Mar 202012

Teeter Criteria:

The ultimate goal is to have my dogs get on the teeter straight on always, no matter what the course might dictate as the actual approach; drive to the very end as hard and fast as they can without hesitation into a crouch as they go past the pivot, until the teeter hits the ground, then release straight forward once on the ground. No leaving before it hits. No sideways motion.  In the case of the teeter I may choose to train a 2on/2off with a manual release as I am for my young female Staffy, Jimmi.  Getting on straight is important for safety and consistency on course.  Once a dog begins creeping on at the side, eventually the shortcut they are practicing misses the contact zone.

Dog Agility Contact Obstacle Criteria for Bullseye Performance:  Part 1; Common Ground

Fear of fly-off and pivot mishandling are not managed on course by the handler as some might insist; rather they are learned by the dog as defined by the performance criteria.  There is no need for our fear when the obstacle performance or specifically the teeter performance in this case, is clearly defined and understood by the dog.

Only our understanding of their fear is required, learning and confidence on both the part of the handler and the dog helps to reduce and eliminate the need for fear.  Their behavior required to handle the actual experience of each unique teeter pivot is slowly, with exposure to a variety of different teeters and circumstances and consistent work, generalized to their performance on all teeters. Recognition, understanding and confidence lead to the accurate performance on familiar and unfamiliar teeters. No fear required!

Excitement and the stress of performance can easily cause anxiety, or fear and result in teeter performance issues.  Lack of understanding and generalization , or even thinking in some cases, (lack of recognition) does lead to fly-offs, fear of getting on, fear of the pivot movement, fear of landing, fear of getting hit in the ass, etc.

These fears for the most part, if not traumatically induced, can easily be trained out and ignored, or taught to be managed by the dog if necessary, by augmenting the training as necessary for each of these factors if they appear.   This understanding of each dog’s response to stress, along with stress management skills for both ourselves and our dogs can help us to get past any fear that we or our dogs might experience on course, more easily.

As always, getting to the consistent behavior specified by the criteria requires some control of the conditions that surround performance.  Learning occurs best when excited, but not over excited.  In my training I tend to push the limit, keeping my dogs as excited as I can and still get the cognitive skills I need to be able have some control over the environment.

Although I always look for excitement in my dogs, I reduce variability in their performance quite easily by reducing the amount of approach and speed a dog has getting onto the obstacle we are training. Slowly I add more motion for them leading up to the teeter, then my motion is added and then obstacles preceding the teeter to create incremental increases in excitement and increased difficulty in focus and self-control, which are important for both recognition and performance of the desired criteria.

Jimmi’s teeter criteria is to get on via the end and not the side of the plank; any turning required needs to be done on the ground, prior to getting on. Run straight to end without hesitation and stop, crouching with knees bent as she gets to the end of the teeter as it lands, then once the teeter hits the ground she goes into a down stay, 2on/2off position (2 feet on dirt, 2 feet on the teeter) facing forward only, and waits for release. “Okay” with or without my motion releases her.  Driving into position, stopping and holding position waiting for release and the release must all be independent of my motion and position. Stopping/deceleration, stopped, moving, even accelerating should not release Jimmi from her stationary position or change her performance getting into position.

At this stage, Jimmi (March 2012) is very confident on the teeters she knows and often is too excited in other environments to bother thinking about what she is doing on unfamiliar teeters in exciting locations.

Currently in practice I am proofing her stop with my motion at various positions ahead or even with her and at various and changing speeds. In each case I am careful to make sure I give her a good chance to succeed without pushing her too much. When her performance does break, it is easy to step back a bit and make sure she is successful again.

In addition to proofing her straight on entrances, I am also proofing her driving ahead to the end with me trailing behind her and gradually increasing the distance behind her I can be while still getting her to run straight to the end.

Due especially to her ability to get very excited and even too excited to think clearly and recognize or perform the teeter (she boils over, I like to say), thus running past it, I am proofing her commitment and her running on; not running past/around the teeter due to excitement or anxiety (unfamiliar teeters).

