Because the teeter-totter in agility is a piece of equipment that a dog must ride while it moves out from underneath them, a number of dogs have been surprised and frightened by it. For some teams, the seesaw haunts them, and they dread it every time they see it on a course.
The methods of training the seesaw that I’ve found to work best are not necessarily intuitive. Many people don’t have access to good information, or a good training foundation to build upon, and these dogs never get a chance to develop a good opinion about it.
Even if you were fortunate enough to understand good teeter training methods, it’s to be expected that your dog will at some point be caught off guard and get scared through a clumsy or over-enthusiastic attempt. And, if this mishap happened for the first time while at a trial, then that’s even more unfortunate because the dog can mistakenly believe that the problem wasn’t only the seesaw, and the whole trial environment can become tainted.
But there is hope! I thought it might be helpful to share my dog Irie’s training journey.
Irie is a pretty confident dog. She’s not really concerned about being up on elevated things or when stuff moves underfoot. She is also not noise phobic (well, except for when my husband sneezes). Some dogs do worry a lot about movement and noise (and other things, too). Those dogs are well served by a lot of non-teeter foundation work, like shaping them to knock down noisy piles, slam cabinet doors closed, bang around on wobble boards, skateboards, and whatever other moving surfaces you can come up with.
Regardless of the type of dog you have, the end goal is a dog that races up the teeter and to the end while it’s still descending. Well, unless your dog is more fragile, then your goal may be to proceed out to the end a little more gently, but most importantly, NOT HESITATING FOR THE PIVOT.
Tips for training the teeter:
- The dog should already know how to learn new tricks through shaping. Learning is a skill in and of itself, and if you’re still teaching your dog the first handful of tricks in life, postpone teeter training!
- Always reward away from the seesaw (don’t try to bribe or lure your dog over!) If your dog is scared you don’t want to be forcing any sort of action. Let the dog offer what he can (drop the height to where you know the dog can work (completely to the ground with no movement if your dog needs it)).
- Shape the end behaviors first. Your dog should already be able to pull the teeter down and jump on from the side and ride it to the ground before you think about sending your dog up the ramp.
- Reward “presentation” can accelerate the learning process. If you can be at the end holding your highest value reward so the dog sees it as he first steps on the ramp, then do that to get his attention on that reward at the end and off of the concerns of the board moving. As he comes up the board, drop the reward on the ground ahead of the exit. The dog sees the board in the air. Let the dog learn that the faster he slams down the board, the sooner he’ll see (and subsequently get) that reward that dropped out of view on his ascent.
- Get the dog thinking about the reward, not the equipment too much. If your dog is agonizing over the equipment, you better lower your criteria to whatever point you need to to get your dog more consumed with the reward.
- Be fluid with your criteria…if your dog is showing a little caution, don’t be too picky about your stop! Get that dog to go, go, go with confidence…not guess/wonder/worry.
- If your dog flies off, JACKPOT!!! There are very few sane dogs that will fly off and not self correct their speed on the next attempt. Most dogs will freak out. So, do everything you can to get their mind off of the seesaw and out of a state of worry. A long, captivating jackpot can do just that!
- Get setbacks out of the way well in advance of going to a competition. Don’t hold back and try to protect your dog from a fly off. Get your dog into a high state of arousal while training and work out the associated problems early. Don’t limit your dog by only training slow and careful in training. In fact, that’s not something I’d rehearse at all!
- Train the seesaw like you want the end product to look. I want mine to be independent (knows how to find entries, can get to the end with me behind, my movement doesn’t disturb the dog who only releases on the verbal command) with a quick release.
- Release quickly. You will vary the time interval before you release just to be certain your dog is releasing on your verbal, rather than on a specific interval of time. But, if you linger to make sure your dog will stay, you are not training the terminal behavior (of race to the end and get to go sooner).
- One more thing about Stay training; if you see your dog make a decision to stop, release immediately. So, if your dog thinks about moving, flinches but doesn’t leave, release immediately! That’s truly stay training—staying in the excitement of the moment. If you let the energy fizzle down and then release, you are not training the kind of stay you use in agility. You’re just wasting time and annoying your dog.
- Test your dog from time to time to make sure she’ll stay when you see her start to get sloppy, otherwise keep it super short.
- Make sure the movement of the reward is not the release cue. Make sure your dog possesses the understanding to wait until the item has stopped moving before blasting off on your verbal release alone, with no motion from you.