April 8, 2013

Rock Solid Start Line Stays in Dog Agility

The key to great start lines stays in agility is reinforcement. Handler and dog are a team: the dog offers the behavior of stay, and the handler provides the toy or treat. By changing the frequency, position, and type of rewards in the face of increasing distractions, the handler/dog team can achieve impressive results.


Where does it start to go wrong for agility competitors? Usually, when the start lines stays are combined with agility training. Suddenly, the lure of obstacle performance becomes overwhelming, sometimes for the dog, but often for the handler as well! Improper and inconsistent reinforcement often leads to rapid deterioration of a hard-earned skill.

Start with a list of your dog’s greatest desires, and see where the reinforcements you use in training rank on a scale of 1-10. Be honest! Here’s my list for my 1 year-old border collie; remember, every dog is different.

1. Tugging with me (10/10)

2. Playing with her canine housemates with toys (9/10)

3. Agility (9/10)

4. Chasing balls (8/10)

5. Tasty food treats (2/10)

You can see from my list that training typically goes well when I can tug with my dog, but we might struggle a bit with running contact training that uses ball rewards only, and she might even walk away from a clicker shaping session with food only rewards.

In summary, work to diversify your rewards, but maintain something more rewarding than agility, so you will have at least one effective reinforcer during agility training.

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  • Question about during practice……..we rarely run courses in practice, just short sequences and work on 1 or 2 jump handling……………….so should EVERY time we start or re-start any handling practice, always treat each release like a start line stay??? So for example, I am working on a 6 jump set up and want to repeat the last 3 jumps…………should I always set ?up a start line stay? I notice that as my practice or lesson goes on, Karma is looking less enthusiastic about always having to sit/stay………….she does not break, she just looses enthusiasm???? Or am I just not rewarding it enough no matter where we are in that days practice????? Hope I am aptly conveying my question!!!

  • I am trying No stay… No play this weekend. We will see how it goes. Btw, I tried my hardest to get him to break in practice and I could not get him to, not even once.

  • Any suggestion for when you had a rock solid stay but then lost it only in comptetions. Between a wise border collie and a sliperly slope of inconsistant training in the show ring this has happened.

    • Great question. We’re going to post an article about this exact problem in the next week or two. Once you lose the stay in trials, your two main options are to retrain a new start line behavior from scratch (for example, using a down instead of a sit) or to change your trial criteria to match your practice criteria (no stay = no play).

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