A Review of Teeter Fear

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[1].

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

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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.


Golden Terror

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 BookAgility Training for a Small Universe available at www.dogagility.org/store.

[1] If I came back to it at all, it would be later.


6 Responses to “A Review of Teeter Fear”

  1. Michelle Says:

    This is of particular interest to me Bud as Presley had developed a teeter fear. He was trained to runt o the end and ride it down, which he did well for several years. At some point I think he ran a board that hit too hard and he felt the “tuning fork” up through his shoulders. So I have started with him again on a low teeter, and yes I have had to lure him to the end with food. He still is inconsistant on the teeter and I am just trying to be patient. I don’t practice as often as I should with him either. I am trying to figure out how to best introduce Elvis to the teeter, and I am thinking of using the “find the pivot point” method and not worry about how fast the board tips. We can make up the time on the flat, I hope. He is a speedy little guy. Prelsy isonly 7 and when I got him at 2 years old he was so fast and did everything with delight. Lately he is so much more tentative and flatly refuses some obstacles, even jumps osmetimes. I’ve dropped his jumps to 4″, had him thoroughly checked by a vet. He has very mild arthiritic changes at the L6 level which the vet thinks would not cause a problem yet. He gets regular accupuncture. I will work some more with him and see how it goes. If it turns out he doesn’t get any better, thats OK. I know there is a reason and maybe the vet just can’t see the problem yet.
    I’ll be reading your notes with interest, thanks.

  2. sligo Says:

    My first agility dog (who is still kicking at almost 15), was terrified of the bang. Yes he’s a Golden. He loved everything about agility except that damned bang. There was one trial where he managed to keep both ends of the teeter off the ground, swaying gently, for a good two minutes, with me unable to convince him that the BANG would not eat him.

    So my next dog started learning to love the BANG at 10 weeks. I had a board in my yard, and at first he’d just be rewarded for happening to walk on it. After he was comfortable hopping up onto it, I put a small piece of wood under it so it was a little tippy. Again, reward reward reward for being a brave boy about it tipping. Eventually I put him on my teeter, at a low height, and got him to hear his first BANG. reward, reward, reward.

    This dog (who is now almost 11) loved field work, and loved the sound of a shotgun in the morning, and frankly could give a toot about any sort of BANG. So, during his career, he’d run the teeter, stomping it as hard as he could to make it BANG, since BANG had always paid off big time. So there he was a big fluffy Golden, making that damned board BANG hard.

    The current dog, who has yet to trial, is a little red Golden, who is afraid of nothing. Not the BANG, not flying off, not things that go bump in the night. But she also went thru the whole BANG training thing, so that no matter what she knew that BANG was cool, and dogs who made things go BANG were rewarded.

    It’s a little like seeking out the pivot point, but since BANG happens later then pivot, I think you get a faster time on the board. And if BANG pays off hugely, you get a dog who drives thru the pivot. Any dogs I get from here on in will be trained to BANG, as frankly for my Goldens at least, it seems to work well. I get my dogs as puppies though: not sure how an older dog would go with this, as puppies are just blank happy slates who can be trained so easiliy.

    Now the first dog did manage to run and do ok, but frankly it was only due to the fact that he was an athletic animal, that he would make time. The time lost on the teeter was significant. He’s a good honest dog, and he would never ignore or go around it, or pretend he couldn’t see it, but he would do it as if he was being sent to the guillotine or something.

    As far as the number of Goldens who don’t like teeters, frankly I don’t get it: a dog who hunts or competes in hunt tests should not be a big wuss about noise. I suspect that some people have been inculcated into the whole “Goldens hate teeters” and transmit some of that to their dogs. But, who knows!

  3. Rich Bradley Says:

    I have 2 goldens, one 8 years old and one 4 years old. Both have had teeter issues of a completely diff. nature. The older Golden which has his Mach 3 struggled early on both at practice and at trial until at about 20 months he figured it out and rarely experienced a problem after that. My younger Golden who rarely double Q’s because of the Teeter and A-frame never misses a teeter in practice and hasn’t for 2 years, in fact will seek it out over other osbstacles. The same is true with the A-frame in practice. In trials though she will run around the teeter about 50% of the time or jump off. If she does her teeter, she will then miss her down A-frame contact, though I don’t really correlate the two. My problem then is that I have no way that I can figure to “train” this because she is flawless in practice in all arenas, not just at home or at our normal practice facility. It is not the skill or movement or band, she just feels something different at the trials. That’s it, no comment otherwise. She has great skills that don’t translate to the ring. If we could answer that delimma, we could make a million.

