Updated: Dec 7, 2021
Start line stays are such an important element of agility, yet it is one of the easiest things to lose. Having the option to get a 2 or 3 jump head start on your dog can make the hardest challenge much easier.
Why do we lose them? Unclear criteria and inconsistent expectations.
Dogs do best when your criteria is very clear and your expectations are the same between competition and training.
If your criteria is a sit stay, accepting your dog laying down or standing up before they're released is being inconsistent.
If they are supposed to stay in a sit, but they scoot forward a foot before you release them, that's inconsistent.
If they leave before you give the release cue, but you were kinda sorta where you needed them to be so you just go with it, that's inconsistent.
If you take the leash off and they just bolt away to the first jump, well that's lacking some criteria ;)
Another reason you might have start line issues is the dog may have a confidence or anxiety issue. Some dogs lack the confidence to work at a distance from the handler, or just aren't sure what's expected of them because of inconsistencies. They might be sensitive to the environment and their surroundings. These dogs are stressing and they "just can't deal" with the situation so they self release and leave. It's important to recognize stress and the role it plays with our dogs...many things people think of as the dog "just being naughty" or "goofing off" or "not listening" are really the dog exhibiting anxiety. Be clear and consistent in your training, and kind in your handling of errors.
How do we keep them?
We will discuss protocols, training, proofing and reinforcement strategies.
Have a Consistent Release Cue -
Always be 100% sure YOU released the dog. I can't tell you how many times I see the dog leave a split second before you actually say your release word. Dogs are very good at predicting your behavior. Video recording your training sessions is helpful to see what's happening.
Here is a myth - you do not have to be stopped when you release your dog. Walking or running while you say "ok" will not teach your dog to break their stay. And it's helpful for you to stay ahead of the dog. Consistently pairing hand movement or a head turn with the release cue can cause your dog to self release. If you always lift your hand at the exact time you say your release word - you think the "ok" is releasing them, but the dog might think your hand lift is the release. I see this SO often! Be very careful to always separate your hand lift and release word.
Know What's Happening, Keep Connection and Be Efficient.
Keep your eye on your dog the best you can while you lead out. A lot of movement can be happening without you even knowing it. You can also have someone else watch your dog while you walk away and tell you when they move. You can leave a marker in front of their feet (like a jump bar, leash, string, line in the dirt) so you know where you left them and you can see if they moved when you look back.
Walk out efficiently and don't repeat the stay cue. I see a lot of people slowly creep away from their dog, walking backwards while pointing their hand at their dog saying "stay. stay. you stay!". The longer it takes for you to get out there, the less patient your dog is becoming. And you don't want them to only stay if you pair it with 10 stay commands. Once cue should be all that's needed.
Be prepared to give your dog 100% of your attention from the time you step to the start line.
Do not (and I repeat, do not) leave you dog in a stay, walk out 15 feet then stand there and try to remember where the course goes, or start talking to someone watching. Your poor dog is trying to be patient, but this lack of connection can cause them to leave. Get everything sorted out before you line them up...or return to them and reward, release them, then sort out your issue.
How to Handle Errors
I am only going to give my dog a consequence if I think I have done a good enough job training him. I must be certain that he knows what's expected of him and that I have done an adequate job of building value for the behavior. Consequences depend on the dog, if you have a sensitive dog that you're trying to build confidence in - make this very game like, their only consequence is they won't get the reward. If they break, say something light like "oh my goodness, let's go try again", and run them back to the start.
If you have a dog who is more confident, I will be a little more matter of fact in the consequence. I will start with the same "oh goodness, let's try again", and take them by the collar and put them back. That would escalate to putting the leash back on and walking a few steps away before trying again. Then that might escalate to putting them back into their crate for a few minutes before trying again.
Remember if they make an error, repeat the same thing that made them make that error one more time. If you get another error, make it easier the next time. Don't let them fail too many times in a row. You might need to mix in some resets so you can get them reinforcement.
Line Up Routines
Consistency and predictability can lead to success. Know what your dog needs before you set them up for the start line. Do you need to get them more excited or calmed down? If I need my dog to get more excited, I will play some tugging games and cookie chasing games to get them moving. If I need to calm them down, I play more listening and thinking game while we wait our turn, then ask them to heel to the line.
The dog must earn their leash coming off. If they are not focused on you, don't take the leash off. If their attention is elsewhere, chances are that they will be elsewhere when you take the leash off. Can they listen and respond to simple cues like sit, down, or hand touch? If they can't respond to those cues, chances are that they are in a state of arousal that won't lead to responding to cues when you take their leash off.
