April 16, 2013

Episode 34: Retraining Your Start Line Stay in Dog Agility

In this episode (30:34)

Do you have a broken start line stay? We discuss two retraining methods, plus our thoughts on how to prevent start line problems.


Can I, this is Nikki from Walpole in Western Australia, and you're listening to bad dog agility with a naughty dog stray. I'm a Stefan and I'm Sarah. And this is episode 34 today. We're going to talk a little bit about start line stays. One of the few non handling parts of agility that I actually enjoy teaching because when your dog has a great start line,

stay people notice just like they notice. Great weaves are great contacts. My own dogs have had pretty good start lines and they've been fairly easy to maintain. On the other hand, I've also spent a lot of time training and trialing three very wring wise dogs that were trained in trial by other people and had issues with their start lines. So by ring wise,

you mean a dog that has learned the criteria you have at the show is different from the criteria you're maintaining at home or in training. Yes. With these three dogs, you know, they were all classic examples of how inconsistent criteria leads to a breakdown in a given behavior. So basically you're talking about dogs that have been taught to sit and stay, and it's been trained to a pretty high level and it works great in practice,

but then you get to the rank and maybe the first couple of shows, everything goes, okay, the dog holds their criteria. Perfect. But then sooner or later, there's going to be a time where the dog tests, they anticipate the release they release without you having given the verbal, you know, release where that you've established. And at that moment,

the handler has a choice to make. They can either interrupt the run. So taking away assuming that the dog enjoys agility, taking away that opportunity to do this behavior that they love of running around and jumping over things, or they continue on like nothing happened, which, because the dog loves to do agility is going to reinforce that braking behavior. That's right.

And great trainers are usually going to take a very hard stance on what people should do in this situation. For example, you know, when people ask me, what should I do when my dog breaks at a trial like that? You know, I, I pretty much tell them all the same thing. You should stop the run and you should leave the ring because this is what you do in practice.

You apply the same criteria at the show that you do at home or at your practice field or your weekly class, but this isn't necessarily a hundred percent true. There are two situations where even I wouldn't leave the ring with a dog, even if my dog broke one, obviously it's going to be any big event. So if you're at the world championship,

if you're at the national championship, if you're at something that you've been training most of the year for, and this is it, this is your big event. If your dog comes off the star line early, that's okay, you're going to do the best that you can. And you're going to go ahead and, and run. You know, I wouldn't worry about the dog or trying to start over or resetting them or consequences or anything like that.

You're just going to get it done. It's the big event. And the second exception is going to be the qualification for a big event. So this can happen with any organization, but especially for the AKC here in the U S we have to get these double QS. Meaning there is a minimum amount of runs where you need to qualify in both the jumpers and standard runs in the same day.

And this is a source of tremendous stress for people here in the United States who run an AKC events. And if you're on the last possible weekend, that counts toward qualifying for national championship, and you need one more double queue, you qualified in the morning, this is your second run of the day. And your dog breaks the start line. You know,

I would say finish that run. You know, the, now's not the time to take your dog off, finish the run, and you'll deal with the fallout that comes with that. That's right, because it's not like the rules of operant conditioning don't apply just because it's a big event, they still apply. Your dog is still going to be getting reinforcement for that break.

So there's going to be some fallout and you're going to have to deal with it. So, so what would you do if you had been in that situation and you, you did let your dog go at that point. Reality. It's going to depend on the dog. All right. And your relationship with the dog and not just that, but really the reinforcement history.

A hundred percent of the time. Okay. When the dog breaks, the reward is withheld and I'm talking about in practice and every other trial after this one. So let's say you have a dog, they have great star lines. You go to AKC nationals, you're in the final and your dog breaks. The start line. You go ahead and you finish the run.

Well, right after nationals, let's say you have a show in a week or two that they're entered in. I would be on the lookout, especially on that first run for your dog, breaking that start line stay. And even before you get to that trial, you go home after nationals or your big event, and you do a hundred start line stays in practice in your yard,

in your living room, at the, at the practice field. But you watch your dog very closely and you actually want them to break it. This trial this way, you can quickly reestablish your show ring criteria. You can let the dog know, Hey, you know, this show is just like practice. I don't care about what happened in nationals.

