will give the dog work as a puppy on a tippy-board or Buja board so that the dog is imbued from puppyhood with confidence on things moving beneath his feet. I suppose it would take an extensive scientific survey to determine how effective this training might be for all dogs or any dogs. People have reported to me that their dogs are fearful of the teeter even though they had ample work on moving surfaces when their dogs were pups.
The foregoing observation isn’t of much use to finding a remedy for the adult dog afraid of the teeter.
One of our training protocols is what we call the Bang It game. Our training teeter is a big heavy and wide piece of micro-lam. It is set on a perfect fulcrum, meaning that it doesn’t have a tipping direction. You bang it one direction and it stays there. You bang it the other direction and it stays there. So we take the young dog and run him back and forth over the board giving him treats at either end without the dog ever actually leaving the board. It’s a fun game for the dog and it provides a context for rewarding the bang of the board in a repetitive manner. That again goes back to developmental training. But it is certainly an exercise that can be resorted to when even an adult dog has to go back to foundation training.
The positive dog trainer and the optimistic will suggest that the power of the reward might ultimately counterbalance and even overwhelm the dogs fear. The dog’s association with the teeter over time becomes a great positive motivator than a rather than a negative unnerving threat.
This rather general method has worked for me on the only dog I’ve ever owned that has shown teeter fear. My young girl Hazard has demonstrated distrust of things moving beneath her feet. But my stated training objective and performance goals with her were bolder with her from the beginning than they’ve ever been with another of my dogs. Because she is a slight thing—weighing all of about eight pounds—I wanted her from the beginning to run to the end of the ramp, ride that sucker down, and run off. I didn’t want to make a 3-second obstacle a 6‑second ordeal.
However I have seen handlers hang with a reward-based approach for such a long time that the great searching question of Dr. Phil eventually occurs to me: “How’s that working for ya?”
In class I often resort to obvious observations about the handler of the fearful dog. For example, if a handler’s dog is fearful of the teeter it’s often a mistake for the handler to run downfield to coax the dog forward. The handler must make the critical observation of his own dog: does running forward actually entice the dog to finish the performance? More often than not the dog will jump off the side and refuse the performance. My advice to this handler is to stay right at the dog’s shoulder until the board hits the ground. I’m also a stickler, in class, for the handler to reward the dog for making the ramp tip and fall.
Often the fearful dog could use a reassuring touch from the handler. The handler can place his hand (the handler nearer to the dog) on the dog’s withers resting it there ever so lightly. This steadies the dog and reassures him and gives him an immediate connection with the handler.
I might review some of the articles I’ve seen in print. I could look back through a couple years worth of the Clean Run. Certainly somebody has taken a comprehensive look at this problem.
This makes me think back to my early days in dog agility. The only book out there when I first started was Agility Dog International by Peter Lewis and John Gilbert. Their advice for training a new dog was to allow the dog to skulk about the perimeter of the training field and pick things up as they went along. For training protocols that method has a lot less granularity than I like (as an American… you know us, the over-analytical blokes).
Okay, let me go back to my discussion with Marsha as to teeter fear. She suggested that it might be solved by reviewing criteria with the dog’s trainer. Picture the handler/trainer alongside his dog at the teeter. The dog gets on the ramp and stops. So, the handler makes cooing and happy sounds to the dog and even gives the dog a treat. The handler extends another food treat. So the dog advances and then stops, and the handler rewards the dog again. The handler and dog might repeat this several times enticing the dog forward one step and one stop at a time until the board tips and the performance is finished.
Marsha is convinced that what this dog trainer/handler is doing is rewarding the dog for stopping and perhaps confusing or muddling the overall training objective.
Aye there’s the rub!
You know the agility instructor is ever confounded by the two-fold criteria of the teaching. In order for the dog to be trained the handler must be trained to train the dog. The dog’s trainer must set specific criteria for rewarding the dog and must have the discipline to recognize when the dog offers the behavior and must consistently apply the reward for that behavior. This is a lot to teach.
I’m a big fan of food reward for dogs. I’ve gotten a bit of criticism about this in the past from people with self-motivated dogs. But these are mostly silly people who only have clarity in understanding how to best reward their own dogs and who have little understanding of most dogs.
