When Your Agility Dog Starts Refusing the Table

Table workdWe had a question come to us about a dog that started refusing the table obstacle after earning all their Novice titles. We asked you for your suggestions and decided to post them here for others to read. First is the original question:

“I am working with Ziva, 2 1/2 year old female Weimaraner who was recently spayed as I am through showing her in conformation.  We had no problems getting our Novice titles.  BUT, as soon as we moved up to open we started having a table issue.  Ziva would run and jump on the table but refuse to sit or down.  Now the problem has advanced to her circling the table before getting on it.  I haven’t been rough with her or raised my voice with commands.  She normally performs the table while as class, training at home or anywhere I tell her table down.  I think she knows I can’t do anything while in competition.  I have tried feeding her on the table,  generously rewarding her while on the table in the down position.  This hasn’t helped at all.  I am now fixing her dinner, leaving it at the house, then going to the ring to work.  After she does a small series of obstacles, I have her do the table.  Then I say in a very happy voice “Good table, let’s get your dinner”.  I just started this training method and we haven’t been to any trials yet to see how it’s going to work.  Any suggestions of what else we could try??”

Here are the suggestions that were given:

Christin says:

Funny how dogs can change as soon as you move up and start becoming more competitive isn’t it! One of my friend’s dogs got his MACH last year and after that, he started jumping off contacts. It’s like they know they did good, so it’s time to do what they want!

I’m not sure what training methods you use, but I recently switched to 100% positive clicker training. This has really helped my dogs become less stubborn and more willing to work for me. I would try this along with the following, but even if you are not interested in clicker training you could do this. Just instead of clicking and treating, you can say “Yes!” or “Good table!” or something instead of clicking. But, of course, always treat =)

Start out with doing some fun sit/down exercises just on the ground, no obstacles. Then after she is having fun and listening well, put a sheet or blanket down about the size of the table. She won’t relate the two together since it is flat and soft. Start asking for sits and downs on the sheet and just the sheet, don’t praise for sits or downs on the ground anymore. After she is successfully doing sits and downs on the sheet and enjoying it, put cardboard or a thin, flat wooden board about the size of the table down. Now do the same thing, clicking and treating (or whichever you chose) each time she sits and downs. After she is doing this successfully, try and use the table top without the legs. At this point you shouldn’t be using the table command at all. As she becomes more comfortable at each stage, move up but go back if she starts back with her old behavior or is being stubborn.

You should keep sessions short, only 3-5 reps in one session and do many sessions a day. This prevents her becoming bored with the task and prevents her from becoming tired. Don’t linger at one stage for too long unless needed, try to move up as soon as possible, just be sure she is ready. If she proves not to be, just move down a level and keep working at it. If you want to clicker train, try shaping the table (allowing the dog to think for herself, no luring.) There are some great websites out there about clicker training and shaping. They can explain it better than I can!

The reason I say don’t use the table command is because you want to retrain the obstacle and you don’t want to remind her of previous experiences with the table by using the command. Once she is successfully completing the table at her height, then you can use the table command again, just watch for any old behaviors to pop up. At this stage, they shouldn’t, but dogs can surprise us!

Good luck with your training! You can overcome all obstacles!

Barbara Gordon replied:

I am an obedience trainer first and agility person second, so I look to obedience for the answer to anything a dog is having problems with. The question I pose is , “Who does your dog think you are?” Leader or follower? The calm confident one or the nervous ninny? If you are telling a dog what to do and following through the dog will gain trust and confidence from you. If you are asking, pleading and begging he will be unsettled. If you tend to get frustrated and throw your hands up, he will see you as weak and will not follow your lead. He will be unsure what to do because you are basically giving him a choice. An unsettled dog, who is unsure as to the position his owner is taking has only one option. That is to make a decision on their own. A dog that is unsure is making decision based on fear and uncertainty. Therefore he will continue to make the wrong choice. If my dog would not get on the table, I’d put him on leash, so he couldn’t keep avoiding the table, panic, or run off. I’d command him to get on the table, then aid him enough his only option would be to comply. It’s important for a dog to get there on his own power. Only this gets him over his fear. Do not pick him up, shove, or pull him up on the table. Instead find out what triggers forward movement in his mind. It could be a pull and release straight up on his collar. This moves the brain forward. It could be a steady pull then release when he moves. This tells him it’s better to move forward. It could be a touch on his rear end. You have to be very calm and patient. You have to be quiet. It could take awhile for his brain to get the picture. It’s important not to talk as it tends to reinforce whatever state of mind the dog is in at the time. Talk means “fear of the table.” When the dog gets on the table, now is the time to talk. The conversation should be, “Good dog,” not nervous chatter. Any touch should be soothing and relaxing. Your energy should be calm and confident. By the way the dog can only get off the table when you allow it. Be sure they are steady and confident before you tell him he can leave the table. Good luck.

Jean says:

When my Lab who is half way towards his MACH started having table issues only at trials, I was stumped.

I did all the usual, high rewards, clicker,make it fun but it didn’t work. Finally our trainer said stop practicing the table. Have no idea why, but that was the end of our table issue.

Carol suggested:

The below suggestions are only done once a dog has proven that they understand the behavior that you want. Since you have already tried what would have been my first suggestion – feeding your dog their dinner on the table, you could try one of the below.

First find some fun matches so your dog might think they are at a show and work at some of the fixes that can be done there. Also, be aware if you are being nervous and acting differently (most of us do at shows) try having someone video tape you at the show and see if it matches a practice.

A suggestion to try is when practicing the table ask for the table once, if any hesitation or refusal turn your back on your dog and wait until he/she offers the table or comes around to look at you as to what is wrong. Once either happens turn back and face the table, if they are on the table jackpot treat, praise and make a big deal of how happy you are that they did it, if noton the table, ask again. Only ask once, and repeat your behavior that you refuse to accept this. This is body language that your dog can understand and will mean to her that you are not happy with the behavior and you will give no more attention to your her until the table is offered first time. This can then be done at a show. It might be caught as training in the ring, even if it is, to do it and get whistled off, is better than never fixing the problem at all.

Another method is to ask for table once at the show and at practice and if not done, just walk away and look unhappy (slumped shoulders and head down) again this is something you can do at a trial. Consider the trial an expensive training session; it will be worth it to break the habit.
Note: always remember to change your belief and picture in your mind as to what your dog will do wrong with any obstacle that was a problem in the past, and before asking for them to perform it again. Picture in your mind your dog happily offering the behavior and you jump up and down with joy and praise and remember to smile.

Good Luck,
Carol Ely

ZooGal suggests:

I agree with the reprogramming. A different way you could do it if you don’t get results the first way is to not call it “table”, in fact, act like she has never seen it before. Go back to basics and operant condition her the “new” obstacle with a clicker. With the clicker you can work out the kinks…for example start clicking a direct approach to the table and only pay her if she goes straight to it, just go “whoops” or “cold” if she starts to circle. This way she can calmly think it through, completely understand what you do and don’t like. Once she is going straight to it then work on her just standing on top, then wait her out for a sit and then a down (the whole time you can’t give her commands so NO SAYING “SIT” “DOWN” OR “STAY”!) Let her problem solve it herself! Remember with operant conditioning, using a clicker, you get better results taking small steps so remember to click and pay for tiny improvements and even pay for body positioning (ex haunches look like they are considering a sit position…rather then waiting for the entire sit).