Keep your routine in training as similar as you can to what you do in competition. I see this vary so much, be aware of what you're doing and try to make them match.
My dogs learn all of their initial sit stay training on a platform or stool. It is easy to train the first elements this way, because the criteria is very clear - the dog is either on the stool or they aren't. Platform training is covered in this post
Build a solid understanding of Distance Duration Distraction on the platforms that can then transfer to the the stay behavior on the ground. Throughout your dog's training you may have to go back to using the platforms sometimes for a refresher.
Dogs do what is reinforcing. For most dogs running agility is naturally reinforcing. We need to make sure it is valuable for the dog to stay. I like to reward start lines five different ways.
1. Go back to them and reward.
Using food - be careful the dog doesn't move in anticipation of getting the reward. Some dogs will start to lean and reach to get the food, moving out of position. If you give them the treat after they've moved, you are reinforcing movement. If they move to get the treat, I pull it away and wait until they are back in position before I try to reward again. Sometimes I'll bring the treat in very slowly from above to test that they aren't trying to move to get it.
Using toys - present the toy in front of the dog, make sure they are still in position then give a clear release cue. If they move, pull the toy away and re-present it when they are back in position.
2. Throw the reward back to them.
We have to find ways to reinforce the dog from a distance. Think about when you reinforce them, you are usually within an arm's length. The farther we get away from them, the less likely they are to be rewarded. The farther away we are from them, the less confident they can get.
Using food - You can do this the easy way or the hard way.
The easy way - you give the release cue, then quickly throw the reward back towards them (aiming right in front of their front feet), my verbal cues are "ok, get it!".
The hard way - throw your reward, aiming a few feet in front of them. The reward lands, make sure the dog is still sitting then say "ok, get it". This add a little proofing, it makes sure that the reward does NOT release the dog. This is a good game to start on the platform if you've never done it before.
My rule is that if they dog can reach the treat without moving, they can get it. So when proofing I try to throw it far enough away that they can't reach it.
Using toys - I aim to throw the toy right in front of the dog's feet. It has to land, they have to stay stationary, then I give the release cue. I will randomize the duration so sometimes they have to stay longer than others. Again this might be easier to start on a platform if you've never done it before.
3. Turn back to reinforcement.
Leave a reward behind the dog when you lead out. It could be a toy, a treat, a target, their leash, a manner's minder etc. Teach them a cue that means "look back get it", which tells them they can turn back and get the reward behind them. This needs to be clarified with their release cue. Sometimes leave a reward behind them, but release them forward to the first jump. Leaving something behind them doesn't always mean they get to have it...only when you cue the look back.
4. Release them.
Releasing your dog to do something more desirable than a stay (like running agility) can be a reward by itself. You must be 100% sure you are the one releasing your dog, sometimes (a lot of times) the dogs are leaving before you say your release word. Give your release cue and go on with the course.
You can also release over the first obstacle then give your dog the reward. This is good for dogs who may not think agility is more reinforcing than a toy/treat.
5. Ask for other behaviors.
This is part listening game and part reinforcement strategy. Sometimes on the start line the dogs are so excited about going that they can't process and think about what you're telling them. Lead out and instead of releasing the dog, ask for another behavior...I like to do a down, stand, spin, walk back, etc. In order for this to work, your dog has to know a behavior on a verbal cue from a distance...otherwise it probably won't be effective here. But those are fun games you could be teaching as well!
After your dog does the other behavior you can toss a reward back to them, run back to them and reward, or release them to the first jump.
Think of proofing as giving your dog little tests and rewarding them when they pass.
One test = one reward. Don't tack on challenges until they fail. Proofing also isn't tricking your dogs, be careful in what you're doing to proof them.
We want to proof common elements that may lead to the dog breaking position or self releasing.
1. Motion. Motion is never the release, the only thing that should release your dog is their release word (and in some cases the next obstacle cue).
During platform training you should have started this training. Walking away from your dog shouldn't release them. You also want to expand this to running away from them. If I need a big lead out, I like to save time by running to position before I release. I know Chip appreciates that I get out there quicker and he doesn't have to stay as long. But if your dog has never seen this before, they might think that you running means they should run too. Teach it on the platform and then use it to proof on the start line.
2. Hand Movement.
When walking away lift your hand multiple times, proofing that is not the release. Always lift your hand before or after the release cue, NOT at the exact same time. Try to make it look realistic. Doing the YMCA might be an interesting proof but most dogs know the difference between silly proofing and what you actually do right before you release them ;)
3. Verbal Cues. I like to build excitement building words into my start line stays. This is good proofing for dogs who tend to be over excited, and good practice in build arousal for dogs who might be unmotivated by sit stays.