However I am quite the stickler in the misuse of food reward as a lure. I am confident in the assertion that a dog learns more in being rewarded for offering a performance than being lured through the performance. The dog following a bit of food in a hand isn’t really offering anything clever. He’s just following the food. The dog who offers performance in anticipation of reward is demonstrating canny cleverness.
I’m not sure I’m ready for my private lesson. It would be nice to find a silver bullet. Maybe we will or maybe we won’t. I’ll charge the same no matter what. It did help quite a lot for me to put down on paper the jumble that has been at the back of my mind.
Hazard’s Early Intro to the Teeter
|In preparation for the teeter, I’ve already introduced my pup to a tipping obstacle. I’ve got a foot pedestal that rocks back and forth. At 18 weeks of age she has already mastered tipping the pedestal in either direction and completely without fear. When I finally do introduce her to a teeter (set quite low at the central fulcrum) she will be totally fearless of something moving under her feet.
It is so typical of the Golden Retriever to hate anything that moves beneath his feet, that the propensity of a dog to fear and loathe the teeter in agility is sometimes referred to as Golden Terror.
Here are some remedies worth considering:
– The best idea is to condition the dog to the idea of thing moving beneath his feet at a very early age. Some people use a training device called a Buja Board, certainly named after Brenda Buja, a top competitor and intrepid trainer in our sport. A Buja Board is essentially a square piece of board (possibly 3’ x 3’ square) with a tennis ball affixed to the center underneath. The dog is treated to games and work while walking on the surface of the board until he becomes accustomed—and not spooked—by the movement beneath his feet.
– For a dog that is introduced to the teeter later in life, it’s a good idea to use a training teeter for which the apex is adjustable, so that it can be set very low early on and gradually raised over time at a pace that matches the dog’s growth in confidence.
– Of course it’s always a good idea to lavish reward on the dog for his bravery in the performance of the obstacle. If the reward sufficiently outweighs the negative reinforcer, then over time the aversive part of the experience will decline and go away altogether.
– Some dogs don’t like the bang of the board, which is quite different than not liking the movement itself. A good strategy is to outweigh the negative experience with the application of reward. For example the dog’s trainer might take a position near the teeter while other dogs are performing the obstacle, and banging the board. For ever bang the handler will praise and reward the dog. Over time the negative will actually become a positive, and the dog will look forward to the bang of the board.
– A game we often play in class with our trainer teeter we call “bang the board”. The training teeter is a wide thing of about 18” made of a micro-laminate so that it feels safe and secure to the dog. The apex is set at about 10” so that the drop is not all that tremendous. In this game the handler will take the dog back and forth over the dog without ever actually dismounting. Bang the board, and give a treat; bang the board and give a treat; bang the board, and give a treat. Do this over and over again until the dog really enjoys the game.
– It might also be useful for the handler not feed the fear of the dog. Sometimes when a dog is fearful off a thing the handler will clutch, be panicky, and worry at the dog, actually validating the dog’s fear of the obstacle. When a dog is fearful of an obstacle the handler should assume a nonchalant attitude towards that obstacle, not treating it with any panic or trepidation.
– Be aware that the most corrosive influence in training a dog is the ego of the handler. It might be that raising the apex of the teeter before the dog is actually ready could lead to a negative association with that obstacle. The trainer should take a rational approach to raising the apex so that the dog will always be under control.
– Avoid advice that was clearly intended for other types of dogs. For example, if your training center insists on two-on/two-off performances on all contact obstacles, you could be setting up the very small dogs for a negative experience on the teeter. A dog that weighs under 10 pounds is likely to get dumped ass over teakettle by a heavy based teeter board bouncing back up after coming down. For the very tiny dog it would be a better idea to teach the dog to run up, ride down, and get off (in a straight line) as quickly as possible.
Okay, I’m sure there’s some stuff that I have forgotten about the teeter. When I actually roll all of this together for the teeter training handout, I’ll complete these thoughts and add anything new I can think of.
Questions comments & impassioned speeches to Bud Houston: BudHouston@hughes.net. And Check out my new publication the Idea Book – Agility Training for a Small Universe available at www.dogagility.org/store.
If I came back to it at all, it would be later.