You're back in the trial ring. And just like in practice, if you break your start line, you're not going to get to do what you want to do. Think of it like shaping your dog to do a trick, right? If you're teaching your dog a trick and you happen to accidentally click them when they're barking, they may do the trick that you want them to do,

but they may bark at the same time. And you don't want that barking, even though you clicked it on accident. So what do you do? You keep clicking, but this time you avoid rewarding anything with barking unit. Even if you have to take a step backwards. So let's say in a session you have a hundred different clicks and you inadvertently click barking one time.

Your diet's going to continue marking for a couple of times because that earned a click before. But since you're no longer rewarding that barking, the behavior is going to go away. Your dog's going to try something else because the reinforcement history isn't there for barking. It just isn't there. So the dog's not going to do it. Same thing with the dog that breaks out a big event one time,

or they break once a year or once in a couple of years, right? You happen to reward that one-time by going on and finishing the run. But it's really not a big deal because you have that huge reinforcement history they've had done thousands of start line stays at home and practice and other trials, most importantly, at other trials where they were not rewarded for breaking.

So you just have to be very careful not to reward it again. That's right. But I would say that the more common case is more serious start line breakers. So not the dogs that do it once a year, but the dogs that make it a bit more of a habit. A lot of times the handlers will talk about there being a deterioration in the performance.

So, you know, they let it happen once maybe it was for a big event or maybe they just, you know, didn't react fast enough or they didn't want to pull their dog from the run. It was. And then it was okay for several runs and, and they had a good start line. And then after a couple of runs, it's came back or maybe it started to get worse,

or the dog started to scoot border collies love to do that little scoot thing where they kind of sit up and sit down really fast and kind of UHG forwards. And so a lot of times what will happen is the dogs will push that behavior until it gets to a point where the handler now decides, okay, this is a problem. And so they,

they get on it. They start being more consistent in practice and more consistent in the rank, perhaps leaving when the dog does it and it gets better. And then several shows later, the dog pushes again and they let it go again. So how is that different and how we have to address that different than the dog that breaks like once a year?

Yeah. For the diet that breaks once a year, the handler is very careful to withhold the reward for breaking on any run immediately. Following that mistake, the very next trial, you're all over that. You're on top of that. But with these more serious breakers, what happens is the handlers are not on top of every single run immediately after the very first time that the mistake happens.

So like you said, that withhold the reward a few times, but then they'll let the dog break. And what happens then you're rewarding the dog for breaking. They'll keep a close eye on them, withhold the reward a couple of times, but then the dog will break and they'll say, well, you know, I really need a double Q today.

I'm gonna, I'm gonna let my dog go. Or, you know, the breeders here. And I want to show the dog off in front of the breeder, or my family came out in my husband's here. That sort of thing. And what happens is in this situation, these dogs have actually been put on a variable schedule of reinforcement. And as we know,

this is absolutely the hardest kind of behavior to eliminate. It's actually, our goal is dog trainers to put everything we want to teach our dogs on a variable schedule of reinforcement. And here you've gone and put something you don't want breaking start lines on a variable schedule of reinforcement. So it's actually very, very difficult to eliminate this behavior. Now, If this happens that you have a couple of options,

depending on your dog's personality or your own personality and the reinforcement history, you could just start over with the new behavior. A lot of times that can be the quickest solution to lots of different training problems, where you have a really ingrained behavior is that you teach it from the bottom up and you teach it with a, a new word and maybe even a new behavior.

So maybe you do a down instead of a sit. And you're very careful to preserve that down because your set is sort of broken. And then the other thing you can do is you can switch from being the handler that lets it go every once in a while to being that handler, that's a hundred percent consistent and hope that the reinforcement history alone will eventually balance the numbers in your favor.

And I think that's one of the interesting things about kind of the two pictures that we painted here of the handler and the dog that breaks just once a year and the handler and the dog that is a more habitual start line breaker. And I think it really comes down to cause and effect the dog that is breaking only once a year is breaking that rarely because the handlers are being a hundred percent consistent.

