Start Lines

Teaching a dog to sit or down is very easy. With a treat in your hand, you can teach a puppy the basics in a minute. Then why do so many agility competitors struggle with this simple behavior? Dogs scoot forward, stand up, release early, sniff the ground, refuse to sit, and sometimes even leave the ring.

In general, problems with the start line come from two sources: confusion over criteria, and stress over making mistakes.

First, when dogs are confused about criteria, they often have good start lines at home or practice but not at trials. That’s because at home, the handler rarely starts running a course if the dog breaks their start line by scooting, standing up, or even self-releasing. Instead, they return to the dog, cue the dog to stay and then try again. In a trial, when dogs scoot, stand up, or self-release, handlers simply ignore the mistake and start running. When that happens, the dog learns that the criteria for the start line behavior has changed—there are two different sets of criteria, one for home and one for trials. The solution is simple: never reward a dog who breaks a start line, in practice or in trials.

Second, when start lines have been a point of conflict in training, dogs often become avoidant of the entire start line situation in a trial. They are reluctant to set up, they avoid eye contact, they sniff the ground, and they remain in position even after the release cue is given. These dogs don’t want to be there, and very often after starting a run slowly, they finish with more speed. For this group of dogs, you need to change the way you deal with mistakes in your training. We recommend listening to this podcast: How to Work Through Mistakes in Your Agility Training

We also recommend making two immediate changes: rewarding the start line position in training more often, and rewarding your dog with a release to their toy or food (NOT rewarding them in position by walking back to them and putting a treat in their mouth). For detailed discussion and demonstrations, start with our Facebook Live video: Does Your Dog Check Out When You Lead Out?

After years of managing poor start lines, many trainers come to the decision to retrain the behavior. Should you choose a new start line behavior if you are retraining? For example, should you teach your dog to “down” if your “sit” is broken? Yes, this can be helpful because it gives both you and the dog a fresh start. However, if you lower your criteria at a trial, your new behavior will break down like the old one. The moral of the story: stick to your criteria (reward what you want to see again, and don’t reward everything else).

Variable reinforcement is an important part of start line training—especially when with respect to duration of the behavior, as explained in this article: Teaching a Focused Start Line Stay

This article (with video) emphasizes that proofing (distraction work) is also key for solid start lines: ​Rock Solid Start Line Stays in Dog Agility

For a more detailed discussion and more examples of proofing, watch this Facebook Live: ​Proofing for Dog Agility

Finally, listen to this podcast on start line problems: ​Starting 2018 with Start Line Problems

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