Monday, May 14, 2012

Tables, Teeters, Weaves... oh my!

How often have we heard that "my dog only does X in a trial?"  Well I have been there along with many others.  It can be puzzling and frustrating.  Often I am initially puzzled, then confused, then frustrated and then I begin to analyze it and try to figure out how I will "fix" it.

Recently I have been tested in my resolve to "fix" issues with the table.  Feisty was very affected by judges and ring crew near the table and she would run by it and then refuse to get on it or stop and sniff it and then get on it.  She needed lots of desensitization to pressure around the table.  While Feisty's issues have often been very stress related - she did eventually start to be a bit silly with the table and less stressed. 

Spring would either run past it totally or bounce on and bounce off.   Spring was not at all stressed but he was in part not sure of the criteria and quickly realized I couldn't do much about it.  I found he likes to get into a barking argument with me over things and I learned not to engage in arguments on course with him.  I stopped caring what he did and that took some of the fun out of avoiding things for him. 
 He was more sensitive to my pressure but it took awhile for me to recreate that and figure it out.  I am excited that I am seeing improvement in my two dog's table performances in trials.  I had to think outside the box and be creative in my training and do a lot of observing of runs at trials versus training.   

What did I do?

  1. I first increased the degree of proofing of the table performance.  I had people sit on the table, next to the table, stand over the table, I played CDs of crowds talking, clapping and cheering, I put all kinds of unusual obstacles in the dog's path on the way to the table so the dog had to work to get on the table and I varied my position relative to the table.  
  2. I then looked at videos of the table performance in trials to see what might be different to affect the performance in the ring.
  3. In the case of one dog who was inexplicably avoiding it or launching on and off of it I did several standard runs where I just ran by the table and didn't ask for it at all.  I totally took pressure off of doing the obstacle.  It actually caused him to get on the table and try to get me to come back to it.  Then I knew I was making progress. Then I gradually increased criteria and found if I hung back and sent him ahead to the table he was much more willing to go.  I was crowding him a bit - he didn't care if the judge crowded him. 
  4. In the case of the dog who was avoiding it because the judge was intimidating her I would have her get on the table - no matter how long it took and then immediately leave to a big reward of a favorite treat.  I wanted her to work through her stress of dealing with a judge up close to her.  Sometimes if the judge was away from her and still she would get on it fine.  If we had NQ'd before the table I would leave to a party.  If there were some fun obstacles after the table when she had done it well I would go on.  If there were hard obstacles I would leave early.  I always praised her profusely when she got on the table right away. Often I wouldn't ask her to stay more than a second - release the pressure quickly.  I gradually increased her criteria to being on there for the 5 second count.
  5. In all the cases I gradually increased the criteria and leaving immediately to a reward.  Now I am able to continue the course and the dogs are doing the table well in trial settings.  Often if I have NQ'd before the table I will take the opportunity to jackpot a good table by leaving the ring early to a favorite treat right after the table.  Dogs who like to run agility can be rewarded by going on to more obstacles but be sure they are set up for success.  If they miss a contact or weave and are corrected after doing the table you may undo the work you are doing with the table.  Plan the runs carefully.  I also if I NQ before the table will sometimes make a fun exit of the course and NOT do the table at all.  
I often have students and others ask me about weave pole problems that happen only at trials.  Ever since I adopted the following weave pole training policy I have to say that my own dogs have significantly improved their trial weave pole performance.  I have been doing this for about  10 plus years now.