So, you know, that's really the goal. That's a great way of putting it. You know, I've done it both ways. And I've worked with, you know, three dogs that had this specific issue and based on the sample size of three dogs, in my opinion, it's, it's much easier to start over with a new behavior. You know,

our little border Collie Rook started with Sarah. And when she came over to me, she didn't have the best start line. And I remember going to a USDA trial, that was my first show to debut with her and on our very first run, you know, I set her up and as I was walking out, she just took off, left the ring when visited with some dogs.

And the second and third runs, I believe she also broke. She didn't leave the ring, but she broke her start line. And after that, I knew I had to train it. And so I think she was doing a sit. She did a sit with you and I converted her to a stand, you know, something I saw that a great Derrick had done and I thought it looked cool.

And it was fairly easy to teach. He was a dog that once he positioned her, maybe it was a little bit of a border Collie behavior, but it's natural for her to kind of freeze in that position. But it was a great way to start over, put a new word on it and her word was wait. So I would just position her and tell her to wait.

And I built the behavior from ground up. And when I built it from ground up, I mean, I spent about, I want to say on this retrain seven or eight months, maybe even close to a year where I did not combine the start line with any kind of agility, that means I'd set her up and she would get a toy reward,

that sort of thing. And when I did finally incorporate it into agility and we were doing agility the whole time, I would just have someone hold her. So I'd have other people hold her even in class. If there was no one willing to hold her, able to hold her, I would ask the instructor to hold her. In fact, we've had a quote start line podcast before one of our earlier podcasts.

But what we actually talked about there was not asking for the start line for having somebody hold your dog. That's right. You don't have to worry about that, Right? Yes. And if you're really interested in this podcast, you're listening to it now because you have start line issues. That's also another podcast. You want to go back through the archives and dig out and listen to that one on the podcast page.

Oh yeah. Oh, that's even better. You're so brilliant. Thanks. But no. So with Rook, I started with this new stand behavior. I would just have someone else holder. And when we finally brought it and combined it with agility, we just made sure that the reinforcement level was really, really high. So for every five times I would set her up on a start line in front of an obstacle four times she was getting rewarded right there before she did any equipment.

The fifth time I would go ahead and do whatever the sequence or something was. And this can be kind of annoying in class, but it's the price that had to be paid for the reinforcement history that she had previously. And I would tell the other students, if we each get 30 or 40 seconds, you know, that's what I'm going to be spending my time on.

If I don't get to do the exercise, that's okay. If we're doing something rapid fire, everyone else can take their turn. I'm just going to set her up and then I'm going to reward her. And then the next dog can go. Because at that time it was more important to me to get the start line taught in the agility setting than it was to do any given handling sequence or exercise.

And a lot of you may be in that situation where handling isn't really the issue right now. It's the start line that you need to fix. So that was what we did was we blew it up, started over with a completely new behavior. We went with the Stan and instead of the sit and she was very, very successful from that point on,

from when I read debuted her and shows, she moved a foot once at a trial and she actually broke recently kind of post retirement within the past year. I've gotten a little lazy with the reinforcement there, but she did actually break one time at a trial. And I remember turning around and she was there and I just couldn't believe it. But you know,

one time in three years, I think that's pretty solid. I'll I'll take those numbers. Who knows what she thought she heard? Maybe she heard me say something. It was one of those noisy indoor arenas, and it's a possibility. So the other way, and this is the harder way. And I think this is the way that most people try to do it,

rather than starting over all over with a whole new behavior and keeping them out of agility. Because you know, a lot of people just heard my story about Rook and they're thinking, ah, I can't go six or seven months, you know, and a thousand, a couple thousand repetitions without doing agility, you know, that's just crazy. Well then this is the other option that you have,

and it is purely a numbers game. So in order for you to get this on a variable reinforcement schedule that you did on accident, you probably did something like this. They broke, you rewarded them when you shouldn't have, and then five times you did it correctly, then they broke and you rewarded them again. And then the next, maybe 15 times you did it correctly.

