What I’ve learned about dogs from Dancer’s teeter struggles

While I’ve learned never (ever) to say that a task is accomplished, I feel very pleased with Dancer’s new attitude toward the teeter.

She’s taught me so much about training, rewards, persistence, and dogs in the process of retraining her teeter.

Let me summarize: when she was about a year old (2007), I had surgery for my chondrosarcoma in my left knee, and her training was … well, not as effective as it should have been, might have been, whatever. By the time she was old enough to trial, I was pretty much recovered, and I think I entered her a bit too soon, because in an early trial (18 months or so), she had a flyoff–ran right up the teeter like it was a dog walk and flew right off the end and into space, landing about ten feet away. We worked with her in practice, she got more confident, and then she had another flyoff–in practice this time, but it still shocked her and scared her and then there she was, walking thirty-foot circles around the teeter and glaring at it. I decided to give her a good long break while I figured out what to do.

Our business was growing and the next summer (2008), when Dancer was two, we decided to move to Portland (and had a devastating business fire, too (video here: coverage begins at 45 seconds)). We rented a tiny little house with a tiny little fenced yard that formed a U around the house and I began the process of retraining Dancer’s teeter–while we also restarted our business and moved.

The first thing that I did was set up the teeter–without a base–so that Dancer had to walk across it as she ran from one side of the house to the other to bark at passing dogs, people, cats, squirrels, and falling leaves. She and Elly reacted to EVERYTHING. It still took three days before Dancer would run across the teeter, and I had it braced so that it didn’t move. It took about a month for her to run full speed across it, and then I added a single jump pole so that it rocked just a little bit. Three days again before she’d run over it.

What did I learn from that? Tiny little changes and lots and lot of motivation!

In the fall of 2008, I started working with Debbie. Thankfully, Debbie has infinite patience, and she managed not to express her horror at the state of my training, and she took over Dancer’s teeter training. She showed even more patience with Dancer than she did with me, and step-by-tiny-step she persuaded Dancer that the teeter was not so terrible. Tiny little changes, with huge rewards for each and every step.

I’ve written several times about those tiny little steps–including an article published in the September 2012 Clean Run magazine–so I won’t detail them here.

So I learned this: tiny steps, lots of rewards.

There came a point, though, where no reward was enough to persuade Dancer to enjoy the teeter. It was kind of like this: pay me $1000 and I might walk toward a rattlesnake, but I’d be really wary, prepared to run and any moment, and I’d sure as hell go very very slowly. Dancer was pretty sure the teeter was a rattlesnake.

But… if someone showed me that’s not a rattlesnake but a rubber toy? I’d laugh and go play with it, right? And I’d take your $1000 and wave it in the air victoriously, too.

How do you persuade a dog that a teeter is a toy? Well, Debbie and I did that by using a foot target that Dancer loved to pounce on–and putting it on the teeter. Lots and lots of history for the foot target before it went on the teeter. I’d trained that foot target for months before we put it on the teeter. (That would be the fall of 2010 by now.)

So I learned this, too: games you play with your dog, which you think are just for fun? Those can be used to persuade your dog that other things are fun, too. Some people call that “foundation training”–but I’m talking about those silly games, like “pounce on the bunny” and “high five” and “put your front feet up here,” that you teach just because it’s fun to teach your dog something new.

Then Dancer stopped doing the teeter (summer of 2012). I have a few theories as to what happened. I stopped rewarding the teeter for the special thing it is (to her); Elly was seriously ill and I wasn’t paying enough attention; Dancer had a painful yeast infection in her ears. Elly died; I had the ear infection treated; she still wasn’t doing the teeter. Dancer was visibly confused by life without Elly. She’d bark at a squirrel, then look around for Elly to come join her. Rush was oblivious and Dancer didn’t want to play with him anyway.

I took Dancer to Control Unleashed class (with Greta Kaplan), and I worked with her a lot on communication. It was a special time for the two of us, where she got a ton of treats for not barking/lunging/staring/whatever. She got treats when she looked at another dog and looked back at me; she got treats when she lay quietly on her mat as another dog walked by; she got treats when she did simple tricks while another dog did simple tricks nearby.

From Control Unleashed class, I learned to recognize Dancer’s stress, and I began to realize that agility trials are incredibly stressful for Dancer, and I put that together with what I’d learned from teaching her to enjoy the teeter, and I realized that I needed to make agility so much fun for Dancer that she’d enjoy herself even if there were other dogs watching her, and other dogs barking, and other dogs walking around.

And Elly taught me this: that tiny little sessions of agility with lots and lots of rewards can be way more effective than big long sessions of practice.

For the last few months, I’ve been trying to provide Dancer with huge rewards for everything to do with agility. Short little sessions with huge rewards. Cheese for walking nicely into the arena. Three bait bags in a row as a reward for doing one teeter. Hot dog bits for putting her leash on at the end of the run. A walk with just me after a nice run, a shoulder rub and a cuddle just for existing, every night.

Sunday (yesterday), I saw all this knowledge come together. Dancer’s run in Time to Beat–her last run of the day, after she’d Q’d in both Excellent Standard (in her first run ever in Excellent Standard) and Masters Jumpers-with-Weaves (her first Q ever in Masters JWW, and her first four points toward her PACH)–came immediately following a run by a Malinois who was so excited by doing agility that he screamed as he ran. Seriously, he screams. Dancer looked at the ring, looked back at me, took a treat, looked at the ring, looked back at me… it was the Control Unleashed “look at that!” training, but she was doing it so well that I was stunned. When the Mal finished his run, we walked into the ring, and Dancer couldn’t quite control herself; she barked at the Mal as he was leaving.

I asked her to sit, and I told the judge I was going to take a minute to settle my dog. She sat, she looked at me, I took a deep breath–her cue to take a deep breath–and I saw her take a deep breath. She chose to focus on me, and she chose to focus on agility. I stood her up and moved her into position at the first jump and we began our run.

It was a challenging course for Dancer. After the first jump, the second obstacle was the teeter. She could have so easily chosen not to do it, and I would have understood; the Mal’s screaming really disturbed her. She chose to canter toward it, up and over, and then on to the rest of the course. She had an off-course, my fault (of course), and so when we came around to the teeter again, and she did it without any hesitation at all…

We left the ring immediately, with me telling her every single step what an amazing dog she is, and we went to the treats I’d stashed outside the ring, and I gave her every single treat I had, and I told her she’s wonderful, and then we went for a nice walk while I told her she’s wonderful.

Because she’s also taught me this: don’t miss a chance to let your dog know it when she did something really amazing.