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Independent Start Lines

An independent start line is essential in agility and proofing them with games makes it fun for everyone! By Alicia Nicholas

Training an independent start line for agility is easy if you train each step in the process, proof your training, use reward location to your advantage and teach your dog to commit to the first jump no matter how far lateral they are or how much of an angle it is.
The first step for any stationary behavior, whether it is a start line stay, table, 2-On/2-Off on a contact, etc., is to train and proof a release word. So many people skip this very important behavior. Yes, the release is a behavior in itself that can be trained, generalized, proofed and maintained.

It's important to not discount a solid release word as the basis for any stopped behavior. Pick a word that rolls off your tongue easily and teach your dog to move on that word by gently holding their collar and dangling a treat/toy out in front of them, say the release word and let them get their reward! Take them to the reward if you have to!

An example of this is shown in the video (below) using a young dog that is in the very early stages of learning a release word and stay. Once your dog has been trained to move on their release word, pair it with their stationary stay. Put your dog in position (sit, down, stand) and reward them as you move around. Move slowly and stay close at first but gradually add duration and distance. You want your dog to move on the word only and NOT your movement.

Alicia describes the many ways to train and proof start lines in this video.

Here are some good tests to see if your dog understands their release word (again, refer to the video for an example): 

1. Put your dog in heel position (sit, stand, down), release your dog without moving (the handler stays stationary, no hand movements, etc.)

2. Put your dog in heel position (sit, stand, down), release your dog using a FAKE word that sounds similar to your release word. For example, I use Oklahoma to fake out OK and breakfast for dogs that have break as their release word, French fries for free, recipe for release, or you can make up your own! Your dog should NOT release on the fake word!

When your dog understands to move on their release word only, you should be able to run or walk, stop, scratch your head, etc., and they will hold their start line stay! Here are some good tests to see if your dog understands to hold their stay while you are moving (for each of these tests, your dog needs to be in a stay (down, sit or stand) AT LEAST 10 FEET from a jump:

1. Put your dog in a stay, go behind your dog and RUN past them and past the jump.
2. Put your dog in a stay, lead out past the jump and STOP and then start leading out again.
3. Put your dog in a stay, lead out and do a front cross after the jump.

The handler should be able to do whatever they want after they leave their dog in a start line stay! If you find that your dog is breaking on your motion, or seems stressed or unsure of their job at the start line, you can help clarify for them by changing the placement of your reward as well as how frequently you reward. The start line may be a place of stress for some dogs, try to make it a place of joy by using jackpot rewards in the form of a long duration of feeding treats OR an awesome tug session! Reward your start line more often than you release your dog to do an obstacle!

Another great way to improve your dog's start line stay is to change where you reward. Instead of always going back to your dog to reward them, toss the food or toy so that it sails over your dog to land 5 feet behind them.

If your dog has to turn away from the obstacles to get their reward for staying, they will start to anticipate good things coming to them from BEHIND and they won't want to creep forward anymore! Make sure you mark the stay and then reward the stay with the tossed food or toy! Here is a diagram that illustrates this concept and you can also watch the video to see another example!

Mix up the number of times you throw the toy behind your dog, go back to reward in position and release them forward. No matter what, you want your dog to LOVE their stay position!! In the video you will see me petting and loving on my dogs in position (don't discount touch as a reward) as well as using food and a toy.

Try and come up with many different scenarios to test and proof your dog's start line. Can your dog stay if another dog is running? Can your dog stay if you lead out and tie your shoe? Can your dog stay if the leash runner picks up and moves their leash? Can your dog stay if....?

Another way to gain an independent start line is to teach your dog commitment to the start jump no matter where they are in terms of lateral distance, angle, etc. Many people train their dogs to do a sit- stay in front of the first jump in a perpendicular orientation. In reality, the dog may need to commit to the first jump from a lateral position, or at an angle.

Train your dog to commit to the first jump from a stay with the handler in any position. Your goal is to be directly across from your dog (either facing them or facing away from them) and direct them to take the jump without having to babysit. The diagram below shows how this would look.

When you start to train your dog to have lateral commitment to the first jump, you should put them near the stanchion while you go directly across from them (again, your dog needs to be 10 feet from the jump). Encourage them to take the jump and reward them for committing to the jump. Gradually move you and the dog farther and farther from the jump. To further your dog's understanding of lateral commitment to the first jump off the start line, turn the jump at different angles and use the tire.

The more your dog understands their job at the start line, the more confident both of you will be as you lead out from the first jump. Your clean run starts with the first jump! Start line stays may not be for every dog (using a sling-shot or moving start is a whole other article!) but many agility teams rely on a start line to get a head start on the course.

Start lines can be an essential impulse control tool for some dogs; by training step by step, playing proofing games, changing the location of your reward and teaching lateral commitment to the first jump, you can solidify your dog's start line stay behavior!


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