And then they broke and so on and so forth. So if you added up all the math, maybe about every hundred start lines, you're letting one, two or three of them go. You need to get that number as close to zero as possible. So by loading up on the number, you can gradually change it. So let's say your dog has one start line and they mess it up there.

Oh, for one 0%. Let's say they get the next one. Right? Okay. Now there are one for two they're 50%. Let's say they get the next one, right? 67%. Let's say they do three in a row. Now they're three out of four. That's 75%. The more correct behaviors you can get in a row, the more your reinforcement history is going to shift toward the behavior that you want rather than the behavior that you don't want.

So that's what you're going to try and do, but you need to be absolutely consistent, which means every single time your dog breaks, or if your criteria is no leg movement, if they Twitch, if they stand up, you're going to need to go. So this brings me to the story of our second dog, which is the raw Waller. And Sammy is a very pushy dog.

Not all Raul while others are pushy, but she was pushy. And her startline behavior had slowly deteriorated over a period of several months until it reached the point where she was leading the ring. And that's never okay with any dog. It's 10 times more than that, not okay with, you know, 70 pound raw Waller. People just have no tolerance for that kind of thing from that breed of dog in that setting.

So we were actually thinking about retiring her. And I told Sarah, well, you know what, let me just work with her. And let's just see what happens. And so when I took her over, I said, I am going to be a hundred percent consistent with you. And that's what I did. And so in practice, I would be not only a hundred percent consistent,

we tried to proof it as much as we can. A lot of people do that. And they suddenly have dogs that are very, very good in practice. But when they get to the trial, they still have the same issues. Well, why is that? It's because you're holding that second standard. And what I went ahead and did was applied the same standard in trials.

So the first time I brought her back out, after a couple of weeks, a couple of shows, I told her to sit and that's the same behavior that she had before. So you notice that we didn't start all over with a new behavior. We didn't do all of that stuff I did with her. I told her to sit and I let out,

as I walked away, she broke and I leaned down and she's standing there next to me. I said, okay, well, we're done here. I'm going to leave. And so we just left the ring. I didn't yell at her. I didn't tell her no or a bad dog or anything like that. I just took her out of the ring.

I put her in her crate. She didn't get, you know, the food and stuff that she would normally get after a run. She just didn't get the opportunity to do it on the second run of that day, told her to sit. I let out, she was still in position. And when I turned and looked at her, she stood up.

She didn't move, but she stood up, that's breaking the criteria. So I said, let's go, we're leaving. Took her with me, walked out of the ring, put her back in her crate. She didn't get to run that day. Now what this did was started her thinking on her behavior and what she wanted and how she didn't get what she wanted and what she needed to do in order to get what she wanted.

And so I don't think it took, but a couple of more times before she gave me a nice, solid sit. And after that, we were able to go and have our first run. And I think that that is it's really hard for the handler to do. And I think that's why you get so many ring wise dogs, because it is really hard.

There there's some people that will, will even just tell you straight up. I'm, there's no way I'm walking my dog off. You know, I came here to do agility and there's no way that I'm going to walk my dog off. And then even the people that are willing to do it, it's hard to do it over and over and over again.

Right. But the thing is that if you are 100% consistent and you take them off every time, it doesn't take that long for them to get the message it's going to take much longer. If you're, you know, a hundred percent consistent, 70% of the time, you know? Yeah. I mean, it's very consistent. It is going to be a problem that dog's entire career,

right? So even for Rook, I'm willing to hold her out six or seven months. And she was an adult dog. We're talking about like a six year old dog. I said, I'm going to take you out six or seven months. Okay. You're not, you're not going to do agility. I'm going to rebuild this behavior. And I know that I'm going to get several great years from you after that.

And that's exactly what she did. This is a dog that had been to the challenge round. You know, a couple of times went to the tryout. One reliant, you know, was always winning in the 16 inch class. And she had a great remainder of her career after this retrain. And so, especially for those of you with younger dogs,

and I define a young dog as any dog under the age of, well, probably seven, seven or eight, you know, you've got several years left. It is totally worth it to set aside a couple of months to sit out one season or a half season of competitions in order to retrain this behavior. You know, but that's, it's a personal decision that people have to make.

