Island Hopping

Written By: Jean Emery - August• 21•11

A down on the table.  Seems like a simple enough behavior, right?  Your dog will do it in your kitchen, in your yard, in the training center, on the practice field, outside the ring.  But, dang if you can’t get that down on the table in the agility ring!

Fortunately (some would say), only USDAA any longer requires a down position for proper table performance.  But just because AKC will allow the handler to chose their preferred table position, and NADAC, DOCNA and CPE either do not include the table as acceptable obstacles or only use a pause table to stop the clock, don’t dismiss the benefits of training the table and particularly a down on the table.

If you are one of those teams where your dog just does not want to do a down on the table, or you’re starting a puppy or a new dog in agility, consider training the table as a concept rather than a specific behavior.

Distilled to its basic components, agility is essentially about getting on, over, under or around objects.  The table is an “on” object; the down on the table is what to do once on an object. Approaching the table as a concept means putting together several “on” objects and building value for all of these objects.  By helping dogs see that getting on a table, a mat, a box, a bed, a PVC frame, or a crate are all the same you actually multiply the value of any one of these objects by drawing on the reinforcement history of each of the objects combined.

Welcome to the Island

I start this concept-building right away in puppy class.  I call it island work.  I’ll usually have four to six “islands,” each different in shape and surface: (1) a raised mat, (2) a short ex-pen, (3) a low table (or board on the ground), (4) a soft-sided crate (with open top for delivering treats), (5) a dog bed, and (6) some form of mat or towel.  Teams return to the island between exercises, rotating to a different island as we move from exercise to exercise. 

Eventually, I want the dogs to come to associate the islands as a place to relax and settle (that inevitably becomes a down on the island).  At first, however, the goal is simply to have the pup stay within the boundaries of the Island despite the surrounding distractions.  Position doesn’t matter at this point.  The dog may stand, sit, or lie down, so long as it stays on the island

The Trainer’s Job

As a home training exercise, start with three “on” obstacles and arrange them into a triangle.  I like to use dog beds, mats and tables because these objects are central components of my future training with a dog and they are tools that I will use throughout the dog’s career and homelife, whether at a show, in a class, or in your family room.  A side benefit of this training is that you have effectively classically conditioned your dog to feel warm and fuzzy about a table because you have created an association with other familiar objects for which you have reinforced heavily and which you can continue to reinforce on a daily basis without the pressures that sometimes get attached to the table. 

Here’s a 12-week-old puppy getting introduced to island hopping:

 Getting On

To summarize the video, start by shaping.  Depending on your dog’s free shaping experience you may need to click any movement toward any of the objects.  Click and treat incrementally as you would to encourage interaction with any object. You could shape each object individually and then put them together, but that’s probably not necessary.  Remember, by clustering these objects together you are telling your dog “you can treat all of these objects the same and I will reinforce you for that.” 

Once the dog is on an island (you’ve clicked and treated for getting on), turn your attention to another of the islands.  Wait.  You want your dog to offer the behavior of moving toward (and eventually) getting on another object.  Turning and focusing on another island is the kind of helping I wouldn’t incorporate into a free shaping session, but it is helpful here to keep the dog from getting stuck on one object, at least until the dog gets the point of the game.

By turning my body from island to island, I am also introducing the notion that the direction of my shoulders, feet and face is a predictor of a reward.  The puppy in the video surely has no understanding of this concept–yet.  This is a simple, unobtrusive way to start to incorporate rudimentary handling cues into your interaction with your dog.

You may have noticed in the video that at first Whisper is unaware of the connection between where my body is facing and what relationship it has to her ability to get a treat.  And I don’t want to add that criteria too early.  My initial objective is merely to reward her for offering to go from object to object.  But I don’t need to do dozens of repetitions to see that she is quickly willing to do that, so I can then begin to up my criteria by selecting to reward those attempts that are in the direction in which my body is pointing.

As with any shaping session, you have to be fluid and continually evaluating whether you have raised criteria too quickly or in too big of chunks. In this case, Whisper cut behind me a few times to get from one island to another.  This is not a behavior I want to reinforce, but since we were in her first few attempts, I ignored how she got to the next island and rewarded her for going to an different island.  Initially it is important that she get information that she is on the right track before upping the ante by discriminating among the islands.  It did not take long though before Wisp was on to the game and then I could withhold marking her getting on any island as opposed to one I was facing. 

This takes a little bit of experience and on-the-fly decisionmaking, but that’s part of the fun of the whole process. 

Getting Down

I DO NOT ASK FOR A DOWN BEHAVIOR.  Instead I manipulate the dog into a down position by how I deliver the reward.  I put several treats into my hand.  One is between my thumb and forefinger, the rest in my palm.  I present the treat to the dog with my forefinger resting on the table.  My dog will most likely move to my hand to get the treat.  I do not release the treat if the dog is standing.  Usually dogs will go through a progression: head down, shoulders lower, elbows down, haunches bend, butt down.  When the butt hits the surface, I release the treat.  And then I immediately follow with several more treats, one after another.

Don’t be stingy.  A high rate of reinforcement really makes an impression at this stage.

Give it a Try

Find some objects to create your own archipelago of islands.  This is not something to drill, but is easily incorporated into your training and daily life.  Find objects around the house for your dog to get on–footstools, file boxes, mats and dog beds around the house.  Keep treats handy and reward liberally for the dog offering to go to and getting on any of these objects.  Reward the dog in a down position.

Over time, up your criteria by:

            a) adding more and different types of islands

            b) moving the islands further apart

            c) withhold your click until the dog offers to lie down on the island

            d) build duration by waiting longer and longer to click and reward


When you first begin, of course, the behavior is not on cue.  Notice in the video, I have not asked Whisper to go to the table or mat; she is simply offering the behavior, which is then rewarded as it meets my criteria.  I manipulate the delivery of the reinforcement to elicit a down with the aspiration of the dog eventually choosing to lie down on the object because it is the quickest way to get reinforcement.  Because none of this is on a verbal cue, I do not need to use a release cue for the puppy to leave one island to go to another.

However, if you are retraining and are working with a dog that (a) does not have a lot of experience with free shaping, and/or (b) has a training history associated with staying on a table, mat or dog bed until released, you may need to use your release word for the dog to understand it has permission to go to another island.  Ordinarily, a release is not necessary for a behavior that is offered as compared to one that is cued.  However, you may need to help your dog think “out of the box” as it were.  If you are having table troubles with a dog say that you are already trialing, consider whether taking some of the pressure off the dog by reframing what the table means through the approach outlined here.

Share Your Questions and Progress

Let me know how this goes for you (feel free to post your own video links) and always feel free to ask any questions you may have.

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  1. Jen says:

    This looks really fun – can’t wait to go try with Swift! :)

  2. Great post! I like the idea of generalizing the behavior to several different objects — very clever. :)

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