Again, this is game is easiest when taught on a platform. Walk away a short distance, say an excitement building word like "reeaaddddy", and immediately reward your dog for not leaving. We want them on the edge of their seat ready to go, but not release on the excitement words. As they are successful, add more duration - "reaaadddyyy steaddddy". You can choose to go back and reward the dog in their stationary position, or release them to be rewarded.
If your dog tends to start slow from sit stays, this is a good time to reward explosion off the line. With these dogs it's less about the stay and more about the go. You can play this game from a restrained recall. When adding the stay, I like to play this game on a platform first. Use your excitement words, give your release cue, then run! Have the dog chase you to get the reward, or run to a target plate.
4. Food/Toy Distractions. This builds off of the throwing reward section above - and is necessary before you can do the part where you throw the cookie before you release them.
In the platform video you will see example of starting this. Proof holding a cookie out of their reach first. Then work towards putting that treat on the ground, and dropping the treat. Remember to reward good choices quickly!
Here is a quick example of some backyard training I did with Chip today. Working on proofing excitement building words and different reinforcement strategies.
There is a whole post about it here
The more your dog can rehearse self control the better.
Places to practice around the house -
Can they not bolt out of their crate when you open the door? Go back to some simple crate games. If you open the door and they try to leave without permission, I just shut the door. Open a tiny bit and toss treats in for them not leave. Work to opening the door all the way and rewarding. They building distance by walking away from the open door before releasing.
Can they do a sit stay while you put their dinner bowl down? If I set the bowl down and they get up, I just pick the bowl back up and try again.
Can they wait at the door to go outside? Similar to crate games, I just shut the door if they try to leave before being released. Make it harder by walking out the door then releasing them.
If you're playing with toys in the yard, can you put the in a stay and throw/kick the toy then release the dog. I always wait for the toy to land and stop moving before I releae them, make sure the throw isn't releasing them. Make it harder by throwing the toy and building duration by waiting a few more seconds before releasing them. Or cueing another behavior before release them, like a down from a sit. Or running towards the toy a few steps before releasing.
Being Consistent in Trial Situations.
This is where we tend to lose control ;) I fall into the same trap. I remember the first time Derby ever broke a start line - we were at our first Nationals in Arizona. Now I am someone who has always upheld criteria very well, but we were at nationals! I wasn't about to blow that run to fix the start line. And oh boy, did he ever realize that rules were different at shows and started exploiting that LOL!
When there are inconsistencies, dog learn that some of the time can be all the time. If we allow undesirable behavior some of the time, the dogs start to believe that they can do that all the time. It's unfair to be inconsistent in our expectations. You will see dogs get confused, shut down, and frustrated with us because they were just allowed to do something, then they do it again and we are displeased with them.
If you've ever said "but she does it in class, why can't she do it at a trial", the first thing to look at is how you've handled mistakes in a trial situation. If they broke a stay or contact in competition and you continued on like nothing happened, that signaled to the dog that what they just did was fine. By doing more agility, you are actually reinforcing the dog's previous action. If that action was breaking a stay - it's now been reinforced.
Have a plan! Know how you are going to handle it before you even go into the ring. You can enter certain events or venues that you wouldn't normally do with the main purpose of training. We are SOOOO lucky to have training in the ring opportunities in all venues now! Before this was a much harder problem to fix. The longer you let them rehearse behaviors you don't want, the harder it will be to fix. If you want a start line stay, you must expect it every time! And you must fix it if they break it.
Don't put your dog into a situation you don't think they will be successful in. Are they having problems with the start line stay in class? Don't go to a trial. It will not be better at a trial, and they are going to be rehearsing things you don't want in the future.
After Chip's first few trials, he started getting really turned on for agility. His sit stay in training started eroding due to over excitment. I pulled him from the next trial he was entered in and didn't enter him again for a few months, until it was solid in training.
This is something to need to be aware of their entire competition career. Little scoots lead to bigger scoots. Scoots lead to standing up. Standing up leads to walking forward. And eventually walking forward leads to just leaving.
Chip has been flexing his senior dog privileges lately and has been walking forward more and more. I have been entering more T2B runs, where you have course time to train in the ring with a toy. We just go in and work and reward start lines. It's been amazing!
This was lengthy one...
In conclusion - build value for stays. Be clear in your criteria. Be fair and kind in your handling of errors. Be consistent with your expectations in all situations.