Should I stay or should I go now … Start line stays, do you really need one?

START LINE STAYS seem to be the inescapable downfall for way too many agility Teams. Way too many.

  1. Collection into the weave poles – check
  2. Go tunnel – check
  3. Over – check
  4. Wrap, switch out, turn – check
  5. Walk it, climb it – check
  6. Go Go Go Go – check
  7. Stay – ….. uncheck … kind of … not really … it’s a Hail Mary play at best …

Why? Well I think there are a few reasons –

  1. Some Teams have been taught by an unqualified instructor (even if they call themselves an agility trainer, many are unqualified to instruct others) how to harass their dog at the start line and bully them into not moving. Kicking barn dirt in their face, yelling ACHT! if the dog moves, stomping in the dogs direction, basically correcting a dog that isn’t even clear on what the job is that is being asked of them. I have seen it all, and I can tell who has trained with who by how a dog approaches the start line. Dogs that have been trained this way show signs of stress just entering the ring. Nose tapping, looking away, sniffing, running out of the ring, or complete handler avoidance. When I see a border collie exhibit these behaviors, I can tell you within a very close margin, what someone had to do to turn a powerful border collie off. These dogs are confused at best, and most of the time trying to guess correctly, but many give up.
  2. Someone has not taken the time to build the behavior correctly and asked for too much, too soon, with way too much physical and social pressure. Until STAY and a RELEASE are fluent and built independent of each other, they cannot be combined.
  3. A lot of agility Handlers suck at proofing. Fact. Once you have a started behavior, you need to then proof that behavior in all types of scenarios, directions, speeds, varying noises, locations, etc.

Now let me break this down. START LINE stays are not always necessary. When I was competing nearly every weekend, I rarely used them, I didn’t find a need unless I needed a super duper long lead out, which was ever only once in a while. This clip from one of the championships Story and I participated in is a great example of both.  Story was a fast dog, hovering around eight yards per second. My goal was never to catch him, but rather time my words and body language so he could maintain his speed and know where the hell I was asking him to go. Him leading out from me was totally fine with both of us as long as my timing for the next obstacles was spot on. I put the pressure on me at the start line, not my dogs. I think this is fair, and for us has worked rather well.

But just because I don’t find a need for them most of the time doesn’t mean I don’t train for START LINE STAY. I freaking train for just about every scenario I can think of, and also so I don’t surprise my dog, but rather, prepare them, just in case!

So, how to train a reliable and stress free START LINE STAY? You must start by teaching each skill independent of the other. This means –

  1. Teach walking up to the line all by itself. “Are you ready, lets go” and walk up to the line, reward reward reward. Do it again and again, so it becomes a pattern and muscle memory for both ends of the leash.
  2. Teach the leash and/or leash and collar coming off together. Repeat, proof, repeat, proof.
  3. Teach DOWN/STAND/or SIT – sounds obvious but you might be amazed. Teach on your right side, your left side, in front of you, slightly behind you. Train this with hand cues, verbal cues, so you can ask for this behavior either way.
  4. Teach DOWN/STAND/ SIT – STAY – Practicing all three types of stays gives you more options. Practice stay with the 3 D’s in mind. DISTANCE, DURATION, DISTRACTION – each one is trained separately, and then combined once there is a knowingness and consistency. I like to train in sets of five, this means five duration stays, then five distance stays, then five distraction stays. AND when teaching a bomb proof STAY, always reward where your dog stayed for you, meaning you go back to them, so you reinforce the ‘don’t move, I’ll be back’ game.
  5. PROOF EVERYTHING – Play with these behaviors in all environments, on all surfaces, with varied distractions. Proofing should be challenging, but not stressful. And me personally, I look at proofing as PLAY WITH A PURPOSE. It should remain a game of sorts.
  6. BEWARE – if you correct your dog for goofing up, you are going to head down a path to the ‘Unreliable Train Wreck Station’. So, if you correct, correct yourself, 99% of the time it is handler error anyway. You may not have proofed as fully as you should have.
  7. IT ISN’T SEXY – Proofing is proofing, it isn’t super sexy, or dynamic, or sexy. It is simply proofing! Just do it, have fun with it, and take the time.
  8. If your dog isn’t prepared, don’t trial them, wait. This is hard to do, I get that. But if you haven’t prepared your dog, you haven’t prepared them, and it would be unfair, and hard on them, and you would most likely use too much social or physical pressure to MAKE your dog do something to compensate for not preparing them. So take that weekend to proof…

This is Rhumbs first day with PROOFING START LINE STAYS. We have practiced STAY, COME, DOWN, GO, TUNNEL, all independent of each other. Today was her first day combining all of them. Always keep in mind, a dogs STAY should be separate of your actions, so you must train it this way.

When I am PROOFING START LINE STAY, every once in a while I will give a release to take the tunnel, but not a whole bunch when a dog is young.

So, get out there, teach, train, have fun, and be fair … Your dog is counting on you to be a good information giver, and your dog deserves your efforts! Nancy

2 Comments Add yours

  1. sarahsmilesalot says:

    This is the happiest post, Nancy! I was smiling throughout your first video. The instructions are so positive and clear!! The second video helped me see just how much my Pip has to learn before we begin agility training. Your dog kept checking on you behind her. Pip hasn’t learned that yet. If I am behind her, she turns around. When I say, “stay,” Pip stays for a nano second and then turns around. She makes me laugh whenever she does as I say…sort of. I know I am trainable, so will keep at it until Pip shows me I’ve done well. 😉 Sarahjane

  2. Nikki S says:

    Story is one handsome dog!! Love seeing the videos of his younger self – and now he seems to hold him self as the fit/smart elder. What is Nose Tapping? I have heard about the training thing where handlers tap the dog’s nose, but how it is listed in your blog seems like the dog might be doing it. Thanks for all the great info.

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