The Agility Teeter-Totter: How to Train
If you were training your dog for agility and waiting to have a problem, the teeter-totter is where trouble would raise its ugly head (although the weave poles do come in as a close second.) Also called the see-saw, this is a tough one for both your dog to master and for you to train.
If you have the dog walk plank mastered, that may help a bit with this, but don’t think you have it made. It is still going to be work for both of you, and work for any available volunteers from the audience.
I think there are as many methods of training the teeter-totter, as there are dog trainers. Some involving building separate equipment to slowly condition the dog. Some involve very sophisticated methods of back chaining, (a fancy word the operant conditioning people use for training the pieces of a behavior, in reverse.) All of these are great, extremely useful and wonderfully clever.
The method I am introducing to you is a simple bare bones procedure. It does not involve any special equipment or heavy knowledge of operant conditioning.
By way of introduction to the obstacle, lower the plank. Holding the lead close to his collar, now lure him up the plank. This is where you need your volunteer helper, to help you guide Fluffy, but more importantly, to help manipulate the plank when you get to the pivot point and start to walk Fluffy down the plank to the contact point at the end. Your helpers other job is to gently guide the plank to the ground and prohibit it from slamming on the ground. When your helper rests his/her end of the board on the ground, make sure you always guide Fluffy all the way across and over the contact point.
When walking him up and down the plank is no longer a point of contention, start guiding Fluffy to the end of the plank, while your trusty helper slowly allows the plank to descend to the ground. With sufficient repetitions along with your delicate hand, you will begin to let Fluffy slowly learn to control the plank at its pivot point. If you can enlist the help of a third person, so much the better. It would help to keep things smooth. Remember, when you are controlling Fluffy across the plank, make sure you pause long enough at the pivot point. The reason for the pause is so that Fluffy learns to balance and to work that pivot point on the plank on his own.
As Fluff’s skills improve, allow your helper to let his/her end of the plank slowly drop a bit harder. A good idea here is to put some soft cushioning or padding on the bottom of the board, to keep that slamming to a minimum. Of course you will be removing it slowly, as the Fluff’s skill level improves
You will notice that as time goes on (as long as there are no accidents on your part) Fluffy will develop a much more relaxed feeling about the plank. Here is where it sometimes gets tricky. Some dogs start what is called a “fly-off behavior.” A fly-off is where the dog, at or after crossing the pivot point, starts to jump before the end of the plank hits the ground. Of course, it is best if you don’t allow this habit to start in the first place or you will curse the time you have to invest in retraining.
To help avoid fly-off from happening, along with missing those nasty contact points:
These issues are never a problem for those little guys, but some of the larger dogs do have an issue with fly-offs and with making sure they hit the contacts. Don’t let those missed contacts cost you.
Once Fluffy has the pivot locked and is moving on the plank on his own, try teaching him to stop and wait on the contact zone, for his click-treat, before moving on the next obstacle. Or, sometimes just putting up some barriers on the sides, to prohibit any angling off the board fixes the problem. With some dogs, simply (quietly) talking him into slowing down works, but most dogs are too hyper at this point to focus on your words.
Now, I realize that in a perfect world we would have as many helpers as we needed. Unfortunately, we live in a less than perfect world, so here is something to help get you the behavior without using helpers. I personally like the helpers, but we have to work with what we have.
First, determine the pivot point for Fluffy to tip the board. Now with whatever treat drives Fluffy wild, heavily bait that spot. If the treat is of high enough value, there will be no hesitation getting to it, and while they are feasting on that delicious treat, the board is moving. Now walk them down and off.
Or you might want to try repetitively treating Fluffy each time he takes a step, as he walks up the plank, all the while controlling the pivot. (Easier with a helper, but can be done solo.) For some dogs, this stringing of treats one by one, is enough to help them lose their fear of the plank.