  4. 3tailswaggin Says:

    I teach agility. I have come to find that mostly older dogs have fear of the teeter. The majority of dogs that have started with me did so as puppies, and none showed any fear whatsoever of the teeter. I am a firm believer in getting puppies on equipment (safely) as young as possible to avoid the fear factor later on in their training. My own dogs achieved great joy as puppies in seeing just how loud they could bang the dang thing!

    With that said, I have run into teeter problems at trials as our dogs (my own and students alike) are faced with a “new” teeter. My teeter is wood. Most teeters out there in competition are the aluminium skinned ones that “click” on the dogs toenails. I’m like you, when I walk the course I put my hand on the teeter and push it down. I want to hear the bang and get a feel for the rate of fall. And I always take a bit of caution on the first run with a dog on a new teeter. They seem to do well after the first run.

    Older dogs in class that have fear issues, we start from the basics of simply getting them to walk on the teeter board on the ground. We use treats to keep them focused on the board itself, sometimes placing the treats on the board. We then move up to a simple piece of PVC under the board to make it rock. We progress with putting the pivot point up a few inches at a time, we also use a shorter board (8 foot to start, then 10 foot, finally the 12 foot board).

    I do not ask for 2o2o on the teeter, nor do I have dogs run to the end and ride it down. I run labradors that weigh 80lbs plus, running them to the end that quickly makes for a fly off because the board literally drops out under them, so I guess I’m of the “old school” and let them dog find the pivot and move on from there. I treat AFTER the obstacle is completed (I also tend to do 4 on the floor contacts with my bigger dogs as it is less stressful on their shoulders and backs), so technically treat after the contact obstacle as well).

    I do allow students to find what works best for them by exploring all options.

    And, just because this has worked for me with other fear issues (in particular Thunderstorm fear), I SING to the dog as we do fearful things, just silly songs with laughs and high voice. So many people make fearful situations worse because they over worry about it.

  5. Sal Says:

    I approach teeter training with the premise that sooner or later, every dog is going to have a scare on it. For that reason, I save an extremely high value food reward for retraining the teeter, and ONLY for that. Until the dog has had a teeter scare, he/she has never learned about BABY FOOD (meat, any kind) — yes, human — Gerber, Beechnut! However you go about recovering/retraining from the scare, it sure makes a big impression on the dog to get that as a treat reward (you just let them lick it out of the jar). In my house, the only time they ever see it again is after every run (good, bad or disastrous) at a trial.

  6. Jon Says:

    I’ve got to disagree somewhat with the last post. We’re currently on Aussie #5 in agility and some of them never had a scare on a teeter. One dog in particular used to delight in flying the off the teeter. He probably had more flyoffs than all our other Aussies combined. He would also occasionally do the A-frame in two touches, one on each side, but that’s another story.

    Aussie #1 was taught using only a teeter and I think only at full height, because it wasn’t an adjustable teeter. He was lured up with food (high value and he was very food motivated) and treated at the pivot point and at the point of impact. Didn’t require a 2o 2o as he wasn’t a high drive dog and never had a teeter fault called in ten years of agility.

    Aussie # 2 was the crazy one and was basically taught the same way as #1 with the exception that a 2o 2o was required. Of course if you’re flying through the air, a 2o 2o is sort of meaningless.

    Aussie # 3 was taught with an adjustable teeter, so we started low and worked up. He goes past the pivot point and rides it down and we get an occasional fly-off when we run up against a slow teeter. Didn’t really use a different training method, treat at the pivot, treat at the bang. He’s never shown any fear of the teeter either.

    Aussie #4 taught us to never leave the teeter out with a puppy. He ran up it and flew off and never wanted anything to do with a teeter again. It took six months of clicker training with very small incremental steps to get him to do the teeter. He’s still our only dog that never appears totally comfortable on the teeter.

    Our newest pup is also a no fear dog. Started low and are now doing full height. Requiring 2o 2o as she is very high drive.

    My current method for teaching students is to test their dogs for either movement or noise aversion and go from there. The last group was 40% no fear, 40% noise averse and 20% movement averse. I find that many of the noise averse problems can be resolved in a couple of sessions with a lot of positive reinforcement (lots of treats while banging the teeter). Some dogs needed to be forty feet away from the teeter to start this process and were gradually moved in.

    Solving the motion averse problem is usually more training intensive. I start with a one inch fiberglass rod for the pivot and work up. It’s critical not to push the dog too fast as one scare will set you back weeks.

    A final note, I have had one dog, a GSD that was the no fear type, but was sensitive to the shock of board hitting. Since they don’t plan to compete, I just set the teeter to a low height for them or use a rubber mat. I would guess that the larger breeds have more issues with the shock issue.

    I agree that the more the puppy gets exposed to when they are young, the easier it is to teach them agility, however some dogs just have this no fear personality that also makes training agility much easier.

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