I think that knowing what we know now, I would first for teaching a new behavior. I think that that's an easier way to go. And I don't think it takes six months. I mean, we don't, we have a lot of time constraints in our life, but I think starting it over is probably the go-to move. But then once you get your new behavior,

you have to be a hundred percent consistent with that new behavior. Otherwise you're going to have two broken behaviors. You're going to run out of positions. If you break your set, Andrew. Yeah, that's right. And you know, to finish off the story of Sammy after a couple of runs where she did fine, you know, maybe 10 runs down the line,

she broke again. You know, at some point the dog is, is almost going to test you, you know? And it's not that the dog is testing you. It's not really a battle of wills. The dog is just trying to figure out the whole reinforcement thing. They're like, okay. So there's all these new rules I've been following them.

Let's just see if the old stuff still works. And she got up, started moving. I said, Nope, that's it. We're leaving. And as you leave, the wheels are turning in her head and she's thinking, Oh, okay, okay. New rule is still in effect. I'm not going to expend any more energy going down this path anymore because every time I've broken,

I've never gotten what I wanted. So new rules are in effect and I'm just not going to do that anymore. And that's where you want your dog to get how fast it takes your dog to get there depends on the dog trainee history, relationship with you, that sort of thing. But if you're a hundred percent consistent, I don't think it's going to be much at all.

And if you're, you know, let's say you enter a trial or two every month, I'm thinking two, three months. And even better. If you're at USDA, you get four or five runs in a day AKC. Now at time to beat and other things, if you have multiple runs in a day, it happens even more quickly. You know,

when I was retraining this behavior, we only had two runs a day, right? So in a weekend, a two day weekend, all I had was four chances for opportunities to do the right thing. If she stayed, we got to run. If she broke, I had to leave and you only get four chances. And remember, it's a numbers game in practice at home.

You can do it a hundred times in a day. What I was about to say is that you want to beef up your numbers with repetitions in practice. And I know a lot of people say that their dog never breaks in practice, but you're still building up a reinforcement history. And I think that, I mean, there are dogs that truly are wring wise and never break at home.

But I think that there's a lot more dogs that they actually do break at home and that we just don't always, you know, we aren't always counting it since it doesn't do it doesn't mean that we have to leave. We can still train. Sometimes we kind of gloss those over and in terms of being a hundred percent consistent, it's just absolutely incredible to me.

How many times I see people let their dog break in practice where you don't have to walk off where you can try again, where you can just bring them back, reset them, reward that set, and you still get to run the sequence. And there's just, I mean, there's just really no place for that. And start line training to let your dog break their start in practice where you control everything.

That's right. That's a really good point. There've been a couple of times where people will tell you that story and they have their dog there. And I'll say, show me now, sit your dog. Now let's do it. Just jump right there, sit your dog, lead out to that job. They sit their dog. They lead out to that jump and the dog invariably breaks.

So, you know, I would say you're not a hundred percent in practice, but you know, legitimately there are dogs who are virtually a hundred percent in practice. And for that, you just need to know that it's the reinforcement history in the trial environment that you really need to get to. And, you know, if it, if it took me a couple of months,

maybe a dozen runs or so it doesn't, well, I guess it doesn't runs comes out to about maybe six days of showing. So probably two or three months of trialing for myself, you know, with so many runs in a day. Now you can shorten that up to a month or two, and it could be just those 12, 12 start lines,

right? There are enough to tip it back over in your favor, right? So instead of going, let's say your rate was 50% and I'm not talking about the rate at which they break. I'm talking about the rate at which you fail to reward or non reward appropriately. You know, so if that rate is 50% and you get 12 in a row correctly,

you're going to really shift that number towards almost a hundred percent, correct. That may be enough to get your dog a very good start line stay. You just need to be on the lookout for any signs that, you know, they're going to break that criteria and just remain perfectly consistent. But you know, that's a, that's a hard thing to do Well,

and I think we've implied it a whole bunch, but, you know, we should just come out and say that the best thing possible is to not put yourself in this situation. So don't that first time that they push you, don't let it go because you're talking about, you know, being able to nip it in the bud with one or two runs and then having them,

you know, never really push it again, versus setting up that variable schedule of reinforcement that is stuff I've talked about and having to come back and then be out for, you know, 12 runs in a row working on hundreds and hundreds of repetitions trying to fix the behavior. So it's definitely a preventative sort of thing. You just don't want to put yourself in that state.

