Posted Date: July 14, 2015
Training and maintaining a reliable table performance can be fun and rewarding. By Helen Grinnell King
It is one of the most neglected obstacles in agility, yet it is one that can cause the most trouble for many. So why do we avoid training the table to fluency and maintaining it throughout our dogs careers? Some find it boring, others say it is a pain and unnecessary in competition. I am one of those oddballs who actually loves training and maintaining the table.
Photo by Nina Sage.
When I got my first standard Poodle in 2000, I had never heard of dog agility, but once I got a glimpse of the equipment, I was hooked. Unfortunately, I started my training with a person who was fairly new to the sport, but I didnt know the difference. We barely trained the obstacles; we just ran our dogs over them on leash. Looking back, I dont know how we ever made it into the ring!
After several years, many different instructors and lots of failure in competition, I found our current instructor, Stacy Winkler, and boy were my training eyes opened wide! I knew how to shape tricks and other things away from agility, but I had never thought of applying shaping to agility training.
My first dog's table and contacts were abysmal at best, and we had NO startline stay at all. I would just raise my leg to lead out and she was GONE! Stacy showed me how to shape my behaviors and a whole new world opened up for me!
Basic Table Training
My table training begins when my puppies are about 6 or 7 months old. I use a very low table to reduce impact on the pups joints and immature soft tissue. In the preceding months, I shaped my puppy to do many things, so shaping is not a big deal. I do not use a clicker, I just say, "yes" when I get what I want and reward.
I start by standing right up next to the table and just shape her to jump on it and then I treat. I keep my sessions short and fun! At first, I might accept her looking at the table, then putting one foot on it, and so on. It takes as long as it takes.
Training the "Auto-Down"
Once the puppy is jumping on the table with enthusiasm, I will continue shaping her to go into a down. By this time I have already shaped her to lie down away from agility, so she understands the down position as well. I always shape an automatic down on the table. I do not cue the down. I find it is the best way to maintain the table and it takes the grey out of the behavior.
The auto-down works great in any organization. I never want to have to babysit my table, or any other obstacle for that matter! I am not mobile so I need the advantage of a table lead out to get where I need to be next on the course. It is MY job to make sure my dog truly understands what I want. If I have failure in training or in the ring, it is just information that I have failed to provide, not my dog.
When my puppy jumps up on the table and offers a down, I will begin to change my position while she is in a down. I never tell them down in training, it is just part of the criteria for that obstacle. I rarely treat for my release off the table unless they get sticky and don't want to leave with power. I want to make staying on the table a great thing, but I also want an explosive release.
I use my voice a lot when I train. I pair it with the reward. Once in the ring, the voice becomes a secondary reinforcer for my dog. I also smile at my dogs when training and trialing. They love that. Dogs read our facial expressions and body language better than most people.
I will say, "GOOD!" as I am building duration. Good does not necessarily mean a treat is coming; it is just what I say to let the dog know they are correct. I walk back in and reward OFTEN! I also make sure I am using a reward my dog really loves. I want that table to be the greatest place in the world to be! If they get up or get off the table, I just wait them out until I get what I want and reward again and often. If I have too much failure, either my rate of reward is too low or I have gone too quickly.
Eventually, I move around and away, but I always come back quickly to reward, smile and praise. I never use non reward markers like, "oops," "wrong," "no" or "eh-eh". Those things just suck the drive and joy out of training. I have fun with it!
Helen demonstrates how to build duration of the table performance in this video.
This video shows the progression of what I want on the table. This dog is a seasoned competitor, but you can see the steps. It may take many sessions to get here. I would not progress this much in one session. Notice that at the 30 second mark in the video, she has very slight movement as I am walking back to her to reward. All I do is withhold the reward, walk away, then walk back to her so she understands that no movement is acceptable.
When I think my table is solid up close, I can now begin to proof the training. I will walk by it, then run by it, then call them to it from the other side, rear cross it, front cross it and finally begin to send to it. The sending begins up close and I am still shaping and I ping-pong the distance. Once the table is solid, I will put it on a cue, but not until I LOVE the behavior! I use the word GO to send until I put my table cue on it.
This video shows Helen proofing the table performance.
Here are some of the things I might do to proof the table once I feel she is solid enough to handle it. If my dog fails, I just withhold the reward and do it again. You can see that at 8 seconds into the video, she comes forward to reach the treat. I have fun with her verbally and wait for her to get back into position before I reward her.
Putting it all Together
The table can be a super fun obstacle to train and maintain! There is no need to neglect it. If your dog has an iffy table, go back and start all over. Use your dog's meals to train the table. In no time at all, she will be looking forward to the twice a day table dinners.
If you make a big deal verbally about going out for table dinners, pretty soon the dog will fly out to the table. If you don't have a table, get one. They don't take up much room. If you only train it at class once a week, you will most likely never get the behavior you want.
No matter what the obstacle is, if you have enough fun training it and use super high value rewards, your dog will learn to love it, including a sit stay!
Helen Grinnell King is a self-proclaimed agility addict. Between them, she and her husband of 41 years, Mel, have more than twenty-four agility championships (AKC and USDAA) amongst their standard Poodles and Border Collies. Before agility, Mel & Helen traveled the world, SCUBA diving in exotic places, including the Galapagos Islands. Helen has written two books on canine structure and how it relates to performance (Picking Your Performance Puppy and Whats Your Angle) and is now working on a book about the transformation of her extremely fearful standard Poodle into a great agility dog.
Helen has trained countless horses (hunters, jumpers, foxhunters, combined training and dressage) and dogs in her lifetime, but her greatest passion now is training her dogs for agility and writing her blog.