  1. I try not to ever pull my dogs out of the weave poles when they have missed a weave entrance. I wait for them to come out or finish on their own.  There is no point in trying to negatively mark a missed weave entrance because our timing will be late and 99.9% the dog will be actively weaving when they process the marker word.  Then you see dogs become stressed and worried about weaving. We tend to pull our dogs out of weaves more often at trials than anywhere else because we are worried about time.  Dogs become worried about weaving if this has happened to them a lot.
  2. When training, I  ALWAYS repeat the sequence before the weaves.  I don't want my dogs to ever learn that I could help them collect for the poles by letting them do the weaves from a slowed or stopped position. 
  3. When training weave entries I very quickly move to adding an obstacle before the weaves.  I get myself out of the picture as much as possible when training weave entries.
  4. I use ASCA and NADAC trials to work on this in a trial setting as well as Gamblers, FAST and other classes in other organization where I can repeat a sequence.   My first Border Collie Bradish taught me this - he could not hit a weave entrance in a trial and I would always restart him at the weaves and he quickly learned that he didn't need to be responsible for collecting for the weave entrance.  Once NADAC came along and I could train in the ring and repeat the sequence before the weaves in a trial setting the problem got better.  Now I never let my dogs shirk their responsibility - they always have to collect for the weaves.  
  5. In training weaves I do a lot of proofing with toys, treats and moving items near the poles. I also vary what I'm doing - running backwards, flapping arms, moving sideways, clapping etc.  I also train very hard entrances and exits, front and rear crosses and distance on the poles.  I do all of this very early on in the weave training.  I don't want them to become dependent on me in any way when weaving.  I also put tunnels and jumps within a couple of feet of the exit of the poles as a form of distraction.
The teeter is another difficult obstacle for young dogs when they first start trialing.  Different types of teeters are out there with different tip points and different sounds.  Recently I have had a number of people come to me for help with teeter problems.  I have found the following things when done before teeter training significantly help a dog's confidence when learning the teeter.

Carmine - photo by Neider Arts
  1. Shaping your dog to knock things over to make noise and make them move.  You can teach your dog to shut cupboard doors, dryer doors and drawers.  You can teach your dog to knock over cans and bottles, to bang and walk on cookie sheets, aluminum foil etc.  You are limited only by your imagination of how to develop a dog who is confident enough to make noise.
  2. "Bang it" game is a critical piece of teeter training.  I spend a lot of time teaching young dogs to push the teeter down with their front feet.  I do NOT move on from this until the dog is eagerly pushing it down.  Gently or tentatively pushing it down is not enough.  Time and time again I see dogs with teeter problems have not played this game and even if they know how to do the teeter they are often afraid of this game.  These dogs are often ones who are slow and tentative in their teeter performance too.  I make sure the dogs are learning to both move it and make noise.  If needed I'll put a cookie sheet under it and encourage students with teeters at home to do the same.
  3. I train the teeter with having it low and very gradually raising it.  I don't raise it until I have seen repeatedly fast and eager teeter performance from a dog.  Too often teeters are raised quickly before a dog is really ready for it.  I have all the rewards at the end of the teeter.  I went very slowly with my own puppy on teeter training and I've been known to revisit teeter training with young dogs when they lose confidence - often on a teeter that tips faster than expected or makes more noise on landing than expected.
  4. Exposing young dogs to a variety of teeter types in a training setting is really important to build confidence.  Some teeters tip faster than others and this can startle young/green dogs and cause them to lose confidence.  
  5. If a dog develops a teeter problem in a trial setting I will address this in training and go back to the very beginning of training with bang it games.  More often than not the lack of confidence shows up with this game and confidence can be increased by playing this game.
Last weekend Feisty, my Pyr Shep, who has been worried about many things in a trial setting had a teeter collapse under her in a FAST run.  It went down slowly and quietly and I didn't even know it happened until we came off the course and the ring crew was running out there to fix it!  She has not had any issues with the teeter since.  She kept running fast afterwards - good brave girl!  She is not fond of many teeters especially when judges are hovering.  Her slow teeters are more a factor of how close the judge is when she is doing it and I often have to keep her focused ahead and on me to keep her moving.  If no one is around (as in the above FAST run) she can do it very fast.  In her first year of trialing she knew every teeter she had ever been on and she would sniff a new one as if inspecting it.  Then one day she stopped doing it and will get on any new teeter right away.  I never fussed over her but let her build her confidence at her own pace.  Teeters are a difficult obstacle for young dogs.  

So in sum, when having trouble with an obstacle in a trial - video your trial runs, examine your foundation training of that obstacle including proofing and examine what you are doing differently in a trial compared to training.  Making training scenarios harder than trialing can help a lot and making sure you are not doing something unusual in trials will help too.

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