Problems at Trial

Dog Won't Stay at starting line

This is a control problem, but not lack of control, as in lack of training. It's a dog that thinks it's figured out the game and wants to get on with it, what are we waiting for?. Enthusiasm, what a problem to have! It's a pretty common agility training plateau among eager dogs. Try setting the dog up to bust stays in practice. Leave him at the start then return to him rewarding him for a good stay. Then start making some jerky movement or yell TACO or some other silly word to entice him to break, then correct him. Go back to leaving him and returning with out doing any obstacles to reward the stay. What a good dog!

You can also simply run with him anytime the course really doesn't seem to present any clear advantage in leading out. Just move laterally so you can clear the first wing and call him to begin. For some dogs it's just a constant thing to be worked on without dampening all that wonderful enthusiasm. In a show you just have to be prepared to be in a position in which you can handle the dog in case it does break its stay. (Katie Greer)

The problem with agility is that it is difficult to simulate competition conditions for a training situation. Most dogs that have a start line problem will stay beautifully in practice. In a real trial, however, the excitement and anticipation is felt and the foundation that may have been laid is lost. It starts out with the dog starting to stand up a bit, then taking one or two steps. The handler usually responds by starting the run (the dog *might* have broken the plane of the start after all OR, it *might* be considered delay at the start/training in the ring to go back and correct the dog) which of course rewards the dog. The next time, having received no negative reinforcement for breaking the stay previously and having been rewarded by the run beginning, the dog breaks again, this time a little sooner, next time a little sooner.

It is not long before you have a dog that can't be brought into the ring without it performing the first obstacle it sees. Most dogs can figure out the difference between training and competition and will only break in competition. Many handlers have no access to equipment on a regular basis. Matches and other training situations are scarce for most as well. Dogs *should* be able to walk to the start line in control, however it is difficult to train and proof if you cannot simulate the conditions that result in the behavior. It is, of course, permissible to walk your dog to the start on a leash. (Linda Mecklenburg)

One method that works for some dogs is to walk the dog to the start line on lead and when you remove the lead, place a hand on his chest to hold him until you're ready to walk out. Then give a stay command and walk out. You may have to repeat the stay several times as you walk out and watch him like a hawk. (Kent Mahan)

Practice lead-offs this way. In an open area with no agility obstacles, leave the dog on a "wait" (which means "I'll call you eventually" as opposed to "stay" which means "don't move until I come back") and then walk out a l-o-n-g distance, like 20 feet or more. You may have to keep your hand up in a "wait" signal and maintain eye contact with him as you go out. Stop, then twitch a couple times as if you are going to start running--he's not allowed to start until you say "OK" so if he falls for relying only on the body language, tell him "uh-uh" and put him back. When you say "OK", take off running straight out until he catches up with you, then it's praise, whoopee, what a fun game, etc. Also remember to practice leaving him from either side, not just the obedience "heel" side. Often the problem happens when you are not confident that he is going to stay--your body language lets him know that you "expect" him to break and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy when he does. (Janine Grinta)

If your dog is a food-hound, take advantage of the dog's nose to help with stays at the start line. When you put him on a down stay in practice, have a bunch of kibble crumbs in your hand and toss them on the ground in front of him (in the same hand that you use for the stay signal). It takes the awhile to try to find all of the crumbs and gives you time to get into position. Since the crumbs are so small, the dog doesn't always know if they are there or not, but will keep on looking and sniffing. (Mary Ruhe)

Here's a possible way to train dog to stay at the start line: Place dog on pause table behind start line. Start dog from this position. Gradually lower height of pause table until dog is starting from just the table top on ground. Finally, remove table top. (Jerry Ranch)

It is difficult to recreate the excitement of a trial during class at your regular training location, but Show-and-Gos in a variety of locations are perfect for a problem like this. Before blaming the dog or concluding that the situation is near hopeless the handler needs to ask one question of himself and answer it very truthfully: Do you ever allow the dog to continue running a sequence or course when it has broken a stay at the line? Have you ever allowed the dog to start running when you started moving rather than when you gave the appropriate command? This is very similar to those who have a dog that blows zones only at trials.

