11 April 2017

Teeter terror, freak flag flying.

A comfortable life could be lived in the manner of being held hostage in a continuous loop of Tom Petty songs. Like a living inside a souvenir snowglobe, the wilder things in life only observed from within the bubble of a carefully polished glass. With sparkle glitter for air. Always on the verge of thrilling, instead of ever having actual thrills. Tom Petty is really super ok for sometimes. His soothing thin lipped voice, wry with a nostalgic and singable hook. But sometimes we crave more. A jolt. Elation. Sun Ra's entourage cloaked in majestic tunics descending with unsingable grooves from outer space. We are agility folk, after all. We live life in the intersection between impulse control and crazed balls to the wall speed. Where Talking Heads meet Wu Tang Clan, and exposes our adventurous souls.

But what about our dogs?

At Gustavo’s very first trial, he flew to his teeter like he had flapping bat wings taxidermied on his hairy little feet. The teeter totter was a rocket he loved to fly on, his astronaut ticket to the moon. He was one of those WHEEEEEEEEE dogs who rode the teeter with flourish and style, running to the end and hanging on to grab the adrenalin rush of wind blowing in his bouncy hair on the drop, then running off to do the next thing. It was like a shampoo commercial of awesomeness! He had an ear to ear smile on his face! Because Otterpop had started out with an aversion to teeters, I'd worked hard for a year to make the see saw an object of his cult like devotion.

The teeter was Gustavo’s Fountain of Donut. His go-to, non negotiable It Bag. His rainbow unicorn waving banner of Magnificence.

Except at one of his very first trials, he scooted off before I could tell him to, and as he ran off the end the teeter totter rebounded back up and hit him squarely in the sensitive ass.

This is living life on the agility edge. With great daring, but with copious oodles of careful preparation. Trying new things! That move! That are high above the ground! Extreme adventure sometimes involves getting a little bit scared. Like jumping out of aircraft, and risking, oh, I don’t know, horrible smashing death by parachute non opening? Galloping a horse across a wide open plain knowing that you have an ice cube’s chance in hell of stopping them before their lungs blow out of wind on their own? Hiking through deserted woods where you see mountain lion tracks laid out right under your feet?

I saw a mountain lion track the other day, and got heart palpations. Always prepared, like the junior nature scout I am, I had choices of how to face the terror. I could turn back and efficiently, not frantically, hightail it to where I left the car on the side of the road, expressing to the dogs that we need to keep our tushies in right now high gear, and then stay out of that forest for good. I could use my super effective mental techniques of positive thinking, moving on into possible danger, not worrying because my brain extinguishes all negative thoughts. Even if they have claws and fangs. Or, I could just pick up a weapon, the stick kind with sharp twigs poking off of one end, swing it around my head as I moved onward, singing loudly a smash hit from Broadway’s Hamilton.

Did you guess the third one? Yep. That’s me. Grapevining down to the creek waving around a pointy stick, pretending to be Thomas Jefferson.

Whatever works. But what if our dogs have a different threshold for excitement and less knowledge of musical theater soundtracks?

That one big butt slap from Gustavo's former best friend teeter totter pretty much wrecked him. Teeter terror is an endemic in little dogs. My spouting of this statistic is completely made up false news, but I will randomly guesstimate that twenty five percent of little dogs encounter teeter terror at one time or another. Even little dogs like Gustavo, who are lovingly trained and conditioned to love the teeter. Who dive into the adrenalin rush every time.

Maybe not for the rush at first, but for the cookie. Then the rush becomes part of it. Operant conditioning, the cookie is the ride, the ride is the cookie, until the teeter ride is just cool. It's how we teach the game of agility. First it's for the reward, then the agility itself becomes the hook.

But we live in the moment, on this journey. Shit happens. For some dogs, there’s more sensitivity than others, and when that sensitivity has a perfect storm with the teeter plank being loud or slappy or moving too fast, the terrors can begin.

There are lots of ways to retrain a teeter totter. There are entire books and movies devoted to the subject. I consider myself a connoisseur of this topic.

Ways to Retrain a Teeter Totter:
The lower the teeter for a million cookies method.
The hold on to the end and hold a cookie there method.
The teeter on the tables with soft blankets method.
The teeter in your driveway on a whole bunch of pillows and moldy old sleeping bags method.
The teeter in your driveway with all the dogs leaping on it and bouncing around together on really disgusting and wet old pillows and sleeping bags method.
The teeter in your driveway with all the dogs leaping on to it and bouncing it around in really disgusting, wet, muddy and moldy old pillows and sleeping bags with the kids from down the street helping out and throwing cheese around and applauding method while their parents are probably judging you regarding the amount of dirty, wet bedding you keep stored on the ground in your driveway method.
The visit all your friends who have teeter totters in their yards method.
The visit and pay a lot of money for every fun match within a three hour’s drive just to go do one teeter totter and reward and go home because your dog did one single teeter totter method.
The visit and pay a lot of money for any trial within a three hour’s drive just to go do one teeter totter and run out of the ring to the secretly stashed super reward of triple flamboyant glory and go home because your dog did one single teeter totter method.