That's right. And you know, we're in the middle of a series of articles and things about start line stays to, to help people out with that sort of thing, you know, to get the right start, keep the right criteria. But we did want to have this podcast and talk about dogs that already have this problem and the best ways that we have found through,

you know, very hard experiences to fix it because so many people are in that situation, you know, really doesn't help those people to say, well, Hey, don't mess it up with your next time. Right. You know, get it right. You know, when dogs already have this problem. So it can absolutely be retrained that, you know,

the three dogs that I had to retrain, you know, Rook, Sammy, and greet, greet at the golden that I just ran at AKC nationals. They they're just tremendous dogs. They hadn't brilliant careers after retraining. And there's no way those runs and careers would have been possible without the star lines that they were able to get after retraining. And even though Sarah and I on this podcast,

we're using the language of, well, don't let the dog test you, or don't let your dog get away with this. You know, that's really getting into a colloquial and not a, we're kind of getting away from the scientific terminology here. And I just want to make it clear that you must avoid positive punishment at all costs. And you know,

the obvious reason to do this is, well, you don't want to be mean to your dog. Think of your dog as your family member in your loved one. And you just don't want to be yelling or hitting a loved one. But aside from that, there is the obvious problem of fallout fall out is something that we've touched on briefly in other podcasts.

But it's basically a reference to anything that might happen that you cannot predict. It's unpredictable, that might happen from positive punishment. You know, if the dog has a bad experience, when there's a loud noise or thunder or that sort of thing, right? They, they can associate thunder with that. And so fall out from that might be a, you know,

an intense fear of the sound of thunder or things sound like thunder. And some of those things might be at agility trial. Well, in this case, the fallout oftentimes is the exact opposite of a really what you're looking for. And that is, you know, if you scold the dog enough at the start line, they don't want to be at the start line anymore.

They, you know, they, they don't necessarily think about things the same way we do. And they're like, man, when I sit here in front of this junk, bad things happen, I want to get away from here as fast as possible. You know, a lot of times you get the exact opposite effect of what you're looking for. Okay.

Was a great way to put it. You know, I will tell you no harsh voices, no dirty looks no guilt trips. How many of us have tried to give our dog, the death stare and you know, given them a little bit of a guilt trip, you'll, you'll hear handlers do it all the time. They'll say, or no,

sir. Or, you know, those sorts of things when they reset their dogs, some of them will physically reset them. Some of them will shove them very hard back into position, that sort of thing. And you know, those are just the things that you really, really want to avoid because you want the start line to be this really great,

magical place where amazing things happen. If they're not getting tugs or food, they're getting to do agility. And if you make it a place of fear, of anxiety, of guilt, of danger, there's the very real risk that everything that comes after it, namely the agility will also become that sort of place. And this could affect your dog's performance.

There are some dogs, you know, they'll, they'll hate start lines, but they they're so intense for agility. The sport jumping, you won't bother them. Okay. There are, there are dogs like that, but For the vast majority of dogs, it is going to affect them. All right. And as the Stefan said, we have some articles now on the start line stay,

and we're going to be continuing to add some more. We've even added it as a category on the blog. If you use the menu on the blog, you can easily find those start line articles. And that's it for this week's podcast. We'd like to thank adva agility for sponsoring today's show. Advert guilty specializes in health and wellness, weight management, vibrant energy and sports performance for the human half of your agility team.

Does it add agility, advisability.com and visit us@baddogagility.com for agility, articles, videos, and podcasts Training.

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