Question: Have you ever ignored a blown zone to "see what your time would have been" or because you were on a roll and having too much fun? Intermittent reinforcement has a very powerful effect on behavior. If you sometimes allow the dog to choose when to start or when to hit zones, you are sabotaging your training efforts. However, there are still many trainers who are very consistent with their enforcement of staying at the line, and who still have problems with the excitement of competition factor. This can be a difficult problem to overcome. However, if you have not been totally consistent with your enforcement of these errors, you have something you can try to improve your situation. Training alone can really contribute to problems like these. Training with a buddy or several other people helps keep all of us honest! (Jane Simmons-Moake)

To get a solid stay at the start line you need to work progressively through several steps at the start line. You want your dog to understand that first obstacle command is his STAY release.

Start on a course during practice, with a jump as the first obstacle. Place the dog in the sit-stay. Walk half way to the first jump, then turn around, come back, and give your dog a food treat saying "Good STAY!"

Step 1:
Your goal is to make the first obstacle command their Stay release. Tell the dog STAY again, and start WITH them at the start line. Don't lead off. Later, put the dog in a sit-stay at the start line, walk to the first obstacle and pause, walk back to them, give the dog a food treat and say "Good STAY!" Then tell the dog "STAY" again, and either start with them, walk half way or all the way to the first obstacle and then begin the course. When your dog is solid, move to step 2.

Step 2.
After telling the dog to STAY at the start line, walk to the first obstacle, walk around it, come back and repeat the praise with the food. Sometimes repeat the STAY, praise with food. Sometimes give no command at all.

If the dog breaks a stay, they don't get a food treat or any praise. The dog is put back in the stay and the exercise is repeated. When the dog Does Stay... they get praise and a food treat OR they get to start the course... all very good things!

Things to Remember:
The MOST IMPORTANT part of all this... is to ACT the SAME each time you leave your dog. Be very aware of your body language. You need to walk to the jump and pause... then either start your dog, walk back, or walk around the jump and back. The dog should WAIT for your release. If you have different body language when you're REALLY going to run the dog - they will teach you a whole *new* lesson of game playing! And you'll wonder *how* they know. The dog knows if you're acting differently or if your body is positioned differently. The common mistake made by beginners and many people is un-intentionally allowing the dog to break the stay repeatedly - thus "teaching" their dog to start on its own.

Don't hurry the learning process. Always ask yourself if your dog understands what you are asking? You may think your dog already "knows" STAY, when in fact he has a different understanding and is demonstrating that by breaking the command. Your dog may need to be re-taught the STAY. Don't drag your dog back to the start line, repeat STAY, and then turn your back on your dog and expect to get a different response all of a sudden. If your dog breaks the stay again, you will become frustrated and infuriated. Another mistake is to yell at your dog without teaching him what you want. His hearing is just fine. He's not defying you, he just doesn't understand. Re-train. Unless YOU make a change, your dog will not change.

Remember that STAY is one command where it is *beneficial* to repeat the command when "teaching" it. If your dog has been jumping the gun, you definitely need to "re-teach" the command. Most commands ask your dog to take "action" (i.e. sit, down) Repeating that type of command is teaching your dog to wait until they hear it 3 times before the dog decides to do it. But the STAY command is different. It is asking your dog NOT to take action. Therefore, when you repeat the command you are reinforcing their correct decision to stay put. They will get an urge to take action....then they will suppress it because they remember the STAY command means NOT to take action. By repeating the command, you are essentially confirming the dog's correct decision - which is positive reinforcement to your dog while learning or re-learning (as the case may be) STAY.

Once the dog re-learns the command, repeating the command should not be necessary except in exceptional circumstances.
(Brandy J. Lyle)

This is a Stuart Mah tip for dogs who are anxious to "go" and have a hard time waiting at the start line. There are lots of wild 'n' crazy dogs in agility (especially common with border collies!) who can do a wonderful sit-stay in any other context except agility. Put them in front of an obstacle, and they can hardly contain themselves. They just have to get up!

Stuart suggests that every time this type of dog breaks his stay, place him back another step or two further away from that first obstacle. After moving him back a couple times, he should start to figure out he is getting further away instead of closer to the thing he wants to do most. As a result, he should figure out that he needs to stay so that he can get to the obstacle faster. Intermittently reinforce the stay with praise/treats before allowing him to take the obstacle.
(Debbie Spence)

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