Perhaps you’ve tried these methods yourself? We tried all of the above. My favorite method was pressure removal system. Go near the teeter, then we ran away together, squealing. Touch the teeter, run away together, squealing. On the teeter? Yep. Run away. Do the teeter? Yep. Same thing.

Gustavo re-earned trust in the teeter totter. It took a long time. However. He did not re-earn complete trust in teeter totters at places where other scary things were possibly ganged up and ready to get him.
Kind of like being passengered in a robot powered self driving car through a dark and derelict amusement park riddled with shrapnel spewing firebombs while being chased by cops and machete wielding druids as adjacent sea levels are rising in real time. Something along these lines, I believe, is how teeter totter looked to Gooey. I think because he already had sensitivities to other spookies like tarps blowing in the breeze, low flying bugs with wings, weave pole bases that would potentially touch his hairy little toes, and generalized conspiracy level alien problems lurking in nearby trees. He had never been one to enjoy laying on a table for five seconds with all this going on, so throwing a table into the mix didn’t help things, either.

Aliens, toes, butterflies, blowy things, whatever. That’s Gustavo. I’d never hold it against him. When he’s scared by a funny piece of wood in the forest, he does the same thing he does when the dogs sense a coyote near. He comes and finds me and tells me he wants to be safe. I love that about Gustavo, with his beady black eyes looking up at me, asking if I can make it all turn out ok.

The question of dog training here was, where to draw the line of socially acceptable fraidycatness? Is it always the right thing to train through dog fear? What exactly is the point? To have an unscared dog, or to have a dog who can do agility?

What I decided for Gooey was a psychic pressure washing, the removal of all the pressure to run in a conventional manner, as if to win. We didn't have anything to prove, dig? I decided that one way for me to get his pressure off him was to forget about titles for him. For me to forget. He doesn't know they exist. Poof. Irrelevant. Titles were letters for my ego, and don't have squat to do with him. I don't write down if he Qs, I just run him in things I think he feels like running in. Usually Jumpers and Steeplechase, with an occasional Grand Prix or Snooker thrown in for good measure. Sometimes a teeter, usually not. Rarely do we visit Standard with a table. Sometimes. Never pairs, never teams, where I would feel even an ounce of pressure to ask him to do something based on anybody other than me and him. I enter him on whims, not in places he's told me witches live, and whether I actually run him in what I entered him in depends on both our moods. He's run in Nationals and Regionals, and survived.

Did I cop out on his training, or is this an actual training method? Could I have done this if I didn't have another dog who had achieved high level titles in her own agility career, or a brilliant young dog just starting out? Both questions that I don't know the answer to, in case you were going to ask.

So how has this all turned out? I have an amazing little dog named Gustavo. He loves teeters. He's an agility champ on his own terms, a smurf shaped peg who is never going to fit into a round hole. Every time I take him out on the field, he runs his heart out for the both of us. Just this morning we were running, and I yelled, “Teeter!” and he lit up and took his rocket ride to the moon. Bam. It hit the grass, and he stayed put and when I yelled out, “OK!” he flew off to the next thing and his smile was as wide as the ocean. Either my bad pointing or the pressure of it all can send him into the wrong side of the tunnel, that happens all the time. He runs really fast, and if we make mistakes, we just keep on trucking, as fast as we can.

Am I a flawed dog trainer, or am I letting him be who he is? Probably both. Free to be, you and me, Gustavo. Everybody's on their own trips. I'm afraid of climate change deniers, bears, and surveillance drones disguised as delivery lackeys flying over my house. Nobody told me I gotta get over it so we can win some prize. But I will bravely stand up for my dog. We let our freak flags wave proudly, me and him, and don't care what anybody else thinks.


Terry A said...

Love this, true advocate for your dog and a message everyone needs to hear! (including me at times)

Anonymous said...

I don't always come here and read these things, but when I do I'm ALWAYS rewarded! Just... thank you. :)


Dudley said...

I LOVE THIS. I have my own version, her name is Phoebe. My daily dose of reality. :-)

Amis said...


Nancy Gyes said...

Fear- that thing that plain old regular dog training rarely solves. It is like a spooky mystery novel when you are afraid to turn the page. You are a good doggie detective Laura Holmes Hartwick:)

Jenn said...

Love that Gustavo!