As for all young dogs like Joey as well, I am working on Jimmi’s recognition and generalization to new teeters in new circumstances.  Unlike people, and often mistakenly assumed by people, dogs do not generalize performance automatically to things we see as similar.  They need familiarization with several teeters in many locations in order to assume they are all similar and to be performed the same.  Again, I take caution in knowing this and every time we get in a ring and perform a new teeter, or perform in a new place, I want to take this into account and make sure we do our best.

Also, in order to prevent fly-offs due to failure to recognize the teeter, we are working on differentiation from the dog-walk, as she does not always stop to think an up-ramp might be a teeter at trials and does not stop if too excited to think about it before getting to it. Unlike Joey, Jimmi will assume a dog-walk rather than think to determine exactly what obstacle she is on, thus she runs and fly’s off on occasion.  Recognition is critical to performance.

For Joey, the goal is to have him run all the way to the end without hesitation, waiting slightly for landing if necessary, crouched slightly ready for landing, then run straight off. His hind end and hind legs must come off in a straight line to his front end, no shifting his hind end sideways. Getting on is the same as for Jimmi and must be don from the end and not the side.  Turning to get on must be done on the ground to get on at the end of the plank. The end goal and the behavior I am shaping now are not quite the same, but I am still shaping his performance to a similar end goal as I am for Jimmi.

Due to stress and anxiety caused to him by the impact vibration upon landing, which is a legitimate physical concern, and combined with the way he handles stress personally as well, I want him taking his time and do not want to push him past his comfort zone for speed and performance.  If I push him too hard, it causes hesitation, failure to get on and jumping off before landing and significantly slows his progression towards the end performance goal by putting a dent in his confidence.  Joey gains confidence and speed by being successful and knowing for certain what he is doing and how to do it, so cautious progression is more important for him.  Although he knows how to safely get off the teeter at any point if needed, he needs greater commitment to stay on until the end.

Currently he is to run on straight, no cutting corners at all to get on and then quickly and continuously move to end, only stopping to wait for the teeter to hit the ground if necessary, but then moving straight off the end.  I do not push his speed at this point, just his accuracy, however like in all tasks for him, his speed increases on teeters he is familiar with as he gains confidence and comfort. Because of our relationship, it is easy for me to speed him up when he is confident, but impossible when he is not.

So the goal must be to do everything I can to keep and build his confidence, without causing fear induced setbacks. This latter statement is true of all dogs in general, but how they handle stress, their excitement level and how driven they are to get past it by reinforcement varies significantly between individual dogs.

Due to Joey’s unique nature to need to know precisely what he is doing, we are working to build confidence on moving through the vibration of landing. As a result of his concern he has a tendency is to shift his backend sideways off the teeter as it moves closer to the ground, or he may leave the teeter via the side before it hits the ground if he is unsure. I want him to confidently forget about this behavior (extinction), which means even intermittent reinforcement (success of avoiding the landing), must be avoided.

Again due to Joey’s specific need to know the difference between whether he is doing a teeter or a dog walk, he will slow down if he does not know.  so we are working on recognition and differentiation from dog-walk.  Joey won’t drive up a ramp if he is not sure before he gets on, so he is more likely to think about recognition of the teeter or dog-walk first.  This recognition gives him confidence.  This is the opposite of Jimmi, who will blast up all ramps regardless of where they lead. But even Jimmi can lose confidence is she flies off them often enough.

Observation of the dog’s performance is critical, so if you cannot see yourself, use video if you can, or maybe get a friend who can see and who can communicate what is going on. Repeating behavior you don’t want reinforces that behavior and if you are inconsistent and unclear, you will get variable performance and thus lose trust and confidence. Failures to perform correctly help them learn as long as success rains king!

Once again, Perfect Practice Makes perfect! – Vince Lombardi

Richard Ford, M.Sc. (Psychology)
Bullseye Performance


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